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Court ruling gives sport hope of putting squeeze on bookies 25/09/2009
As four Accrington Stanley players charged by the Football Association with betting on a match in which they were involved awaited the outcome of their appeal, a delegation of leading sports figures was meeting the sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, to set the scene for a debate that could fundamentally alter the sports betting landscape and have major ramifications for bookmakers and governing bodies.

The two events are linked because the coalition of bodies, which included representatives from the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Rugby Football Union and the FA, are pushing for stringent new regulations designed to clamp down on the threat of match-fixing. In a separate, related, move they also hope to prove that bookmakers should be forced to pay a "betting right" to offer odds on their sport, claiming that a large proportion of this revenue could be channelled into the ongoing fight against match-fixing.

The high-stakes arguments will be played out against the backdrop of a public debate about the integrity of sport, from match-fixing claims in tennis and cricket to examples of foul play in rugby union and Formula One, that have become more and more visible over the past year.

Despite the protestations of bookies, including claims that the moves proposed by the sports are ill thought out and impossible to enforce, Sutcliffe is convinced that, at the very least, there needs to be a serious look at the whole area. The debate has rumbled for years but has gained in volume in the past year as sporting bodies have stepped up their lobbying efforts.

They have been further encouraged by events on the continent where France has introduced a licensing and levy system and where a ruling in the European Court of Justice is being viewed as giving national governments more leeway to regulate gambling. But the battle in France is only just beginning with the government's regime of heavy regulation and high taxes likely to be challenged by bookmakers.

Aware of the sensitivities and keen to balance the interests of the gambling industry and the sports lobby, Sutcliffe has sought to separate issues of integrity from the possibility of regulating overseas operators and finding new revenue streams to combat corruption.

On the former he has convened a panel chaired by former Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry and including a range of experts in the field and representatives from bookmakers and sport. Unveiling the panel in June, ironically just as claims of match fixing at Wimbledon hit the headlines, he said: "The possible threat to the integrity of sport remains an ever-present and complex problem requiring multi-agency solutions." The panel will shortly meet for the second time and expects to report by the end of the year.

On the latter, he has set in motion a wide ranging review to look at issues "including securing fair contributions from overseas licensed operators towards the costs of regulation" and promising to "look at the existing controls that apply to operators licensed overseas to ensure the rigorous consumer protections introduced by the Gambling Act continue to be upheld".

The subsequent decision by the two biggest high street bookmakers in Britain, William Hill and Ladbrokes, to move their online operations offshore has significantly raised the stakes. As the gambling industry has changed beyond recognition over the past decade, with the phenomenal success of websites such as Betfair that allow punters to lay as well as place bets and the explosion in the range and type of bets available from all operators based at home or abroad, sports governing bodies argue that the potential for match fixing has also soared.

Bookmakers argue that they already share information on suspicious betting patterns and will continue to do so. Many of the most recent allegations have come to light, they say, because of improved transparency. What really riles them is any attempt to link integrity issues to the idea that they should fund the fight against corruption. One senior executive at a leading bookmaker said: "It's those that talk about integrity that have no integrity." They believe the argument is an attempt to grab a slice of revenue that sport has been eyeing jealously for years.

"In the real world, there are an estimated 4,000 gambling sites on the web. Are they genuinely arguing that Gerry Sutcliffe can control 4,000 websites when Interpol is failing to curb child pornography on the web? We need to concentrate on what we can control," said Betfair managing director, Mark Davies, pointing to the millions poured in through sponsorship.

"If you want those companies to disappear because you are charging them a fee and you want to increase their costs to make it less likely they want to work with you, then fine, start putting restrictions on us about what we can or can't do. I think they're after something for nothing."

But the sports, facing up to a challenge some administrators have come to believe is bigger than doping, are convinced that their arguments are gaining ground.