One of the main objections to legalizing sports betting used to be that it would tempt players and officials to rig games. But that’s become something of a moot point following an explosion of illegal sports gambling via online bookmakers. In fact, many sports bodies and law enforcement agencies now argue that the best way to combat match-fixing is to bring sports betting out of the shadows. Whatever the risks, the potential tax windfall from legalization may be too alluring to pass up for many jurisdictions. The U.S. is about to become the biggest test case in sports gambling history.
Betting on sports is legal from Australia to western Europe (the U.K. has the biggest legal market), but flourishes globally even when it’s outlawed. Sportradar AG, a Switzerland-based data company that monitors betting markets for fraud, estimates that 1.5 trillion euros ($1.8 trillion) in wagers are placed worldwide annually, with the majority going through unregulated markets. In the U.S., where a 1992 law had limited the practice almost exclusively to Nevada, annual illegal sports wagers are estimated at $50 billion to $150 billion. That compares with Nevada’s record $4.8 billion of sports bets in 2017. The landscape is about to shift, though, after the U.S. Supreme Court in May struck down the 1992 law, freeing New Jersey to legalize sports gambling and other states to follow. Even the professional U.S. sports leagues, traditionally wary because of concerns that betting would encourage corruption, have come around to the idea. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball are seeking a 1 percent fee on all bets placed on their games. The challenge for legal bookmakers everywhere is whether they can lure gamblers who’ve grown accustomed to wagering on overseas or illegal websites. Globally, some 80 percent of sports bets are placed via the black market, according to a 2014 report by the International Centre for Sports Security. Betting syndicates in Asia, where sports gambling is largely illegal or restricted, have instigated some of the biggest cases of match-fixing. Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, found one such syndicate fixed 380 soccer games between 2011 and 2013.
The internet has transformed sports betting from its once seedy past. After the U.K. legalized betting establishments 1961, the shops that still line major shopping streets had by law to be kept drab to deter customers from lingering. Now, bettors can place a wager at home or on the go via their smartphone. It’s possible to bet on just about any professional sport played just about anywhere, and not just on winners and losers but also the minutiae: The number of fouls or who’ll win the third game in a tennis match. That allows gamblers to profit from their prescience, but also broadens the scope for bribery. Match-fixing scandals have rocked not only soccer but cricket, tennis and even sumo wrestling in recent years. It’s almost 100 years since eight players for the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball for life for throwing the 1919 World Series. To counter such threats, sports ruling bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and the NBA have linked with data-mining companies to monitor for suspicious betting activity.
The strongest case for legalization is that sports betting goes on regardless of whether the law permits it, so why not regulate and tax it? Doing so gives bettors greater assurance their wagers will be honored and raises government funding that otherwise flows into the pockets of illegal bookmakers or even organized crime. Detractors say the benefits don’t justify the social costs of gambling, from addiction to indebtedness. (Two in five Australian sports bettors have a gambling problem, one survey found.) Naysayers argue that the same limits for tobacco and alcohol advertising should be in place for bookmakers to protect vulnerable younger people. Athletes and academics also warn of a growing gambling culture around sports, in which the odds become the focus of attention rather than the pleasure or pain of following the action. Doomsayers maintain that the sports-betting genie is out of the bottle, making match-fixing inevitable and putting the very integrity of sports at risk in much the same way that doping has.