UK tabloids are up in arms but it’s impossible to make serious money through spot-fixing

It takes a pretty hefty sum to make a player jump.
It takes a pretty hefty sum to make a player jump.
Image: Reuters/Philip Brown
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Last weekend a British tabloid newspaper, the Sun on Sunday, published the results of a sting operation use to catch players cheating in English football. The newspaper’s undercover journalist, Mazher Mahmood, documented several lower-league players offering to commit fouls in exchange for £30,000-£70,000 ($48,825-$113,925) from fixers. Six players have since been arrested, which has generated plenty of hand-wringing, but little focus on whether this form of cheating, known as spot-fixing, is a viable proposition for fixers.

Back in 2010, Mahmood captured three Pakistani cricketers offering to bowl illegal deliveries at specific times in a Test match against England. The three players received long bans and were sentenced to prison for conspiracy. Yet neither case has provided any evidence of how money can be made from bookmakers as a result of spot-fixing.

That is because it is impossible to make serious money on spot-fixing. Markets for betting on players receiving red or yellow cards, or for bowling no-balls, are minuscule or non-existent. The logic behind this is deceptively simple. As Mahmood’s stings have demonstrated, recruiting players to cheat—even those who are comparatively underpaid, such as the Pakistani cricketers—is an expensive business, because players have a lot to lose if they are exposed. This means that the fixer must either bet a large stake or receive good odds from the bookmaker in order to make a profit.

Betting a huge stake is impossible, as it opens up huge liabilities for the bookmaker, which he would reject. In order to get longer odds, a less likely (or more specific) event is required. The odds on a particular player receiving a red card in a given 20-minute window of a game would be longer than on any player being red-carded at any time in the match. But the more specific the bet, the greater the reason the bookmaker has to be suspicious. Why bet on Jakeman receiving a red card between the 60th and 80th minutes unless you have inside information? As a result, legal bookmakers in the US or Europe would generally reject this kind of bet, too.

The third, equally problematic, option is to chop the large stake up into many smaller bets. However, bookmakers have grown wise to this idea too, and a flurry of bets, even relatively vague ones spread across different betting firms, would trigger alerts of an unusual pattern.

The assumption, therefore, is that fixers operate through less-regulated channels in Asia. But just because gambling is conducted in a gray market in several Asian countries doesn’t mean that the mechanics of gambling are any different. Bookmakers are no more likely to take a suspicious or high-risk bet. During the course of writing a book on the future of cricket, I spoke to a variety of people who had experience with illegal gambling in India and I received different answers about what aspects of the game are available to bet on. Where there was consensus, however, is on the fact that the number is extremely limited, and may be as small as three or four, including the winner of the match and the number of runs in an inning. Nobody had evidence that bookies would take serious money on “fancy bets” such as the timing or number of no-balls.

This means that the idea of spot-fixing as a new frontier in the history of cheating in sport is an illusion, as, on its own, it is cannot generate the sums to make a fixing career viable. It also explains why Mahmood has made his career from exposing the susceptibility of players, rather than the opportunities to defraud bookmakers. The worst-case scenario is that fixers use no-balls or yellow cards as “signals” to colleagues that they have the players under their control. This would mean that it was never the intention for money to be gambled on the signal itself, but on some other fixed element to the game, such as the number of goals scored or the final outcome. However, in team sports such as football or cricket, fixes of this sort become increasingly complicated, risky and expensive because of the number of players required to produce the desired outcome. As yet, we have no evidence that fixers are capable of this level of sophistication. The stings from the tabloid press have uncovered from unappealing attitudes, but no culture of cheating.