Back in August this year, I noticed on a betting website that Watford U23 were playing Leeds United U23 in each club’s first FA Development League fixture of the year.
In the past, the team sheets for these games have thrown up some eyecatching and unexpected names, as last minute trialists in the countdown to the closing of the August transfer window are put through their paces.
Purely as an interested fan, I visited the Watford FC website. There was no mention of the fixture, let alone the starting XI; nothing on the Leeds website either, nor on the website of either club’s local paper.
It later emerged that as the game had been played on a private university sports ground, both clubs had agreed to withhold details of the game and the venue. After the match, both clubs posted a report. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a football match between two clubs’ youth sides being played behind closed doors. Except on this occasion the doors were not closed to everyone.
I have no detailed knowledge of the arrangements between betting data providers and the Football Association, or indeed between the data providers and the clubs. It may well be that the data being gathered has practical applications beyond in-play betting and that records of possession percentages and total shots on target etc. fuel some statistical tool that is available to clubs or on the FA’s own site.
Nevertheless, the principle that a football match is inaccessible to the public but accessible to the betting industry or its service providers is one that some people might find uncomfortable. For starters, presumably, the data provider, unlike the punters, knew who was playing for each team.
I have every confidence that integrity of the match was not compromised and that the balance of play and statistical data such as the number of shots and corners for each team were reported truly and accurately. Some might well ask, “What’s the problem then?”
The question of the integrity of sports betting and its impact on disputes is one that can wait for another blog post. For now, the point I will focus on is the disclaimer that has been introduced onto most bookmaker and sportsbook rulebooks over the past five years. On almost every in-play betting page you find – usually at the foot of the page – a link called something like ‘important in-play betting information’. If you click on it, or expand it, you will find a message that reads along the lines of:
“We will use our best efforts to ensure that all live event information is correct, but this information should be used as a guide only. In the event of any information being displayed incorrectly, we accept no liability”
IBAS holds twice-yearly dispute avoidance meetings with customer service and compliance representatives of the betting industry, to which the Gambling Commission is also invited, and this is a topic that has been raised on several occasions. We understand that bookmakers are almost always relying on third party data feeds and we recognise that if one of those feeds is incorrect there will be little that a bookmaker can immediately do about it. We also understand that these types of disclaimers will be found on all commercial websites that display data – they are far from unique to the betting industry. They are legally necessary, as without them the door would be opened to a series of spurious claims.
However, the IBAS Adjudication Panel has debated on several occasions whether these disclaimers can be applied fairly to disputes on in-play betting. If a customer sees that the home team in a football match is supposedly winning 3-0 but is available at 100/1, you might have expected them to realise that either the price or the scoreline must be incorrect before deciding to place a bet. So instead, let’s imagine a match scoreline is shown as 2-0, there are ten minutes to play and the price for the home team is shown as 1/10. What if the second goal was actually ruled offside but the in-play betting console failed to reflect the fact? What if based on the two teams’ pre-match prices and the circumstances of the game, 1/10 was the correct price for the team leading 1-0 at that stage? How does that customer feel when he or she learns that the final score is a 1-1 draw? Could the ‘average consumer’ (the term of choice for current consumer rights legislation) of a bookmaker’s website be expected to detect that as an obvious error?
If the match under scrutiny is the World Cup final, the Sunday afternoon 4pm televised Premier League game, or indeed even any match that is covered live on radio or television, then it is probably reasonable to describe the information in the in-play console as ‘for guide purposes only’. We know though that the practical reality is that the vast majority of football matches offered for in-play betting are not broadcast live in the UK. The purpose of the information, be it the scoreline, the possession statistics, the number of cards or corners or whatever, is all designed to prompt the customer to feel that they are placing an informed bet. It seems disingenuous to provide it all to punters while simultaneously telling them not to rely on it. Presumably, the legal argument would be that before a customer enters into a bet they should do their own research on the state of play of the match; their own due diligence if you like. Again, that is not an unreasonable expectation, theoretically at least.
However, that expectation relies on the other party to the bet being able to do their own research. When Watford U23 played Leeds U23 there was no alternative source of data; not even the most traditional one of getting in the car and going to watch the match with your own eyes. Customers making decisions to bet in-play on that game at least necessarily relied upon information that they were being told to use as a guide only.
We hope that bookmakers will continue - as they have done in most cases - to take into account the circumstances of disputes of this nature and not need the IBAS Panel to have to take a decision about whether a refund of stakes should be paid to a customer who can reasonably argue that he or she has been materially misled.