By James Zug
Gambling on sports has always been a complicated passion. In May 1536 Anne Boleyn was watching tennis at Whitehall Palace when a messenger from King Henry VIII asked her to present herself before the Privy Council where she was arrested. Apparently, Boleyn kept the messenger waiting, as she wanted to see the result of a bet she had made before she left.
Squash and betting have a much more recent and so far less tumultuous history. Just after the turn of this century, the Professional Squash Association had a relationship with a well-known British betting company called Stan James. Malcolm Willstrop, the well-known English coach, helped Stan James produce odds. (A year ago Stan James was absorbed by Unibet). It was a slightly haphazard affair in part because the PSA was unable to deliver a reliable streaming product. The data simply wasn’t consistently there. “Online bookmakers love content, but it has to be secure and reliable,” said Lee Beachill, the chief operating officer of the PSA.
In 2009 the PSA took control of the broadcasting of pro squash events and launched SquashTV. A year later they contracted out the gambling opportunities: the gaming data rights are with Sportradar and the video rights are with BetConstruct. They are renegotiating the rights this winter. “Sportradar and BetConstruct are huge in aggregated content for the gaming industry,” Beachill said. “Through them, squash is exposed to hundreds of bookmakers around the world.” Punters are able to access betting opportunities via dozens of online bookmakers, which stream the SquashTV matches live. For instance, Bet365, the world’s biggest online bookmaker, shows all the PSA content. I have heard players complain about the listed odds on their upcoming matches, saying that the bookmakers weren’t them much of a chance of winning.
In many countries, wagering is available at physical street-side shops, but online gambling today offers a far greater variety of sports and opportunities. In particular, in-play gambling—which player will hit the tin next?—and peer-to-peer gambling—two friends betting against each other—are emerging as enormous online markets.
Development of sports betting has been slower in the United States compared to other Western nations. Americans have wagered on sports for centuries, but in the twentieth century, it was mostly illegal. (Nevada legalized sports gambling in 1949 and three other states followed to some extent). Last May the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 law banning sports gambling, and states began to introduce betting. More than a half dozen have now launched and more are coming this year. The country’s most powerful sports leagues, after fighting against gambling for decades, are now joining up. Sportradar, for example, is now the data partner for the NFL, NBA, NHL and NASCAR; MLB is partnering with Genius Sports.
With the U.S. coming into the market, the landscape has changed. Gambling brings money and passion to the game, but it also brings danger. Like with doping, keeping squash clean is paramount in protecting the integrity of the sport. The PSA is devising a thorough anti-corruption policy and appointing a staffer as a designated anti-corruption officer. The current PSA Tour Rule Book, published in July 2018, is ninety-seven pages long with a mere four sentences totaling seven lines devoted to wagering and bribes. The PSA rules surrounding this area will likely expand rapidly: the players’ rulebook for the World Tennis Association, which governs the women’s pro tennis tour, boasts twenty pages on anti-corruption.
In addition, in 2008 the pro tours, Grand Slams and International Tennis Federation created the Tennis Integrity Unit which independently governs all anti-corruption issues in tennis. Despite the TIU, rumors have swirled that pro tennis, the third-most bet upon sport in the world, has had numerous match fixing problems, particularly after 2012 when Sportradar began issuing live scores from small events. A survey last year of 3,200 players found that 14.5%—464—had first-hand knowledge of match fixing. Sometimes umpires were involved. Most of the fixes happened at low-level events, where there was little prize money and players are more vulnerable.
All matches at major PSA events will be streamed live—so every first-round match on a traditional court will have a camera, not just the matches on the glass-court. And more of the smaller events will now be streamed live.
The PSA is beginning to change a few common practices as part of anti-corruption effort. At some point soon, players will no longer be able to use their cell phones in between games. This will be a fundamental change of habit for many players who text or talk with coaches who are watching the match live on SquashTV. Moreover, players will be separated more from fans, tournament production staff and the media, and formal press conferences will be the norm, rather than informal backstage conversations and quick press gaggles.
These are likely to be just the opening salvos of shifts wrought by the increased presence of sports gambling in the squash world. Pro squash is known for the accessibility of its players, though this has been reduced somewhat of late as the tour has grown and become more professionalized. The increased prominence of gambling in the sport is likely to continue this trend as the athletes are increasingly cocooned away from spectators in the interest of maintaining a clean and fair competitive environment.