Legalise gambling

Fixing the mailaise in sports

The sordid state of affairs in sports administration in India is well known, with most of the analysis and commentary focused on a dysfunctional system and the inability of Indian sports federations to produce a world class team or an athlete. Almost all of these analyses miss the point on what sustains viewership and fan interest in sporting events and hence the money and sponsorship required to accomplish such a task. Other than Olympics, where athletes compete for national pride, sustained interest and viewership in sporting events come from effectively promoting rivalries between teams and players and by allowing people to wager on sporting contests.

No doubt there are athletes who periodically dominate their sport and bring visibility and viewership to sporting events. Michael Jordan in basketball, Pele in football, Sachin Tendulkar in cricket and, more recently, Usain Bolt in athletics are all athletes who have excelled and transcended their disciplines to capture the imagination of people worldwide. They expanded fan base and brought large television viewership. But otherwise sports need big rivalries between teams and players to sustain viewer interest and bring a casual fan to television screen. Rivalry is what influences attendance to sporting events, induces fan loyalty and contributes significantly to television ratings and sponsorship commitments. The Michael Porter management principle that rival competing firms are a pre-requisite in a country or geographic area to produce a world class product is also true for sports.

Regardless of individual players, India-Pakistan cricket and hockey rivalry always attracts great interest in both countries. During the ‘Battle of South Americas’ — as the rivalry is known when Brazil plays Argentina in football, economic activity comes to a grinding halt in both countries. Even in other sports, a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game in baseball, Liverpool-Manchester United game in football, Viswanathan Anand-Garry Kasparov game in chess, a Williams sisters’ game in tennis brings far more viewership and attention of sports fans to the sport than any one individual athlete. In fact, the sports television network ESPN has been so phenomenal in promoting National Basketball Association (NBA) and European football rivalries across Asia, that a casual sports fan evinces a lot more interest in NBA, English and European football leagues than leagues in their own country.

Other than rivalry, what sustains a great deal of interest and viewership in sporting events is betting on outcomes of games. Football thrives in Kolkata for two reasons — rivalries between the three local teams Mohan Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammaden Sporting and the illegal betting that goes on all over the city on the outcomes of games played in the local league. In cricket, although betting is illegal, bookies exist nationwide who allow fans and viewers to bet on the outcome of cricket games played worldwide which adds to the immense popularity of the game in India. College basketball in the United States has evolved into a hugely popular tournament due to overwhelming participation of employees in office betting pools.

Sustaining fan interest

Allowing people to wager on sporting contests can sustain fan interest in the sport and attract fresh viewers which are a necessary ingredient for flow of money and sponsorship into sporting federations.

While betting on sporting events is legal in many advanced countries, there is a social argument against legalising it in our country. Among the opponents of legalising sports betting, some fear that gambling can have adverse social consequences and others fear that the integrity of the games could be threatened. Their fears are largely overblown. People have been gambling on horse racing and playing card games in clubs for many years without adverse social consequences to society. Fears that bookmakers can affect the outcome of sporting events are also blown out of proportion, since legitimate bookmakers have an incentive to fight corruption as much as administrators and governments to ensure integrity of the games. If sports betting had been legalised, periodic match fixing allegations against team and individual players especially in cricket can be avoided and the results of games will be unquestioned.

Part of the infrastructure for making sports betting legal already exists — all clubs in cities and towns where currently card games are being played can be converted into mini exchanges for sports betting. Along with regulations, a central exchange needs to be established where bookmakers can act like market makers for sporting events. Bookmakers will then be able to set the odds for the three outcomes of any sporting event — win, lose or a draw. Regardless of the outcome of the game, by maintaining a spread the mini exchanges can ensure a profit for themselves.

There is a general tendency of many sports commentators, editorial writers and casual observers to blame bureaucracy and politicians for all that ails team and individual sports in India. While some of the frustrations are understandable, the solution to problems in sports lies outside the purview of politicians and bureaucrats. Rather than playing the blame game, sports administrators along with commentators and enthusiasts are better off promoting or creating rivalries in their respective sports and pressure government to make sports betting legal. This could go a long way in ensuring that both team and individual sports thrive in India.

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