Tradition Of Betting On English Football

UK gambling laws - GamingZion

We take a look at two of the very English ways to bet on football and see how they technically gambling at all… except they were.

It is quite easy, in this day and age of satellite communications and the colossus that is the internet where someone with a phone in Malawi can bet on sports in the US, that there was quite a lot of gambling prior to this explosion of apps, sites and online casinos. Even easier to miss is that not all of these previous forms of gambling involved men sat around green beige tables, nor clutching a bookies’ slip like a hapless extra in “The Sting”.

Whilst, of course, all the usual forms of wagering were available to football fans in England due to the rather liberal British gambling laws, and ubiquity of bookmakers shops, and one could easily place a bet at odds for a team to win a match, league or cup, the English had a couple of other ways to gamble on football. Although of course one of them wasn’t gambling at all… technically.

Now let’s be clear, the Gambling Act of 2005 quite sensibly prevents wagers being placed upon past events, it being deemed that the bookmaker would have an distinct advantage in such an arrangement, and games of chance, as opposed to games of skill, are illegal outside of special licensed establishments. Famously darts was illegal till someone proved it a game of skill not random luck, for example, although quite why that was necessary is still beyond me.

This means that if you want to run a competition, for example, where entrants pay a fee to enter and bet on something to win prizes you’d be falling foul of the law., and indeed the laws the preceded it. Of course if you decided that people weren’t betting on the actual reality of the event, even one in the past, but a panel of judges opinion of the event, it was a game of skill, not chance. It is this somewhat corkscrew-esque thinking that allowed the now well known “Spot The Ball” competitions.

X Marks The Spot

Spot-The-Ball & The Pools

• Not really a gambling news promotion
• Technically not against the law
• Before internet sportsbooks prevalent

The principle is a simple one. A still picture of football action is displayed with the ball erased and entrants must then attempt to ascertain where they believe the football was given the prevailing conditions in the photo. This was usually a matter of judging players stance, direction of travel and, most particularly, where they were looking, given keeping an eye on the ball is a common enough trait amongst footballers.

Entrants once assured in of themselves where the ball actually was paid a small sum to buy a certain number of guesses, typically represented by crosses made on the actual picture cut from the pages of a national newspaper, which would then be sent off by post and adjudicated upon by that panel of experts who keep the whole thing legal just by existing and stopping it being a lottery.

At the height of its popularity, in the late seventies and early eighties, many national newspapers ran a spot-the-ball competition as a promotional tool although in some cases this proved tiresome. Failure of some to limit the number of guesses, by say not charging a fee, discovered people simply covered the entire picture in crosses, some even creating rubber stamps to assist in the process.

These days you can still play spot-the-ball albeit it online where cars and electronics are up for grabs to those with a good eye for detail, and such is the popularity of this sort of brain-tease wager that some clubs, particularly those in the lower divisions, have begun to run spot-the-ball competitions in their grounds and stadiums on match days in order to raise money for their club in light of the fiscal pressures of modern football.

The Football Pools

The Pools, as it is fondly called, is the other great traditional form of betting on football in England where for a small sum an entrant attempts to predict the scores of a number of top flight football matches being played in the coming week. Being rather cheap to enter this low-stake-high-payout, top prizes are often a million pounds, this has been awfully popular with the English since its inception back in the 1920s.

It was in 1923 when fans of Manchester United were first offered the chance to take part in the pools when the coupons were handed out by John Moore’s Littlewoods company, with three others joining over the next decade or two. All claimed the game one of skill (sound familiar) because there was a panel judging the results of matches that were called off or postponed, and thus hadn’t been played at all.

The government weren’t sure they hadn’t been played either and took advantage of their own confusion to significantly tax the companies running their own Football Pools. For instance in 1991 they reduced the tax burden on these organizing entities by lowering the rate from 40% of turnover to a mere 37.5% of turnover. At its peak 10,000,000 people a week gambled on the pools hoping for that big win from their small stake.

The introduction of the National Lottery in the UK saw numbers playing the pools decline sharply and by 2007 only 700,000 people played per week causing some of the companies to close or scale back their operations. The pools was a very British, very optimistic flutter that is still kept alive today online by the same companies that have been running the Pools since before World War Two.

Read more about the FA Premier League past, present and future here.

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