Floyd Mayweather and American Pharoah were not the only big winners on Saturday. Nevada bookmakers are estimating that nearly $80 million was wagered on the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight -- making it the most bet on prizefight in history by a wide margin. Meanwhile, total wagers on the Kentucky Derby reached 194.3 million dollars, representing a 4 percent increase from last year.
Saturday was a great night for sports bettors, but more importantly, it was a perfect example of how the international community should treat sports betting -- licensed, legitimate and legal.
The total hauls for this weekend's marquee events are impressive, but they are dwarfed by the estimated size of the sports betting that takes place around the world--an estimated €200-500 billion. That's around €1.4 billion every day.
In fact, the global sports betting economy is four times larger than the sports economy itself. And none of that is, in and of itself, is an issue. A transparent, strictly monitored, well-regulated betting economy poses little threat to the integrity of sport. However, our current system is the opposite: opaque, ignored, and far from well-regulated.
Internationally, it is estimated that 80 percent of all sports bets are made illegally, and that's a serious problem.
Make no mistake, illegal betting is a criminal enterprise. Black market gambling syndicates and operators are often controlled by organized crime. Money bet with a local, illegal bookie can find its way to funding far more dangerous activities. According to research conducted by The Sorbonne, and my organization, the International Center for Sport Security, as much as $140 billion annually is laundered through illegal sports betting.
But illegal sports betting should not just be concerning to law enforcement officials--it should be on the mind of every sports fan.
The reason is simple -- illegal sports betting often leads to corruption. In that way, illegal sports betting undercuts the foundation of integrity, fairness, clean competition, and uncertain outcomes -- the very reasons we love sports. Every race, fight, game, and match becomes a market to be potentially manipulated. Point shaving and match fixing are just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2011, a gambling syndicate operating out of Southeast Asia invited national teams from Estonia, Bulgaria, Bolivia and Latvia to participate in a soccer tournament. As the New York Times would report, "The tournament's games were played in near-empty stadiums. They were not televised. Yet they attracted millions of dollars in bets on the Asian market. All seven goals were scored on penalty kicks -- all awarded by referees the syndicate had chosen and flown in."
But that's not even the most brazen scheme that syndicate pulled off. The Independent reported that in 2010, the group arranged for an international friendly soccer match between the national teams of Bahrain and Togo. However, after the match was over, and the winnings collected, it was revealed that the gamblers had sent a fake Togolese team to the pitch, and pocketed millions off the fixed match in the process.
To be clear, stories like these are not to suggest that the Mayweather/Pacquiao bout or the Kentucky Derby were corrupted in any way. In fact, stewards of American horse racing in particular have been quite successful in cleaning up and regulating the sport.
But unfortunately, this system is the exception, not the rule.
That's why my colleagues and I at the International Center for Sport Security are kick starting a new conversation about sports betting -- how to make it more transparent, and how to keep it from eroding the integrity of sport.
The leaders of sport seem ready for this conversation. Less than six months ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver came out in support of legalized sports betting, and many executives and owners have followed suit. But while, organizations like the ICSS, as well as leagues, teams, and businesses all have a big part to play, the real onus is on governments to step up and maintain the integrity of sports.
First, governments worldwide need to legalize sports betting, or at the very least, bring illegal gambling out of the shadows so it can be kept from influencing the outcomes of sporting events.
Second, governments need to strongly supervise and regulate betting within their borders -- as well as work together across those borders to ensure that betting operators are in full compliance of all reporting regulations so potentially corrupting wagers can be tracked and monitored.
And third, governments must deploy law-enforcement and regulators in preemptive, international investigations to eliminate illegal betting on the global level.
Now, there's one idea that's conspicuously absent from this list: an outright prohibition of sports betting -- and that's for good reason. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said that, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." Although he wasn't talking about transnational sports betting, his argument surely applies. Like all forms of prohibition, a total ban on sports betting would only drive it underground and make monitoring and policing it far more difficult.
This weekend, as the other 17 horses crossed the finish line behind American Pharoah, and as the judges read their unanimous decision after 12 grueling rounds at the MGM Grand, millions of bettors were reminded of the truism that there is no such thing as a sure bet.
Except in one particular case.
A bet on a strong international regulatory system for legalized betting is guaranteed to ensure the integrity, transparency, and fairness of sport. That's the only sure winner.
Chris Eaton is the Executive Director of Sport Integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security
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