Betting on it is the new sport

Transfixed: The sports betting industry in South Africa has boomed since the 1980s, largely because of shifting attitudes towards gambling (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)

Transfixed: The sports betting industry in South Africa has boomed since the 1980s, largely because of shifting attitudes towards gambling (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)

The house always wins. It’s a phrase flung so frequently from soap boxes that many consider the warning to be divine testament.

And it’s not far off. Casinos and other gambling houses build their fortunes on the backs of games that always give the house the edge. Blackjack, for instance, even if tackled with perfect basic strategy, still disadvantages the player by about 0.5% in the long run.

Sports betting is no different. Odds are meticulously set so that any punter reaching close to a 50/50 success rate will be a losing gambler.

But there are those who believe any house can be toppled, a special breed of player, who follow legendary Las Vegas proposition gambler Amarillo Slim’s dictum that sometimes the lambs slaughter the butcher.

These punters could be anybody — not necessarily the dubious fellow with the stereotypical John Malkovich-in-Rounders look. There’s likely a reason Greg from human resources looked especially forlorn when Virat Kohli delivered a midweek mauling to the Proteas.

A serious sports gambler is a serious fan. Someone who follows team news, and pays close attention to the finer details of the game that elude the casual viewer. For them, famous sport incidents are more than just moments in history — they are when fortunes were won or lost. Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit did not bring European glory to the Netherlands; they brought home the profits.

“In the 1995 Rugby World Cup, I was a very big winner on South Africa, and would have been a small loser on New Zealand,” says long-time punter Gerald Sadleir. “So I was very grateful to Joel Stransky for that marvelous drop goal.”

They are who the industry should thank for not only its growth but also its place in society. Apparent to anyone paying even half attention, the market is unrecognisable from what it was a few years ago. Think of all the adverts on your TV. These days it is one of the main competitors to Men’s Clinic for the attention of the modern male. Betting is everywhere, and it’s accepted.

“We could see the sports betting market in South Africa was ready to grow,” says Brent Graham, co-founder of forum and tip site Goodforthegame. “Back then [in the early 2000s], there were only a handful of bookmakers in South Africa. It has grown tremendously but it’s taken a long time to grow.

“The industry has come on a long way. These days you can bet on anything, from a Swedish second-division game to a major event.”

Graham reiterates that one need only look around to see not only the development of the industry but also the effect it has had on sport itself.

“Up until a few years ago you never would have seen a bookmaker sponsoring a sports team in South Africa, like you see in the UK. But now you have got the Hollywoodbets Dolphins, the World Sports Betting Cape Cobras in cricket, and World Sports Betting also have a partnership with the Lions. That’s a sign of how betting has become more acceptable to the general public now.”

Undeniably, gambling has generally been perceived by the public as the playground of the degenerate. Some would argue with good reason; like any addiction, it has no doubt ruined countless lives by destroying families and creating irrecoverable debts. Now that it’s considered an acceptable recreational pastime, bookmakers have wrenched the trend and sought to target the layman.

“The bookmakers are looking to attract the guy that’s not necessarily trying to make a living out of betting,” Graham says. “But he’s watching the game with his mates on a Saturday and he wants to make a bet. Previously he might not have known where to go but now that a bookmaker is sponsoring his favourite rugby team it lends credibility to the company as well. So he thinks why not have a pop on Elton Jantjies scoring the first try at 25 to 1?”

“My own observation of sports betting is it’s a form of mental press-ups,” Sadleir enthuses with British joviality. “If you’re trying to work out whether the Blue Bulls are going to win or not this weekend at Loftus and by how many points, it’s a great brain exercise.”

Sadleir is the owner of insurance and financial advice business Sadleir & Associates. But, as a hobby, he has been involved in betting, particularly sports, almost his entire life. It started with the horses. When he was six years old, his uncle took him to a local track in England.

“When we arrived, Uncle Peter ran into a friend of his who told him that he thought he would win race four with a horse called Grey Pot. I had been given half a crown for the day to buy myself probably an orange juice or a Coca-Cola and basically to try to stay out of the adults’ way. My ears had flapped when I heard the tip, so I went down to this bookmaker called Jack Swift, probably long since dead.

“The result was absolutely brutal. Ongoing over the last fence, Grey Pot took the lead and won by six lengths. I formed the impression of myself that I was an invincible punter. Then I have been gambling a bit on race horses, and particularly cricket and rugby ever since.

“They do say that all the worst addictions — to drugs, sex, alcohol and gambling — start before you’re 10.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Sadleir has watched how sports betting has exploded in South Africa, from essentially nothing in the 1980s to the full-blown online bazaar today.

“There was nobody until 1983. I remember where I was at the time it was so unusual. There was one chap who said there was a soccer match on and he wanted to bet on Manchester United. So you can really say that sports betting only started in the 1980s.”

The fall of the most atrocious political system in human history is not usually something one would associate with sports betting, but there’s a strong sense that refined regulations post-1994 helped to bring about the industry we have today. Sadleir, for his part, worked through them all.

“I was a partner with a friend of mine called Clyde Wolpe in a Swaziland betting-shop operation. From 1986 onwards, we used to take bets from people wanting to bet on sports. So we were quite involved in the early days of sports betting.”

Incidentally, Gary Lentin, co-founder of GGGaming.bet, had earlier credited Wolpe not only with being instrumental in sports betting development, but also, jokingly, as the unluckiest man in the country.

After running out of funds in England, his father had given him just enough money to buy a plane ticket. An eager-to-stay Wolpe instead decided to try his luck at the track, according to Lentin. He got himself a pick six — a type of bet that requires all six selections to be correct but pays off huge.

He was down to the last race — win and he would have enough money to stay for another year.

“His horse was the favourite and, at the very first jump, the second and third favourite both fell over and dislodged their jockeys, leaving it a two-horse race — his and a 50-to-one shot,” Lentin says. “At the third-last fence, the 50-to-one shot fell over as well. His horse was now running by itself, no problem at all. But, at the second-last fence, his horse now fell over and the jockey of the horse that fell over before that saw what was happening, remounted his horse and went and overtook the favourite.”

Having been involved in sports betting, and other ventures like poker, himself for many years, Lentin has seen all the mistakes to be made by punter and bookie alike.

In the 1999 Rugby World Cup, France headed into the semifinals as underdogs to face New Zealand. One punter understandably thought it was a good idea to put R100 000 on the Kiwis. Shortly after halftime, a Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks looked good for their money, so to speak, and had surged to a 14-point lead, seemingly cruising for a derby final with the Wallabies.

“The punter went to the bookie and asked for his winnings,” says Lentin. “The bookie thought it was a done deal and paid him out.”

As it turned out, les Bleus would go on to deliver one of the sports’ greatest-ever comebacks.

“The bookie tried to get hold of him but couldn’t. He still tries to call him today but the punter never picks up the phone. This is why we have the Podium Rule.”

Lentin says it was a hard lesson for bookmakers — on an international scale. In the 1998 Summer Olympics, Ben Johnson set a new world record by beating Carl Lewis in the 100m, later dubbed the “dirtiest race in history”. When the Canadian was disqualified and stripped of his gold medal for steroid use, the bookies had a situation on their hands — angry punters flocked to them, asking for their money back.

Now it’s a rule across the board: whoever stands on the podium is the winner. “It doesn’t matter if Chris Froome snorted coke; if he has that yellow jersey, he is the winner.”

The lessons seem to have been learnt and both punter and bookie seem happy with the current standing of the industry.

For Graham, there is only one issue that the regular sports punter is afflicted by.

“One of the negatives of the industry now, and this is not unique to South Africa, is that bookmakers do tend to limit punters who make a lot of money. That causes quite a lot of ill feeling sometimes among the people who are betting. If you can only get on R500 or R1 000 where previously you could lay down R10 000 but the bookmaker sees you as a risk so limits you. That’s a fairly common practice in the industry and is the only bit I would say is a bit unfortunate.”

But, Graham says, this will never stop anyone from making money if they’re good enough, because today there are just so many options.

“Overall, you’re spoilt for choice; you have got lots of online bookmakers. Sports betting is in a healthy place.”

Luke Feltham

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