July 05, 2020
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Punter, Don’t Retire

Legalising and heavily taxing betting is one radical step to stem the rot

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Punter, Don’t Retire
Illustration by Sorit
Punter, Don’t Retire

The brouhaha over the Indian Premier League has only increased with every passing year. It has had its fair share of success and failure. But events over the last fortnight have shocked the country. As a passionate follower of cricket, just like millions of other enthusiasts, I feel cheated. For, I don’t know who to trust—the players, the administration, the umpires or the team owners.

News is a wonderful thing. It is momentary. Today, the focus is on the BCCI president and his son-in-law. Last week it was Sreesanth and a little-known film star, Vindoo Dara Singh. Tomorrow, we will have a new story on the cover. But, IPL is not news. It is a $3 billion brand and it must be protected. Lure for easy money can drive a sane person to commit the most abhorrent of acts. There are numerous instances when sporting heroes have fallen for the trap to make a quick buck. Hansie Cronje, Salman Butt, Mohammed Amir—the list is long. The best outcome of the IPL has been the well-deserved, rich remuneration for the cricketers. I thought this would help cleanse the system, but greed has made a few go astray. Way back in 2006, a scandal rocked the Italian professional football league. Popularly dubbed as ‘Calciopoli’, it involved top clubs—Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, and Reggina. The teams were accused of rigging and transcripts of recorded conversations between team managers and the administration were published in newspapers. Juventus was stripped of its 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles, not allowed to participate in the 2006-07 UEFA Champions League and relegated to Serie B—the lower level league.

Cricket’s all-powerful body, BCCI, has always been controlled by the elite few with the unequivocal support of their cliques. When the jury and the judge are birds of the same feather, even if one is fair, he is not seen to be so. Even if BCCI and CSK have done no wrong ‘legally speaking’, eyebrows will be raised. With the original architect of IPL ensconced in London and the board president’s son-in-law cooling his heels in police custody, it is time the ‘establishment’ recognises the importance of neutrality and fair play. Cricket has now been divided between the purists and the entertainment seekers. IPL has been labelled as entertainment, not sport. I wonder if the thousands of spectators who come to watch the IPL would stop coming to the stadiums if the cheerleaders or matinee idols go missing from the scene. I believe the young and old come to watch Sachin, Gayle or Dale Steyn play cricket. IPL is cricket, albeit in a new avatar, modelled for a generation which feasts on speed and power and demonstrates a lack of patience. Perhaps it is the future.

Betting is big business. A recent report estimated India’s betting market size at Rs 3,00,000 crore. If, say, a tax was levied on betting at 20 per cent, imagine the revenue that can be generated. Betfair, the world’s largest internet betting exchange and a publicly listed company on London Stock Exchange, has annual revenues of £390 million and net income of £34 million. With an estimated valuation of £1.4 billion and four million customers, Betfair claims on average 20 per cent better odds than those offered by a traditional bookie. Will legal betting keep the punters away? As long as there will be contests with winners and losers, there will be betting. It is a cultural phenomenon, and cannot be wished away. It need not be. It is worthy to note that after Holland legalised the use of marijuana, the number of people addicted to the drug went down.

IPL is monitored by the ICC’s Anti-Corruption and Security Unit but it was the Delhi Police that exposed the spot-fixing racket. Tough laws and a hardline approach is perhaps the only way to ensure that matches are not thrown. But fact remains that sporting anti-corruption bodies cannot be mere watchdogs—they need sharp teeth to bite and draw blood.

Yet, the positives of a legal betting system are many. A percentage of the betting money can go into development of sub-junior sport, so for every rupee bet, we know a percentage is going into raising the profile of sport across the nation. What is important is for BCCI mandarins to detox the system. If not radical, make practical changes like robust sports policing, and make betting a legal industry. The IPL commissioner should be neutral, someone like Vinod Rai, who is away from politics. BCCI’s composition should be that of distinguished ex-cricketers and sports administrators. Will all this happen? That is the big question. Anyone taking bets?

(The author is chairman, RPG Enterprises)

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