Interview with a Vampire II: The Corona Wars

A little while ago, and due to a complete absence of knowledge on the subject, we posted an interview with noted Twitter user and professional gambler Innocent Bystander about gambling in cricket, and more widely across sport. Given all that has gone on over the last four months, it seemed a good time to revisit some of those issues and find out how life is for someone who doesn’t just watch live sport, but relies on it for his living. So inbetween the usual words of abuse that pass between us, he agreed to be asked some more questions about cricket, gambling and the future of both.

I began by asking him about the last few months, and how it has affected him, especially given his job:

“Well it pretty much shut down everything. No sport means no trading, and no trading means no income. It’s alright for those who get all that Rishi [Sunak – UK Chancellor of the Exchequer] money, but for the rest of us who got nothing, not so much. Fortunately I had some money saved to fall back on, but it was a long 3 months to say the least”.

Yep, this is sounding all too familiar to me as well. There has been an assumption in too many places that no-one has been left out, but it’s far from the truth. Normal life is one thing, but the nature of gambling being addictive on the one hand, and also offering the dream of a way out for those who are in financial distress led to troubling thoughts on several levels. It hasn’t been greatly discussed in the mainstream, but it must have been noticeable when sport returned that there was a rush to place bets, with a spike in income for the bookmakers. Problem gambling too hasn’t been highlighted in the lockdown period, but it is impossible to imagine that it all stopped in that period, so what happened and where did they all go?

“I probably chat about it most on Twitter, and the one thing about gamblers (professional or otherwise) there is that apparently no-one ever loses! It is always interesting how gambling gets put in with obesity, drinking and smoking as the vices that the government has to clamp down on. Roll all those in with the pandemic and the only headline that I was surprised not to see was gambling gives you coronavirus. Everything else seems to”

If the shutdown had a direct effect on gamblers, it clearly had just as big an effect on the gambling companies, and on the sports that are supported by, or even rely on them. Many governing bodies detailed the scale of their potential losses, and if in some instances the figures were inflated by counting all revenue sources to all levels of sport, it clearly had and is having an enormous impact. Sport has started to return, but behind closed doors, and the postponement of the test events with spectators present has removed that potential revenue stream for the time being at least. There has to be the suspicion that the relationship with gambling was behind the rapidity with which certain events were scheduled as soon as they were permitted:

“Well it’s been pretty obvious that a lot of sports were rushed back. Something like horse racing has always been primarily about gambling, and 10 over cricket was created pretty much entirely for the benefit of the betting industry – there was only so much virtual sports they could show to give people their fix! Remember that when the Cricketer ran their virtual cricket tournament, people were even trying to bet on that as well”

Ah yes, the 10 over cricket leagues. Last time we spoke Innocent Bystander predicted that these would grow in popularity around the world, and while no one could have imagined a global pandemic coming along to give that change a particular turbocharge, It’s interesting to see that among the first returning cricket has been the likes of the European Cricket League – amateur sport, televised and promoted. In a pure sporting sense, it’s been intriguing to watch a highly variable standard, but from a betting perspective, no one knew anything about the teams or players in advance. Given the sheer volume of money that has been wagered on the outcome, there must have been some serious research needed into who was playing and how they were likely to get on?

“It was certainly very surprising to see the volume of money traded on essentially amateur sport, but then it was the only show in town at the time, so with hindsight it probably wasnt a shock. I actually found assessing the quality of the participants relatively easy. The teams, players and tournaments had quite a lot of previous seasons statistics available online to review. So, with a little bit of work it produced a good return. Without giving too much away I tried to assess the strengths and weakness in each side, and rank each of them based on that. But you’d be surprised how much a teams odds could shorten just because they had a name that appealed to be people such as Zalmi or the Super Kings”.

Obviously there has been a great deal of controversy about the Cyprus event, did that surprise you (here I put in a note to be careful about what he said, on the grounds of not particularly wanting to receive a nasty letter from a lawyer)?

“What did surprise me was how blatant everything was. Nothing was subtle, and it’s been swept under the carpet pretty quickly by the league – the very next day they expelled the side involved and expunged their record from their website; then reforming with the remaining teams and a new schedule. The shocking thing for me was the lack of any kind of statement from the league – it doesnt exactly send out a message about the integrity of their competition, if anything it says the opposite.”

Everyone is wondering at what point things will return to normal, but the disruption across myriad industries raises questions as to whether change is transitory for the period of the pandemic, or whether long term changes are likely. Sport is perhaps one of the most visible industries there is, and given gambling is ancillary to that, I wondered how the longer term would look?

“The only real differences are the changes to the calendar and the behind closed doors nature of pretty much all of them for the immediate future. The fake crowd noise makes football watchable but in cricket the lack of variance in the level of the hum means it can be more irritating than helpful. As for things returning to normal, nothing gets there until the virus is suppressed and under control. I certainly wont be travelling to watch cricket anywhere else in the world for a while now”

As someone who works in the travel industry, this is the last thing I wanted to hear, albeit it’s not so surprising for many, but when it is said from someone who travels to watch England so frequently, it’s pretty depressing. It would also signal that supporters are likely to become even less important in the future, and the mere lip service they are paid at present will become even more the exception, in favour of the broadcasters.

“I probably need to flesh that out a bit – when I go to events I always book well in advance, get the best seats I can and stay at nice hotels. Now with all the uncertainty I cannot be sure that what I’m booking will end up happening. It might be postponed, or rearranged, even late on when there is a major financial penalty for any changes. I have been caught up in disruption in the past – the Mumbai bombings when I was booked into the Mumabi Taj Hotel meaning I had to rearrange to Mohali, and the 2010 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean where an Icelandic volcano decided to mess with all the flights. I had no family back then so it didn’t really matter that much being messed around – but with a 2 year old now I am less keen with last minute changes.

“I always used to joke that fans were an inconvenience to cricket authorities what with having to schedule events well in advance and stick to them – they would prefer it without those pesky fans getting in the way in grounds….”

I suspect that’s right, but if we move to a situation where fans won’t travel because of uncertainty, and governing bodies feel the freedom to change because fans aren’t travelling, it would likely signal the end of the kinds of mass following we have become used to seeing. The needs of travelling supporters have rarely been a priority, but they badly need to be now. Moving on, when last we talked, we discussed the whole matter of TV advertising, and since then there have been moves to remove pre-watershed live sports gambling commercials. Yet it doesn’t seem to have happened, so I asked what what was his understanding of the position there:

“To be honest I’m not too sure. I thought that football was banning adverts during matches but that doesnt seem to have taken place. In fact, it does seem to be wall to wall betting adverts again – only now they seem to have lost Ray Winstone’s large head…maybe that was the trade off! Either way, not much has happened, maybe there are only so many pressure groups headlines to go round”

As ever, my thanks to Innocent Bystander for being patient with my silly questions, and still not objecting to the titles I give these pieces – you can find him and follow him on Twitter @InnoBystander

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