Leicester City beat the odds — most of us don’t

When does fun with online betting tip over into a dangerous addiction?
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It could have been the best investment you never made. Leicester City’s sensational Premier League victory was considered so unlikely by the bookies at the start of the football season last August that some of them were offering odds of 5,000-1.

At that time, Paddy Power thought it statistically more likely that the Loch Ness Monster would be discovered, with odds of 500-1. Ladbrokes was offering the same odds on The X Factor’s Simon Cowell becoming prime minister, and had 1,000-1 on Sir Alex Ferguson winning Strictly Come Dancing.

So no wonder the fans are celebrating. The bookies now face record payouts of up to £50m — and life-long Leicester fan Gary Lineker now has to make good on his own pledge to present Match of the Day in his pants if his team won the league.

All this talk of football and betting odds got me thinking about the prevalence of online gambling in sport. Before Leicester City were handed victory on Monday night, my stepson was persuaded to return from university for the weekend to take the 12-year-old son of a close friend to his first live football match as a birthday treat.

They both had a great time — not least because their team won. Returning home exhilarated, the birthday boy told us all about the game, the crowds, the rude chanting and then, with a slight note of dejection, said he could have won £400 if only he’d placed a bet on the final score.

We spent some time unravelling the last observation. As the 12-year-old saw it, if he had bet his £100 birthday money on his team winning 1-0, he would now have £300 (plus his stake back) — and felt foolish for not having done so. “I knew the score would be 1-0, I just knew it,” he said.

Putting aside the fact that he is legally too young to gamble, we then had a conversation about betting odds. It transpired he was totally unaware that with 3-1 odds, he had a 75 per cent chance of losing.

I also asked why he’d theoretically considered betting all of his birthday money, and not just £1 or £10 of it. “That way I’d get the most back if I won,” came the reply.

Like a sponge, he’d soaked up the atmosphere around him in the stadium and cottoned on from activity around him that many spectators were using their smartphones to bet on the outcome of the match to add an extra thrill to the proceedings. By contrast, my attempt to enforce the maxim of “you should only bet what you can afford to lose” seemed far less exciting.

Regardless of whether you watch in a stadium or on the small screen, advertising for online betting sites is inescapable. At the start of the football season, seven out of the 20 teams in the Premier League had a betting company as a shirt sponsor, according to Future Sport, the sports website. Many clubs have also signed deals with “official betting partners” who not only sponsor stands, but give special offers and benefits to season ticket holders.

Looking back to when I was 12, I was certainly aware of the football pools — but this was seen at the time as something faintly unglamorous. And when I went to university in the 1990s, betting shops were off-putting places that provided a natural deterrent to this type of vice.

Now, online betting and smartphone apps have transformed gambling into an accessible social activity for young people. Search for “online betting” and a stream of tempting offers from online gambling companies offer “bonus bets” of up to £25 if you sign up.

More than half of 18-24-year-olds say they have placed a financial bet, according to a study last year by the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investments (CISI), and online betting on football is the most popular form.

The survey found that young men were more likely to bet than young women, and that nearly three-quarters of men who had made a bet in the past 12 months did so using a betting app. Over a quarter of those who did bet said that adverts on TV and social media were “influential”, and 18 per cent of young men surveyed said they enjoyed betting with friends.

So how did these statistics bear out with our own 20-year-old, an avid football fan? He was surprised that the numbers were not higher.

At university, he said, it was increasingly the norm for groups of sports fans to watch and bet on games together to “make it more exciting”. However, he was quick to add that none of his friends bet more than £1 in a single go; he favoured making bets of 10p or 50p for unlikely things that had high returns.

He accredited the trend to in-play betting, made possible by the extent of technological innovation in the online gambling sector, and the practice of “cashing out”. For example, you could bet on your phone that the final score will be 2-0. Your team scores a goal, so you’re half way there, but this prompts the online bookies give you the option to “cash out” and take perhaps half of your winnings, depending on how much time is left to play. Group discussions then ensue about whether you should take the money or risk waiting.

I can appreciate how this adds an extra dimension to watching a game, but I worry that gamblers might then be tempted to increase the amount of money at stake, or gamble by themselves.

It is striking that only a quarter of young people surveyed by the CISI correctly knew that odds of 3-1 meant there was a 75 per cent chance they would not win. With teenagers so often glued to a smartphone screen, the thought that they could be silently gambling is a real concern.

But just as we worry about our children getting a drink or drugs habit, when does a bit of fun with online betting sites tip over into a dangerous addiction? That is something even a bookie would struggle to give you odds on.

Claer Barrett is the editor of FT Money; claer.barrett@ft.com; Twitter: @Claerb

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