Sportsman off scent of mouse-wielding punters

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Maybe the moment passed you by, but Britain’s first new national newspaper in 20 years launched this week. It’s called The Sportsman, a name that used to refer mainly to people who killed animals for fun. Later, it came to mean those who rushed around for the purposes of athletic competition.

This Sportsman refers to a third – less aggressive, more sedentary – group: those of us who prefer to sit back and gamble on the folk doing the rushing around. Specifically, the paper’s begetters, mostly ex-Daily Telegraph types, have picked up on the huge boom that has taken place in sports betting, i.e. punting on events other than the traditional outlets of horse and greyhound racing.

Initial response to The Sportsman has not been very favourable. Reaction after Wednesday’s debut issue was that the paper was ill-designed – “like the Wisbech Advertiser”, as one journalist put it – seemed confused about its target audience, and offered little that was not done as well or better by its established rival, the Racing Post, a more eclectic paper than its name implies.

My own view is that The Sportsman is a half-decent idea for a website foolishly turned into print. (I said the wheel, the aeroplane and television would never catch on, so potential investors should take this comment as their cue to pile in.) But the sports betting boom has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the internet, and the emergence of a new generation of punters who would be unlikely to go into a betting shop or open a credit account – and don’t necessarily get their news from the papers.

The surge was partly inspired by Gordon Brown, who was persuaded in 2000 to change his methods of getting his hands on bookmakers’ profits, and abandon betting tax. This was a reaction to reality: the big bookies had begun to move their non-cash operations offshore.

In the past five years, the figures have become amazing. Coral, Britain’s third-biggest betting company, says that football, which was once responsible for 1 per cent of its turnover, now has 10 per cent. But this has come without any damage to the mature business of horse and greyhound racing. The industry as a whole is anticipating £800m worth of business on this summer’s World Cup.

And it’s not just football that’s affected. The slow-burn sports, such as golf, cricket and tennis have all benefited too, especially from the growth in betting-in-running – pioneered by the spread firms and the betting exchanges, and greatly enhanced by the arrival of broadband.

In this context, even Big Brother and political elections count as sport. And the newest big things are darts and bandy, a cross between ice hockey and soccer and very big in Sweden.

For this is not just a local phenomenon: Britain, with its liberal gambling laws, is just the centre. Ladbrokes, officially, has clients in 200 countries – every imaginable spot on the map except one, the Land of the Free.

The British have entirely forgotten the football betting scandals of the 1960s and even the cricket match-
fixing horrors of the 1990s. The Americans still remember the rigged baseball World Series of 1919 as if it were yesterday, treat bookmaking as
a synonym for racketeering and continue to interpret the 1961 Wire Act as an effective ban on almost all sports betting. Britain’s thoroughly respectable legal bookmakers, in contrast, have seen their shares head through the roof.

Sports betting is only one reason for this, of course. The bookmakers have casino interests; the fixed-odds machines in betting shops are amazing moneyspinners; and the dreary all-weather tracks (Kempton opens its new Polytrack today) and the desperate “virtual racing” help ensure that no one need stand in a shop for a second without handing over money.

But maybe it is more significant that betting on sport is now seen
as cool by mouse-wielding young sophisticates. This is one way I think The Sportsman has got it wrong: it’s too down-market (the letters are especially cretinous). Second, sports punters, unlike racegoers, are interested in the game first and betting second: it’s the spice, not the meal itself. Third, I am not sure the paper meets a need.

Punters need racing journalists to help them interpret form and slip in some inside information from the stable. If there are no animals involved, the form is less complex. Unless one of the bright lads on The Sportsman has exclusive word that the entire Chelsea back four has gone down in a groin-strain epidemic, any football fan’s opinion as to whether they will beat Manchester City this afternoon is as good as anyone else’s.

I hope I’m wrong and that The Sportsman sharpens its act and pulls through.

Journalists on the Post are rooting for it too. The advent of competition forced the paper’s publisher, Trinity Mirror, to open its clipped-shut purse and invest in the product. “If The Sportsman goes belly-up in six months, it’ll be a disaster for us,” whispered one Post scribe at Cheltenham last week.

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