Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's Just Not Cricket

"I know it's crooked, but it's the only game in town."
-Canada Bill Jones

EC at OB has written a bit on the NZPF's penchant for malingering at cricket matches, collaring "courtsiders," folks who take advantage of broadcast lag to gain an edge in overseas betting markets.

Crampton directs his comments towards the impropriety of directing professional police to the task of monitoring what is, at worst, a petty civil offense (terms and conditions of ticket sales scarcely rising to the severity of trespass), but I admit to being utterly flummoxed that courtsiding can even happen at all.

From what I gather, here's how it works: sports matches are televised on a delay. Text messages are not. If one team obtains an advantage not reflected in the running odds, quick-fingered punters can get their overseas confederates to place an OT bet ahead of the broadcast. It's simple timing arbitrage. Horse racing overcomes this by closing the betting window based on the time at the track. Whether you're in Vegas or Dubai, if the race starts at 4:22 Kentucky time, windows around the world snap shut at 4:20 Kentucky time. Perhaps there's something different about sports betting that precludes this obvious remedy, but it seems that if there is such a blatant arbitrage opportunity, that bettors without on-site confederates would either loudly insist on closing the window early or would find another game of chance.

I can see why the ICC (or FIFA, or the NFL, or what-have you) has a professional interest in curbing courtsiding. Betting arbitrage creates obvious incentives for athletes to intentionally scupper matches, ruining the experience for the ordinary punters. Still, it's a long leap from that to "therefore we should employ the people whose job it ordinarily is to chase down murderers and thieves to monitor the fine print on our tickets." Ordinary daily economizing urges people to obtain desired results at the lowest cost. Why not simply append to each broadcast the duration of the delay? Anyone watching and betting on the match overseas would then have all the information they need to refrain from taking a sucker's bet. The problem is therefore solved much more cheaply.

So what's the deal? Why waste the time and talent of New Zealand's Finest when a timestamp would do the trick? A couple of possibilities:

  • The Canada Bill Jones effect: gambling itself is just so enjoyable for some people that they're willing to put up with a crooked game. Publishing the delay wouldn't effect betting behavior in the targeted regions.
  • Low-information participants: a delay length message is sort of a coded signal to savvy gamblers that there might be something afoot. Naive gamblers wouldn't parse the signal from the noise. Undercover cops hauling you out by the lobe of your ear is a hard-to-ignore message.
  • The thing itself: the purpose of having cops at the match is to have cops at the match. The ICC knows the logic of prohibition, they have estimated the social costs of taking police off their normal beat, and they still decide that the scoffers of their private law need a good truncheoning. 
  • Aesthetics: venues don't like the idea that people are buying tickets for venal purposes. My null hypothesis is that objections to things like ticket scalping, pro sports betting, and seat squatting arises from a purity sentiment. Sports leagues put a lot of organizational capital into the public perception that sports are fair, unbiased competition of human achievement. Concerts, magic shows, ballet... the focus is the performance. Reducing seating arrangements to an auction like one does for livestock or the work of dead artists cheapens the performance by dint of association. People don't like to have their work co-opted, and this holds for organizations as well as it does for individuals.
Though I'm fond of the aesthetics hypothesis, it's tough to test. This is one of those areas where the natural human penchant for ex post justification and kayfabe flourish. I might be able to wrest a confession from a commissioner given enough time, but trying to find it in publicly-available data is probably a fool's errand. 

At any rate, the optimist might look at the Kiwi example and rejoice: there's so little crime in New Zealand that they can afford to pull cops off the street and send them to be lackey gumshoes for a professional sports organization. A society so peaceful and anodyne that they can get away with turning beat police into discount mall cops must obviously be a pleasant society indeed.

Betting may or may not be euvoluntary. But betting with full information must surely be more euvoluntary than betting with asymmetric information. The ICC and bookies worldwide are behooved to consider carefully what the cheapest remedy might be.

1 comment:

  1. The guys courtside were likely relaying data to bookies so they could adjust the odds more quickly; their being there is part of making the markets more efficient.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?