14-years-old is an awful age to go on a family vacation. No one understands your oh-so-unique struggle to grow up. Your body’s chemistry is changing more than Barry Bonds on a regimen of Victor Conte-prescribed elixirs. And you hate everything.
You hate school. You hate your teachers. You hate your friends. You hate the person on whom you have a crush. You even hate the band that like totally gets you. You hate the world. But above all else you hate your family and you hate restrictions. Traveling and living in close quarters with your mom, dad, brother and sister or whatever combination of that set best describes your specific situation growing up is nothing short of detestable.
We’re pretty disgusting creatures when we’re 14 – old enough to be cynical, but too inexperienced to properly apply our criticisms to anything constructive.
It was at this age, on a family vacation to Florida, that my first experience with gambling occurred. On a day in which the rest of my family was going on a helicopter tour, motivated by the $100 in savings found in not having me along, I was allowed a day to myself. Of course, I spent the afternoon at a greyhound racetrack, where the adage that misery loves company is tested by the collective self-loathing making those in attendance incapable of loving anything.
It took a dozen races for me to work up enough courage to attempt to place a bet. I was underage, and if my pimply baby-face didn’t give that fact away, my complete and utter lack of confidence would have. I stood in line for less than 30 seconds before an older gentleman – a gentleman only relative to the others in attendance – pulled me aside to inform me that a greyhound had a better chance of placing a bet on himself than I did. He offered to wager for me.
I told him the name of the dog that I wanted, and he placed my money, as well as a much larger portion his own on it, explaining that he was a big believer in beginner’s luck. I want to say that the dog I bet on had an Irish name because it was on St. Patrick’s Day, and such a name would’ve been ideal for an uneducated punter. However, there would be a very good chance that I’m confusing my memory with an episode of The Simpsons.
While this detail eludes me, the way in which our dog darted from the starting gate does not. It had a lead of what must have been six lengths over all of the other dogs within seconds of the start of the race. It was just enough of a lead to grant us both a feeling of misplaced surety. The dog’s first-half split time was to his second-half split time what crème brûlée is to a candy bar, an old candy bar that’s been left so long on the shelf that it turns to dust as soon as the wrapper is opened. It finished dead last, barely a hyperbole.
On Sunday, February 3rd, more than 400 police, some of whom were heavily armed tactical officers in body armor, raided an invitation-only Super Bowl party at Le Parc Banquet Hall in Markham, Ontario. This was the result of a two-year investigation into an off-shore, illegal gambling website named Platinum Sports Book by the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which included the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, and regional police forces from across the Greater Toronto Area.
Despite more than 2,300 in attendance, only six arrests were made. A party-goer described the interruption – occurring in the second quarter, between courses of an elaborate dinner – as chaotic. Police went from table to table, and attempted to pair attendees to photographs that they held in their hand. When a match was made, police officers would shout, “ We’ve got one,” followed by the identified man being dragged away.
After the feed to the television broadcast of the game was cut, revelers began anti-police chants that were only quelled by an announcement made over the banquet hall’s public address system, informing those in attendance of what was happening, and asking them to remain calm.
As the raid ensued in Markham, investigators also carried out search warrants for nine homes and businesses in the GTA and London, Ontario, seizing $2.5-million in cash, as well as a large safe from a home in Vaughan that required a special truck for transportation. As a result of the investigation’s findings, Andrew Bielli, Shlomo Buchler, David Hair, William Miller, Martin Spruce and Arno Thomsen were charged with engaging in bookmaking, participating in a criminal organization, keeping a common gaming house and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence. Police believe Hair, Miller and Spruce to be the kingpins of the illegal betting operation.
The difference between Platinum Sports Book and other offshore sports betting websites is that Platinum does not process credit card transactions. The website is like a club. Members are given identification numbers and pass codes to enter the website, use a mobile phone application or dial a toll free telephone number and commit to wagers. Each client has an account representative that shares attributes held by what’s commonly referred to as a bookie. At the end of each week, the representative or agent collects from his unlucky clients one day and pays out any winners the next.
The Platinum website is hosted in Costa Rica, just like several other offshore gambling sites, but it’s used to track bets only placed in the GTA, where the physical collection of debts and payment of winnings can occur. The operation is the result of a merger between an organized crime syndicate in the Greater Toronto Area with connections to an Italian mafia and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.
A decade ago, the two organizations were running separate operations, but instead of fighting for territory, they astutely merged to form the most sophisticated and lucrative underground system for illegal gambling in the country. For the past eight years, the pinnacle of this unholy union has been an annual Super Bowl party, which has grown in extravagance at an equal rate to the operation’s yearly revenue.
Platinum’s structure is similar to that of the mafia’s. Each agent/representative not only reports to someone higher in the food chain than himself, but also has a cadre of runners underneath him. At each level, percentages are handed out based on the collected losses. Each year, an agent will receive one or two table’s worth of tickets to the Super Bowl party to give away as a thank you to his best clients.
At the gathering, clients are treated to a multi-course dinner, an open bar, female servers dressed in skimpy attire and topless female models available for photo opportunities. Door prizes consist of merchandise branded with the Platinum logo, and each year an exorbitant raffle with $50 tickets is held, the prizes for which include Sea-Doos, motorcycles, tickets to sporting events, and, at one past event, a $50,000 watch.
However, the most important element of the party is the collection of computers scattered through the hall that link directly to the Platinum SB website. From these terminals, those invited to the party commit to a myriad of wagers and proposition bets throughout the night. This is what makes the million-dollar event worthwhile for organizers, and it’s among the most significant set of items confiscated during the recent police raid on Super Bowl Sunday.
According to RCMP Acting Superintendent Keith Finn, the timing of the takedown, the culmination of two years of investigation, was not coincidental.
Super Bowl day, over their calendar, this is their biggest single earning day. We knew if we took them down, that would be the biggest impact to them.
However, there is more to the timing than merely hitting the alleged criminals where it hurts. A very similar effect could have been created by making the exact same arrests and seizures the day before, and it wouldn’t have involved detaining thousands of people that the police had no intention of ever apprehending. Obviously, the drama of making the arrests on Super Bowl Sunday, in front of thousands, resulted in positive optics for police forces that are seemingly always beleaguered in terms of public relations.
There’s another element to the timing beyond an increase in appropriated dollars and improved perceptions.
On October 18th, 2011, Member of Parliament Joe Comartin of the New Democratic Party introduced a Private Members Bill into the House of Commons, calling for an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code that would allow individual provinces to decide on whether or not sports betting is to be allowed for single events. Currently in Canada, legal sports gambling operations (Pari sportif in Quebec, Pro-Line in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and Sports Action in British Columbia) is limited to parlays involving multiple outcomes from at least two separate events.
On average, less than three Private Members Bills are passed each year in Canada. Yet, less than five months later, Bill C-290 passed third reading unanimously without a standing vote in the House. As is customary, the bill then went to the Senate for its approval. Only eight times in the last 70 years has a bill passed by the House been overturned in the Senate, and never has a unanimously passed bill been rejected by the Upper Chamber. So, it was largely expected that Bill C-290 would be introduced as law by the summer of 2012.
A funny thing happened on the way to ratification. Due to the sped up process that a Private Members Bill receives in the House of Commons, little time was given for debate at committee. Member of Parliament Michael Chong of the Conservative Party explains:
When this Bill was studied by a House of Commons committee, there was only one witness who spoke to the Bill, and that witness was also a proponent of the Bill. At no point did Bill C-290 receive adequate debate or examination in the House of Commons.
With more time for debate, representatives from professional sports leagues got involved. In addition to statements from the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League urged the Senate not to pass the bill, claiming that the integrity of professional sports was at stake.
National Hockey League deputy commissioner Bill Daly expressed the following in a written statement:
We firmly believe that legalized sports betting threatens to compromise that integrity, and that the single-game betting scheme that Bill C-290 seeks to decriminalize poses a particularized and unique threat in that regard. Such wagering poses perhaps the greatest threat to the integrity of our games, since it is far easier to engage in ‘match fixing’ in order to win single-game bets than it is in cases of parlay betting (as currently exists in Canada), where bets are determined on the basis of multiple game outcomes.
Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston appeared before the Senate in October with a similar message:
When gambling is permitted on team sports, winning the bet may become more important than winning the game; the point spread or the number of runs scored may overshadow the game’s outcome and the intricacies of play. If large numbers of our fans come to regard baseball only or even partially as a gambling vehicle, the very nature of the sport will be altered and harmed.
This seems to be the sentiment among many of the bill’s detractors, including MP Chong.
Bill C-290 would seriously undermine the integrity of sport. All we have to do is look at places such as Europe, where sports are rife with betting scandals like match-fixing.
Indeed. Let’s look at places such as Europe.
On February 4th, Europol, the European Union’s official law enforcement agency, announced the conclusion of an 18-month investigation into match-fixing by identifying 380 matches that they believed to have been rigged by an organized crime syndicate. Suspected matches included World Cup and European Championship qualifiers, two Champions League ties and “several top football matches in European leagues.”
It is clear to us this is the biggest-ever investigation into suspected match-fixing in Europe. It has yielded major results which we think have uncovered a big problem for the integrity of football in Europe. We have uncovered an extensive criminal network.
According to their findings, criminal syndicates were responsible for €16 million in wagers on fixed matches, “earning” €8 million in profits. It’s believed that this is the result of €2 million in payments to approximately 425 match officials, club officials, and players throughout Europe.
These are large figures in their own right, but the sheer size of the operation is only truly appreciated when we realize how difficult it is to actually fix a match. There’s a perception of match-fixing that’s consistent with what we’ve seen in old movies involving boxers and gangsters. In reality, it’s a far more complicated business than merely leaving a wad of cash under a towel in a rusty locker.
According to Declan Hill, the author of The Fix: Soccer And Organized Crime, there are two sides to fixing a match: 1) The actual bribing of someone capable of influencing the outcome; and 2) Influencing the sports gambling market so that bookmakers and other bettors don’t realize that they’re being defrauded.
It’s a very sophisticated operation that requires skill. Many of these people regard fixing the game itself as easier than fixing the gambling market. They’ll spend just as much time if not more manipulating the system as they will working the result of the game. It’s a tricky skill.
There are many ways that they attempt to control the market. One method will see them start a rumor that the fix is in on Team A which will push those who hear this rumor toward betting on Team B. All along, the fix is actually in on Team B. So, [the syndicate] will bet on Team A and win money with the result of the game. Those that lost their money on Team B figure that there never was a fix and they forget about it.
There’s so much more involved to match-fixing than a mere magic handshake. In order to believe that the sudden introduction of a legalized and regulated source for wagers would result in a complicated system like this traveling to North America, one must ignore the sophistication of the process. It’s far too difficult to believe that a crime syndicate would go to great lengths to perpetrate a fraud, and then gamble through a government system with more requirements, additional limitations, worse odds, slower payout and larger vig (the amount charged by the bookmaker for services) than what a typical offshore sports book would offer. It would be like travelling a great distance to go to a restaurant, and only ordering appetizers.
Despite the unlikeliness of those embroiled in match-fixing using government regulated betting to their financial benefit, opponents of Bill C-290 echo the concern of professional sports leagues who seem determined to be bothered about the integrity of their game. Such worries require blinders, which make sense given the willful ignorance that sports leagues have continued to express regarding the relationship between athletics and gambling.
Bill C-290 isn’t the only piece of sports gambling legislation currently being examined in North America. On November 8th, 2011, the people of New Jersey approved a referendum to amend the state’s constitution to allow for the legalization of sports betting. Two months later, Governor Chris Christie signed the subsequent bill into law, causing much consternation among the four major North American professional sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In August of 2012, these five governing bodies of sport teamed up to file a federal lawsuit to stop New Jersey from allowing sports wagering, claiming that it is in violation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.
As part of the filing with the U.S. District Court for the State of New Jersey, the commissioner of each league and the president of the NCAA included their own separate declarations in support of the suit. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s declaration contained the following claim:
My most important responsibility is working to maintain the integrity of MLB and to preserve public confidence in our sport.
After noting that his position was invented as a direct response to a betting scandal in 1919, Selig went on to emphasize sports gambling as a threat to this integrity.
The spread of sports betting, including the introduction of sports betting in New Jersey, would threaten to damage irreparably the integrity of, and public confidence in, MLB.
Three months later, Selig was deposed by lawyers representing New Jersey. When asked whether baseball fans bet on baseball games, the MLB Commissioner made a distinction between gamblers and sports fans, claiming he wasn’t sure.
I don’t know whether they do or they don’t.
When asked about legal bets being placed by fans in Las Vegas, he responded:
That would surprise me greatly.
Despite Selig’s claims that maintaining the integrity of his sport is his primary responsibility while emphasizing sports betting as something that would threaten that integrity, he proceeded to testify to his ignorance on the entire subject.
Such contradictions between perception and reality are commonplace among the pro sports leagues. For instance, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell plainly states in his declaration that legal and regulated sports gambling should be feared for its potential impact on how the public consumes his product.
If gambling is freely permitted on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculations, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing.
The new sports gambling scheme that New Jersey proposes would also greatly increase the likelihood that the allegiance of certain fans will be turned from teams, players and high-level athletic competition, toward an interest first and foremost in winning a bet. The core entertainment value of fair and honest competition between teams and athletes that is reflected in NFL games will be replaced by the bettor’s interest, based not on team or player performance, but on the potential financial impact of each on-the-field event.
However, Goodell fails to mention that gambling figures prominently in the story of his game’s rise to the forefront of sports entertainment. Bets on the NFL represent as much as 20% of the $380 billion wagered annually on sports in the United States (both legally and illegally), and while the league maintains the perception that it wants nothing to do with gambling, there are several policies in place that suggest otherwise.
Each week, teams go through the charade of filling out injury reports, a 65-year-old tradition originally implemented by former commissioner Bert Bell as a means of eliminating inside information benefitting certain gamblers, but not others. As the weekly reports became less useful to the gambling community because of increasing subjectivity in how coaches were filling them out, the reports were upgraded in 2004 to include notifications of player participation in practice.
Even more recently, the NFL transitioned its website to feature fantasy football more prominently than any other sports league in the world.
Despite it being a friendly form of wagering for a great many participants, Lawrence Ferazani Jr., a senior lawyer for the NFL, made the at-best-naive, at-worst-dishonest claims that he was unaware of any such betting on fantasy football.
The fantasy football games that I’m aware of, there’s a prize, but not a financial prize. I don’t play fantasy football. I know what we offer so I’m not – I can’t tell you that there are others, other places that you can go to and somehow win cash prizes playing fantasy football. The ones I’m familiar with are run by us and you’re either playing for a prize but mostly you’re playing for bragging rights against the people against who you play.
The importance of optics to the NFL, as it pertains to gambling, is probably best seen in its policy regarding stadium advertisements for casinos. They’re allowed, as long as the ads meet two requirements: 1) They remain out of sight for television broadcasts; and 2) They don’t promote sports books.
Perhaps the only thing more difficult to reconcile than the obvious difference between the perception put forth by the leagues and the reality of their situation, is that by and large, professional sports are run by intelligent individuals, and yet the arguments they put forth to support their stance against legalized and regulated sports gambling seem to crumble under the briefest bit of scrutiny. We’ve already seen that there is little risk of criminal elements using government regulated gambling to run match-fixing operations, and we’ve now concluded that the negative effect that leagues attempt to prescribe to legalized wagering on sports is either false or already a part of how the modern sports fan watches their sport. Now, we’re left with the question: Why?
Why do professional sports leagues insist on actively fighting against new legislation and changes to laws that have no real impact on them under the guise of its extreme importance? According to Ryan Rodenberg, an assistant professor of sports law analytics at Florida State University, the stance represents both a failure to move on with the times and a struggle to maintain control over property that isn’t expressly theirs.
Their opposition to regulated gambling is an historical artifact. They anchored themselves to this position when it was relevant, and now, despite emerging technologies making sports gambling more accessible, they’ve remained consistent with their position for the sake of tradition.
There’s no motivation to change because they don’t stand to profit from gambling like they would by selling merchandise, tickets or television rights. No one in a league would say this, but it’s incredibly difficult to quantify the impact of gambling, and since it exists outside of their control they’d rather stop those who would profit from what essentially is their product.
Sports books offer gamblers games that [the leagues] own. When it comes to television, it’s easy to sell rights and say that a league owns the product that the network is purchasing for broadcast. It’s less obvious with data, and less certain. And that’s what sports books are selling. Data is the one aspect [the leagues] don’t control, but they’d like to.
The popular degradation of gambling as a morally reprehensible behavior pushes the practice toward a corner of the room which those who depend on the relatively small contributions of large cross-sections of the public will always want to avoid. However, the truly distasteful element of gambling for sports leagues is that it offers an enhancement of the experience offered by their product, and this enrichment falls outside the purview of their control.
The ulterior motives of North America’s professional sports leagues seem all the more self-serving when we consider the parties that they protect through their lobbying and lawsuits: The organizations that are actually hurt by legalizing and regulating gambling, illegal operations like Platinum Sports Book.
Opponents of regulated sports betting are quick to point out that government operated systems would be unable to contend with illegal operations in terms of offering competitive odds. It’s a factor that’s conveniently forgotten when it’s argued that legal sports gambling will increase the likelihood of match-fixing.
Speaking of Bill C-290 specifically, MPP Michael Wong suggests that there are better ways to fight crime than introducing new ways to gamble.
Canada’s provincially regulated casinos cannot offer the same odds as off-shore or illegal operations, so Bill C-290 would do little in … tackling organized crime. The solution to eradicating [the criminal element] lies in giving enforcement agencies the tools necessary to deal with this illegal activity, and not expanding gambling in Canada.
He’s right. Introducing single-game betting isn’t going to single-handedly bring down organized crime’s handle on sports gambling. However, it’s not an all or nothing situation. In collaboration with the type of enforcement we witnessed with the recent Super Bowl party bust in Markham and greater education as to what the money spent through illegal bookies goes on to fund – namely, drugs and prostitution – deterrents are set up for one option in the hope that another, more legitimate avenue for sports betting is chosen.
Increased legalization and regulation is a step forward, not a single massive leap.
In the opening to this piece I wrote about my first experience with gambling. I think it was an important occurrence for me because it crushed some of the romanticism that I, in my formative years, had attached to the idea of an outlaw punter, living to the beat of his or her own drum, off the grid and free of the social responsibilities that bind other people.
I learned that the virtues of such an existence are actually non-existent except in fiction. In reality, the persistent gambler’s lifestyle is better represented by the repulsive mundane: The smell of cigarettes and the sight of dirty, money-grubbed fingers rifling through papers. However, losing money on a dog race wasn’t an entirely negative experience. The race was a rush. My heart beat faster. My interest was piqued. My attention was focused. It enhanced the moment, and the bet itself was the catalyst for an improved interaction with an event.
That’s what sports books, whether legal or not, are essentially selling to spectators: an enhancement of the vicarious experience that sports provide. Considering gambling to be a vice not only gives professional sports leagues a convenient out in the pursuit of absolute control of their product, but it also pushes wagering operations toward a criminal element that is only too happy to accept it.
The only true moral decision to be made when it comes to gambling is the avenue with which you choose to pursue it. For too long, the restrictions and limitations of betting have been used to justify interaction with organized criminals. Increased legalization and regulation creates a more legitimate avenue to practice one’s hobby.
If the majority of the general public can understand purchasing music to be a preferable practice to stealing it through file sharing, how much more easily should we be able to comprehend that betting illegally is contributing to far worse criminal activities? We choose to pay for music rather than download it illegally because it’s relatively easy and the cost isn’t prohibitive to doing what we feel is right. Now, imagine your choice if every time you illegally downloaded a song, you contributed to organized crime.
What governments are attempting to do through wider legalization of sport wagering is create an iTunes for gambling. Certainly, it won’t eradicate the criminal element. There remain far too many 14-year-old misanthropes of every age willing to blind themselves to the unsavory aspects of where their money is going in pursuit of the best odds possible.
However, when increased enforcement of criminally controlled sports gambling – an effort that additional revenue from more accessible wagering could theoretically help fund (directly or indirectly) – is matched with a legitimate source to take bets, it doesn’t just eliminate a path for illegal activity, only for another to pop up again later. It diverts those engaged in sports gambling toward wagers that fund charities, amateur athletes, regional priorities, social programs and community festivals rather than merely sponsoring drugs, prostitution and even gun violence.
By working toward blocking this progress, sports leagues aren’t suddenly exercising actions based on altruistic motivation, or even measures of increased brand awareness. They’re stuck in their thinking and attempting to retain all the control that they can over their product. Whether that’s to the detriment of the public or not – I’d argue that it is – doesn’t matter to them as much as the perceived detriment.
The delays caused by the Senate and the lobbying sports leagues may have already pushed legislation in Canada past its point of immediate usefulness. 500 days after MPP Joe Comartin introduced Bill c-290, it continues to wait a vote from Senators. Members of the Upper Chamber seem content to wait the bill out, which means it may never get resolved. As New Brunswick Liberal Senator Joe Day recently told CBC News, “It might just die a natural death.”
Meanwhile, the RCMP and Platinum SB are engaged in a game of cat and mouse. Despite the original website being shut down, the betting platform continues to pop up from different locations around the world, the latest can be found here, containing a .tk domain. The address suffix belongs to Tokelau, a territory off the coast of New Zealand. Records indicate that the domain was registered in 2004, confirming the sophistication of the operation with perhaps multiple contingency plans in place for government shut down.
Update: On March 5th, police made 18 more arrests in connection with Platinum SB. In addition, $1.6-million cash, two handguns, a taser, computers, cellphones, betting lists and ledgers were seized. Despite claims from police that the arrests and appropriations has “decapitated” the operation. The website, with its Tokelau domain name, remains online.
Update: More arrests were made on March 20th, after search warrants were exercised for a Toronto bar believed to be associated with the gambling ring responsible for Platinum SB. The website is no longer operational under its Tokelau domain name.
In New Jersey, a ruling in the federal lawsuit is expected at any moment after U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp said at a hearing on February 14th that he would announce his decision in two weeks. However, it’s expected that the leagues will continue to work together as representatives of PASPA, and merely appeal a decision that isn’t in their favor.
Update: On Thursday night, Shipp ruled in favor of the leagues, upholding PASPA, which prohibits sports betting in all but four states. Representatives from New Jersey have already made their intention to appeal known.
The frustration from seeing something that makes sense get blocked by the ill-informed and illogical positions of authorities leaves one feeling as angered and as utterly useless as a fourteen-year-old, surround by others who seem to be on an apparent vacation from reason. It’s a frustrating perspective, but one from which the hope still exists that we’ll all just grow up on this matter.
It must be mentioned that the assumed topic of discussion through much of this article is responsible gambling. Obviously, problem gambling exists. For the purpose of this particular piece, I’d ask readers to consider gambling and ludomania to be separate phenomena.
It would be inappropriate to write about greyhound racing without mentioning its dark side. While rescue groups work hard to find homes, and place retired greyhound racers there as pets, it’s estimated that as many as 12,000 racing greyhounds a year are euthanized, unwanted after they’re no longer able to compete.
Illustrations by Miranda McGuire.