In December I tongue-in-cheekedly suggested that the gambling industry should create a mass-participation event that is televised nightly for our punting pleasure. You can read more about Total-Wipeout-Squid-Game-Butlins-Olympics here.
That same month I temporarily turned tipster and gave my suggestions for value bets in the upcoming Ashes cricket series. Today I’m going to bring those forgotten pieces together, along with re-visiting a dash of proper psychology, to create an unholy Monster Blog.
Let’s start with the cricket, and I’ll keep it mercifully short. All of my tips were wrong.
In my defence, I got the overall result correct and foresaw the abject pitifulness of England’s performance. I also rightly reckoned star batsmen Joe Root and Steve Smith would be mediocre. England were so bad though that Root still managed to be the team’s top scorer.
My value prediction of Ollie Robinson to be leading wicket taker for England was solid, and he led the way going into the last test before shoddy fitness got the better of him. I picked Hazelwood to lead for the Ozzies and he got injured in the first match.
So in summary, if you’d bet on all of my tips, you would have returned £0. However, if you adopted my proposed strategy of low-stakes betting, you’d have lost a small sum and had a great time sweating the results. That is an enjoyment win even if it was a financial loss.
In hindsight, the outcome is a perfect example of the Near Miss Effect (NME) in action – that’s when you get a dopamine hit from almost winning. It is a counter-intuitive neurochemical boost that encourages you to carry on even though you lost.
As I wrote the first few paragraphs of this blog, I legitimately couldn’t help but think how close and clever I had been. Like I had done my sums right and just accidentally come up with a slightly wrong answer. There might be some truth in that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I won absolutely nothing.
To be fair, in this case, the NME is working correctly. The best explanation for this phenomenon, is that our brains evolved to reward perceived progress/improvement. If you do something well enough that you almost did it successfully, then it is adaptive for your brain to give you rewarding encouragement.
The opposing alternative would be for the brain to respond flatly to anything other than total success. If we were built like that then any form of practice or experimentation would be miserable. We’re not like that, because a civilisation that doesn’t strive to improve gets wiped out.
The presence of the NME does mean my gambling habit will continue, but in my case, that it isn’t a terrible thing because sports betting is arguably skill-based, and therefore a winnable endeavour. Perhaps with a few tweaks I could turn a profit. I have, after all, been playing with the same £20 deposit I made right after the Euros last year.
Unfortunately, most cases of the NME in gambling are not helpful, because there is no skill involved. Falling one number short of a bingo, missing a jackpot reel on a slot, or getting 22 on Blackjack are not failures of skill.
The problem is that our monkey brain stem (where these neurological rewards occur), can’t tell the difference. It only sees an almost-win and releases the chemical rush. It is a dangerous cognitive flaw that gambling companies can and do exploit to encourage further play where no improvement is possible.
But that’s enough psychology for one blog. What does all this have to do with a mad betting TV show?
Well, the gambling industry is notoriously slow to innovate. As Graham Cohen quoted on a recent Gambling Files podcast “Nobody wants to be first, but nobody wants to be last”. My idea was far too outlandish for any gambling company to adopt, but that doesn’t mean it was without merit.
I haven’t given up on advertiser-funded programs (AFPs) for sports betting, because there are lots of examples that the concept works.
The European Poker Tour was a brilliantly run live event series, but it wasn’t conceived for that purpose. It was built as an authentic way for PokerStars to get on TV. The company didn’t just run the tournaments, they paid for all TV production costs too. Channel 4 just had to find a slot for this ready-made gift.
You could argue the same is true of modern horse racing. There are plenty of wealthy people involved, but it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the backing of the bookies. They sponsor most of the races/meetings because it gives their customers something to bet on.
The toy industry has been smashing out AFPs for years. He-Man didn’t start as a cartoon – Mattel had to create something to rival Star Wars and had their alien barbarian toy line made into a cartoon. Hasbro repeated the trick with Transformers and, more recently, Spin Master (first and foremost a toy company) have done it with Paw Patrol.
The reason I’m re-visiting and expanding on this topic is twofold. Firstly. I don’t think anyone read the original blog, so this is a shameless bump of that content. But secondly, I think the concept could save test cricket – a criminally neglected and underwatched sport.
Cricket itself has had a resurgence in the last decade because the authorities invented a version that was more palatable to the general public. The problem is that version is now attracting all of the money and a majority of the talent, so traditional longer forms of the game are dying.
It’s the equivalent of proper football being gradually eaten alive by a half hour 6-a-side beach kick around. The latter might be legitimately more fun to watch, but it won’t accurately reveal who is the best. For that, you need the real thing.
So, harnessing my inner Barry Hearn, here is my AFP idea. A new franchise-based cricket league of test matches, containing the best players from around the world, all funded by a gambling company.
The games would take place over four days, running from 1pm until 10pm every day, thus making it ideal for spectators (live and at home), and simultaneously great for betting on. The matches would be scheduled so that they are on every single day over the course of the season. That way, fans of the game simply know to tune in at a certain time, and the media always have fresh content.
The most recent England cricket tour of the West Indies was sponsored by Betway, so it’s not like there isn’t already a huge betting presence on screen. Inviting a gambling company to be involved has the potential to evolve the presentation of the game whilst also taking a more transparent and responsible approach.
I appreciate there are campaigns to get gambling advertisers out of sport, and while well-meaning, I think they are taking the wrong approach. That however, is a topic I’ll have to take on in another blog.
A responsible sports-betting broadcast has the potential to educate viewers and change betting behaviours. That cannot be done if you push gambling off-screen and into the shadows.
For instance, you could prohibit in-action betting. If all wagers must be placed before the start of a session then the focus is on the sport – as it should be. Having betting windows of opportunity every couple of hours will prevent high-pace slot-style gambling, which happens when you allow customers to bet on a ball-by-ball basis.
You could also formally limit the bet sizes to force punters to play within their limits. Mostly because it is responsible to encourage smaller wagers, but also because moderate bets cannot hurt the integrity of the sport. Nobody will be tempted to match fix (or spot fix) if there’s only a tenner on the outcome.
In return for these concessions, the gambling company gets exclusive rights to the action, and uniquely close integration with the product. Cricket is a slow game, and commentators always need something relevant to talk about. In many cases, conversation about betting markets would actually raise the quality of the coverage.
I don’t know of any other mainstream sport where this opportunity is so pronounced. You couldn’t just set up a new football product and expect it to catch on. The big European clubs tried and were flayed for their audacity. The Saudis are having a similar level of success in their efforts to buy international golf.
But in this regard cricket is different. There is massive global demand for the game, and a recent history of the game evolving into something new. The Hundred proved last year that even a seemingly confusing and unnecessary new game can get an immediate audience.
Test cricket is ripe for redevelopment and a new era, and in my view, is one of the better vehicles for responsible betting. There just needs to be a brave and innovative gambling company ready to lead the way…