Any sports fan is all too familiar with micro-bets, and the problems they cause. A micro-bet is when bookies offer odds that a particular ball in a cricket match will be a no-ball, for example, or a given serve in tennis will be a fault.
These bets on small events during live play have been linked to sporting corruption - those in the know make hefty profits in betting markets because a player agrees to bowl that no-ball or serve that fault at a pre-determined point in play.
Now, we have found evidence that more than a third of regular Australian sports gamblers are making micro-bets using offshore operators - and worse, this dangerous type of betting is very strongly linked to problem gambling.
Don’t be fooled into thinking micro-betting means small bets. The “micro” refers to a small event within play - but the sum wagered can be huge.
The findings come as legislators in various countries and regions, including the United States - where sports betting has been is illegal or restricted - are under pressure to make sports betting more accessible.
Micro-betting is technically legal for Australian licensed operators. But sporting bodies have not approved it, owing to the difficulty of policing the integrity of their sport given the notorious instances of corruption.
Despite calls for micro-betting to be outlawed completely, we found that Australians are using many offshore operators to engage in micro-betting - operators who are not supposed to offer services to Australian punters but do anyway.
In our most recent paper, in a sample of 1,813 regular sports bettors, we found 667 (36.8%) had bet on micro events in the past 12 months.
Of those, an alarming 78% were classified as problem gamblers.
Only 5% of those making micro-bets were non-problem gamblers, with the rest at some risk of developing gambling-related problems. And when we looked at only those who bet on micro events, those classified as problem gamblers were also likely to place a higher proportion of their bets on micro events. It’s important to note we recruited many regular (rather than occasional) sports bettors, leading to a higher representation of problem gamblers in the sample (46.8%). Nevertheless, the relationship between problem gambling and betting on micro events is striking.
Because micro-betting markets open and close fast, usually over just minutes, this betting needs to be impulsive, and those classified as problem gamblers tend to be impulsive. Also, this is yet another way to bet, and people classified as problem gamblers tend to gamble in many ways - sports, races, pokies - at venues, by telephone, and online.
A dangerous, impulsive form of betting
Because sports betting is so common in Australia, many may be surprised to learn sports betting is not offered in some parts of the world, including many states of the US. However, legislators in many jurisdictions are legalising or decreasing restrictions on sports betting, and face questions about what should be allowed.
Micro-betting is the most extreme example of in-play or live betting, itself an evolution from the time sports betting was simply on which player or team would win the match - with bets on match outcomes placed hours or even days before the result is known.
Micro-bets reduce the gap between placing a bet and the outcome to minutes or even seconds - essentially allowing bettors to bet continuously. This is concerning, because continuous forms of betting are strongly associated with gambling-related problems – think pokies.
When the Australian government originally legislated Internet gambling, it allowed sports betting because it was not a continuous forms of gambling, and was therefore seen as relatively benign. However, live/in-play sports betting (including microbets) cannot be offered online by Australian-licensed operators. Instead, bettors must place a telephone call to the operator or bet in a venue.
In fact, betting on micro events is a particularly dangerous form of gambling because it is continuous, requires impulsive decisions (impairing the ability to reflect on recent gambling), and offers variety. All of these factors appeal to people at risk of problem gambling.
Calls to ban micro-betting
Two reviews of the gambling legislation recommended that betting on micro events should be specifically outlawed, even if bets are placed via telephone (or in-venue), because of the high risk of gambling-related harm. When the Interactive Gambling Act was amended in 2017, no such change was made, partly because it was difficult to legislate against betting on micro events without unintended restrictions on other forms of betting.
Betting on micro events has also been linked to spot fixing, where a player purposefully stages an event (for example, loses a particular point) so that others in-the-know can bet on it. This has been observed in many sports, and is a key reason that Australian sporting bodies don’t endorse betting on micro events. It is far easier to get a single player to lose a point, than it is for a player or team to lose an entire match.
So while micro-betting is not currently offered in Australia, Australian bettors can place micro-bets with overseas bookies, despite the federal government’s efforts to stop this. Given that betting on micro events is so clearly related to problem gambling, and corruption in sports, legislators worldwide should strongly consider whether this form of gambling should be offered as they shape the laws for their jurisdictions.
Authors: Alex Russell, Senior Postdoctoral Fellow, CQUniversity Australia