Dating back to ancient civilisations and the Greek Olympic games, sports and betting often come as a pair. It was the competitiveness of others, and the unpredictability of the outcome, that drew people into wagering on the result. While today we think of sports betting as creating an accumulator on the Betway app, it was once a matter of throwing money into a hat in an underground boxing gym.

Keeping a level playing field

At one time, gambling and sports existed independently of one another. Gambling was birthed from dice games and lotteries, before eventually being applied to sports. It didn’t take long before a symbiotic relationship developed. 

Gambling could only work in those early games because the rules were clear and fair, meaning it was a level playing field. This happens to also be the basis of competitive sports, meaning they operate alongside each other. It could be that gambling helped keep sports that way too, otherwise people would get an edge.

For example, the largest match-fixing scandals in soccer are always because someone is making money through bets. This is bad news for both the sport and the gambling shops, as it equally undermines them both. So, betting isn’t allowed by the players, and if they’re caught, they’re banned from competing as we saw recently with Ivan Toney.

Throughout history, the gambling houses and those that hosted sporting events kept one another in check – the gambling house doesn’t want fixed or unfair outcomes because it’s bad for business. In many countries, gambling is illegal except in a certain sporting context, such as Thailand where gambling was restricted except inside Muay Thai events. This indicates the strength of the relationship between sports and gambling, where this culture transcended the law.

Partnerships and investment

Gambling needs sports, of course, for revenue – else there’s nothing to bet on outside of a casino. But, sports also have a lot to gain. Traditionally it would be viewership, as many people only come to an event because of the betting, such as greyhounds and horse racing. Today, a more sophisticated relationship exists, where gambling sites are partnering with sports organisations. 

A good example is the UFC, where betting sites pay the UFC for brand deals and adverts during live fights. This boosts UFC revenue and even the fighters’ revenue as they also strike individual deals. Similarly, Betway has brand deals with the Nets, Chicago Bulls, and various NHL teams. 

There is resistance to this from governing bodies in some countries, like the Premier League, where betting companies have been banned as a jersey sponsor.

The introduction of e-sports

The digital version of traditional sports, known as e-sports, holds the same qualities as other forms of sport: games with clear rules and a level playing field. This is highlighted by the fact that many PC games never become an e-sport because they do not share those qualities. Games like Minecraft, despite being incredibly popular, do not have such a structure, so they cannot be truly competitive.

And, without an e-sport scene, there can be no betting. Both traditional sports investors and betting companies were quick to capitalise on this new sports market, and it’s quickly taken a similar path to traditional sports. 

The biggest difference is with broadcasting, as many e-sports events are livestreamed on Twitch and YouTube – it’s where their demographic already likes to hang out. This can hinder revenue (TV deals are the biggest revenue source in soccer), but it means they turn to brand deals, which sometimes include betting companies. 

While it has started primitively, the size of the audience is there, and the market will likely mature into more of a formal structure with governing bodies and bigger broadcasting deals. However, it’s also likely that e-sports wants to find its own lane and not fall into the pitfalls of traditional sports, where cable TV stations have a lot of power, and there is stifled innovation around consuming these events.