Saturday 18 January 2014

Uneven Playing Field

I doubt that anyone reading this post will be unaware of the much publicised court-siding incident at the Australian Open this week, in which a certain Daniel Dobson was allegedly caught with an electronic device stitched into his shorts, allegedly for the purpose of transmitting real-time data back to the UK.

The accusations of match-fixing are clearly nonsense, but while the presence of court-siders in tennis has long been recognised, one interesting revelation is that Mr. Dobson wasn't an entrepreneurial individual or working with a partner, but was an employee of a Surrey company called Sporting Data, formed in 2011 and coincidentally based in my neck of the woods, the sleepy town of Oxted in Surrey where I previously worked, played football for the local Holland Sports club for many years, placed my first ever football bet at Corals and a town where my daughter sometimes works to this day.

Anyway, enough of memory lane, here are some words from their web site:
1) Sporting Data is a company providing sporting data and services to certain individuals. Our clients use the information provided to place bets.
2) We have employees on the courtside sending back information to London and that is then used to place bets on the outcome of the match. However, the odds and stake of the bets are all determined by the individuals in London and not by the employees on court. There are plenty of times that they will send info back and nothing will be done with it. In no way could they considered to be betting themselves.
3) We use mathematical models to assess the probability of a match outcome. Bets will be placed when the odds generated by the model are significantly out of line with the market. A lot of syndicates use a similar methodology. Clearly, we need the most up to date information to generate accurate match probabilities. We cannot rely on TV pictures as they are out of date.
4) Most of the bets placed are placed on betting exchanges - platforms devised specifically for punters to pit their information and simulation techniques against each other. It is the tightest and most competitive environment there is and we have invested a lot of time and effort to become competitive.
It always amuses me to read posters on the Betfair Forum talking about 'fast pictures' from race tracks. All pictures are delayed, some more than others, and if you bet based on what you see on your TV, you are probably at a disadvantage. It's the same with tennis. If you bet based on what you see on TV, Sporting Data's description of their business makes it pretty clear that you are fighting an uphill battle. Sporting Data are perhaps technically not doing anything illegal, although the Daily Telegraph states that:
UK police said earlier this week that courtsiders could be arrested under the Gambling Act 2005, while Britain's major sports all said the practice was banned under their own ground regulations.
Sporting Data are not trying to get one over on bookmakers, at least not usually, because they say "Most of the bets placed are placed on betting exchanges". The money they are going after is that of individuals who have "out of date" information, and they are doing nothing wrong - simply making the most of an opportunity that currently exists.

It has been suggested on the forums that this type of entrepreneurship would have a short shelf-life, because the Super Premium Charge will soon kick in, and that might be true for a regular Joe. 

However, Sporting Data's three directors are publicly listed as Steve High, Simon Allen and Martin Pendlebury, perhaps not the rarest of names, and it could certainly be coincidence that one Steve High was a Senior Product Manager at Betfair, a Simon Allen was previously a Software Engineer at Betfair and a Martin Pendlebury was at one time a Senior Sportsbook Odds Compiler/Trader at Betfair.

If anyone would know how to go under the radar and have multiple Betfair accounts and avoid the Premium Charge, is it unreasonable to think that a former employee (or three) would have the best idea of how to do this? One also wonders if Betfair has any kind of a business relationship with Sporting Data?   

A couple of other thoughts on this practice - one is that while not in violation of Betfair's terms and conditions, it is a practice that will, or certainly should, have the effect of drying up the in-play markets. Only a fool will keep playing under unfair conditions, and while there will always be newcomers trying their luck, at some point any sane person would realise the odds are tilted against you. Not everyone has the resources to send a friend to Australia after all.  

A second is to wonder what other sports and markets Sporting Data are active in. There are some big games this Sunday in the NFL, Conference Championships to be precise, and with most Americans blissfully unaware of in-play trading or exchange betting, any field-sider sending data back to the UK would probably avoid detection. NBA basketball attracts big money and it's been noticeable this season that the prices move quicker than ever. Baseball's been dead for in-play for a while though.

Perhaps the reduced liquidity I read about isn't all down to the Premium and Super Premium Charges. 

One truth about in-play trading is that the playing field is not a level one. Unfortunately there is no easy way to remedy this. Increase the countdown delay too much, and liquidity dries up. Several years ago the NHL markets were liquid enough, but the countdown delay was increased (reportedly due to fast data in Canada) and the in-play markets are now deserted. Limiting in-play trading to breaks in play is impractical, and Suspending an NFL game after every penalty, scoring play, turnover etc. would be impossible. Betfair have enough trouble training staff to recognise a significant event on football! 

The best advice I can offer is to be very wary when trading in-play, and recognise who you are competing against. It's a zero-sum game, and clearly some people have the resources to gain a big edge against you. As I wrote in the first post of this year, my enthusiasm for betting these days is not what it was, in big part because of the Super Premium Charge, and while trading has been where I have made most of my money, I am actually finding myself more challenged these days by identifying value pre-game and doing things the old fashioned way. I fear that unless Betfair take steps to stop the same accounts from consistently winning large amounts, (even if not technically against the current rules), and Premium Charges clearly aren't hitting the targets they should, then in-play betting will at some point be banned by law to protect the, admittedly willing, losers - although a ban on FOBTs has yet to come in, so it could be a while. The Stock Exchange would never allow an edge to be effectively bought like this. Would they?  


Anonymous said...

Superb article . Would not surprise me if Betfair are taking a cut of courtsiding profits . In effect Betfair are killing off the exchange as they have run out of people to bleed dry .

Anonymous said...

" One also wonders if Betfair has any kind of a business relationship with Sporting Data?"

Many courtsiders I talked to along the past years, they all have the same suspicion: someone out there is still faster than them. It has to be someboy on the court, of course, but also with some kind of technical adventage.

There are two theories: it could be someone related to the ATP circuit, who enjoys a fast dsl connection wherever he is, while the other coursiders rely on unstable 3g/4g connections. Or Betfair is getting their cut on the markets using a third part - somebody with a little plus that allows them to put their hands on the money a bit faster than anybody else.

Unknown said...

A hot topic and some interesting points raised.

I don't think Betfair operations are really ever called into question quite as much as they should be.

Considering this style of operation would run into "Super-PC" very quickly indeed, it certainly makes one wonder if

(a)there is some kind of "agreement" in place (wouldn't be the only "agreement" betfair have with a customer)


(b)indeed they are levied the full PC amounts but happy to pay it regardless as there is no risk involved whatsoever.

If losing weeks are not an option then PC is in fact no problem at all. It's merely an inconvenience, like Income Tax.

Also, I'd suggest this arrangement suits Betfair all ends up (tight markets, illusion of liquidity, regular income)

Questions clearly need asking before they can be answered but I'm struggling to see Betfair's motivation for making them go away.