The billion-dollar men of betting - Tuesday 25th of March 2008

PUNTING with TAB Sportsbet this year will reach the previously unthinkable mark of $1 billion. Thats one billion dollars. Thats $50 bet by every Australian. But skyrocketing turnover is only part of the story at Australias biggest bookmaking agency.

One certifiable lunatic keeps backing 0-0 scores in the National Rugby League. Another, wiser soul is still rolling in cash from the biggest single wager in Sportsbets history: $500,000 on Brazil to win the 2002 World Cup. On a typical weekend, turnover on the AFL is about $3.5 million, while the figure for the NRL is about $3 million.

The average bet is $40.

"Its big business," TAB Sportsbets Craig Nugent says. "Weve gone from $60 million to a billion in a decade."

Tabcorp headquarters is a nondescript white building near Darling Harbour in inner-city Sydney. Upstairs, there are 10 widescreen plasma television sets in front of the 20-odd staff on duty when we get there. One screen has Lleyton Hewitt towelling up Mikhail Youzhny in the Masters event at Indian Wells. The Pura Cup final is on another. American college basketball is on a third. Money is riding on all of them. Its quiet apart from the occasional tapping of keyboards and murmured conversations.

"See that?" says the TABs Glenn Munsie. "A hundred grand on Man U."

Nugent doesnt call the punters anything other than customers. This particular Man U-loving customer stands to win $18,000 if it beats Bolton in the English Premier League. His investment barely raises an eyebrow. Uniteds price tightens from $1.18 to $1.14 (United won, 2-0).

The markets for the AFL round are formulated by four experts, while the NRL odds are formulated at a nine-man meeting held in Sydney at 11am every Wednesday. Each of these bookmakers gives the points start he thinks is right for each match. One guy thinks the Storm should give Cronulla a 12.5-point start. Another thinks it should be only 7.5. The rest are in between.

"We calculate a weighted average of those assessments and thats what determines the prices," Nugent says.

"They look at all the statistics, all the replays of games, all the histories between the clubs, performances on certain grounds, player impacts — theres a significant process we go through. We have bookmakers with expertise across all sports. Weve got guys who do nothing but soccer, others do nothing but tennis, golf, racing and so it goes. For the NRL, our biggest customers are ready for us at noon. If they think weve gotten it wrong, theyll jump on us. Its our assessment against theirs. Thats what it all boils down to."

Those formulating the odds have no greater knowledge than the average punter. They all seem to do what most people do to formulate their opinions: read the newspapers, magazines and websites. In truth, the bookies are the last people to hear insider information because everyone is trying to fleece places such as Sportsbet.

Prices are suspended occasionally if key players are in doubt — as happened last week when it was unclear if Carltons Brendan Fevola would play after his late-night antics.

Nugent says Fox Sports, with its live broadcasts of nearly every sporting contest on the planet, has been a big factor in Sportsbets rise.

"Thats undoubtedly been the biggest driving force behind what has become a massive interest for a lot of people. The amount of live sport being shown on television and the increase in our customers have run parallel.

"All the research weve done tells us that customers like to be able to watch the event theyre betting on. They feel involved, and they can form opinions about teams and sports and competitions. And then they can back those opinions. Theres a skill in it. Go to any pub or club in Australia and people are debating about sports."

TAB Sportsbets Gary Davies says in the AFL, the company generally holds most money on matches that are live on free-to-air television.

Munsie has a file on his computer called "Risk Summary", which is a list of the days bets and how much the company stands to lose. The perception is that the bookies make a killing. But they do lose, Sportsbet included — 40% of the time for a weekend of trading.

"Weve had individual payouts of over a million dollars from multi-bets," Nugent says. "If theres a weekend when a lot of NRL or AFL favourites win, typically that will be a very bad losing weekend for us. A lot of customers like to take a multi-bet on all the favourites."

The bookies at Sportsbet are allowed to put their money where their mouths are, but not with their own company. At 12.19pm comes a dabble: a lazy $1000 on the Roosters giving the Broncos 2½ points start. The bookies are as quiet as librarians, looking at the bets coming in, glancing at the TV screens, scanning the internet, talking softly among themselves. Maybe they know something. Maybe they dont.

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