The fact that punters can bet online on the exact date a U.S. war against Iraq will start is a sign of both the limitless boundaries online bookmakers have and how bet-hungry consumers can be.
Online bookmakers accepting wagers on the war are finding it immensely popular among a segment of their clients.
"You're talking about real bullets and real bodies in war situations like what is going on in Iraq. We just don't feel comfortable speculating on events like that."
- Graham Sharpe
BetOnSports.com, one of the leading sites taking action on the war, began posting war-related lines around a month ago, and the odds don't stop at whether there will be a war with Iraq. Punters can bet on the week the war will start as well as what will become of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi President. Proposition bets on Hussein's future include joining the Backstreet Boys and picking up Mother Teresa's torch, although outcomes such as being taken into U.S. custody or sent into exile are probably more realistic possibilities. For those tired of punting on Iraq, the sports book is also offering odds on if and when the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan will be bombed.
CEO David Carruthers said his site first offered military-related bets in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001.
He and his colleagues weren't sure what the public reaction would be, but the demand for such bets, he said, made it a worthwhile experiment.
The first lot of war-related bets centered mostly on what would become of Osma bin Laden and Al Qaeda. With a war with Iraq looming, it was only natural for BetOnSports to extend its offerings.
Carruthers said the war bets are a result of customer demand.
Some bettors have even requested odds on the number of casualties that will be incurred during the war, but BetOnSports' board thought that was in bad taste.
Another site cashing in on war-related bets is Ireland-based Tradesports.com, although their approach is a bit different. In a market-like setting Tradesports.com offers a place for punters to come and trade options on various war-related issues. It first posted Hussein-related options September 24, making it one of the first sites to handle war bets. CEO John Delaney said more than 62,000 trades were made on Iraq's and Hussein's future since then.
"I am not hoping for a war. I am just trying to ensure my business is successful."
- David Carruthers
The nature of trading war options instead of simply betting with traditional odds has given Delaney a unique perspective on how world news and current events can affect the trading market.
"It has been amazing to see how volatile the odds can be from day to day or even hour to hour as news comes out," he said. "Every time something new comes out the odds and the futures change dramatically and quickly."
Many of BetOnSports' similarly adventurous competitors, however, have steered away from such controversial offerings. BetWWTS.com, among the leading online bookmakers when it comes to non-sporting bets, allows users to place wagers on the results of numerous reality-television shows as well as on the outcome of elections and award ceremonies like the Oscars and Grammys. But the company decided not to include war-related bets for various reasons. Chief among them was not wanting to attract unneeded negative attention from Washington at a time when prohibitive legislation is pending in Congress.
The leading P2P betting exchange, Betfair.com, also decided not to correlate the massive coverage on possible military action in Iraq to betting on the site.
"We just decided that it just wasn't the right thing to do," a spokesperson said.
Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for William Hill, said many of the major U.K. operators have distanced themselves from war bets. William Hill has long offered non-sporting event bets, from political election results to the Oscars and even offered odds that a man would land on the moon back in the 1960s (a bet that they had to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars for in 1969 when it happened).
"You're talking about real bullets and real bodies in war situations like what is going on in Iraq," he said. "We just don't feel comfortable speculating on events like that. Even bookmakers have their own ideas about what is in good and bad taste."
Nevertheless, Carruthers said the initial demand from punters has translated into clear turnover that exceeded BetOnSports' expectations.
In just under a month of offering the war bets, the site had taken roughly 10,000 bets on the war and Hussein's future. Carruthers said the turnover from those bets exceeded $750,000 and that if current paces continued the site should reach the $1 million mark in war-related bets by the end of March.
Despite this success, he pointed out that no bookmaker is really hoping for a war.
"But at the end of the day," he said, "I have to answer to my board and ensure I am doing what is best for this business. Some might see what we are doing as in bad taste. I am not hoping for a war. I am just trying to ensure my business is successful."
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