Cycling: An Unsure Bet for Bookmakers

8 August 2007

The Tour de France is regarded as the second biggest sports event in Europe, but even with record-breaking television ratings on the Continent and huge crowds lining the 3,550 kilometer course, both traditional and online betting on cycling has, historically, never translated into significant success for bookmakers.

Two of Europe's largest national lotteries, the Française des Jeux (France) and Predictor--Lotto (Belgium), have picked up on the trend. Both sponsor cycling teams but do not offer a cycling betting product, perhaps in recognition of the fact that the sport's more cash-generative facet, advertisement, is a surer bet.

Incidentally, Unibet, whose cycling team was barred entry from this year's tour, like the French and Belgian national lotteries does not offer a distinguished cycling betting product, comparable to Veloto, a totalisator product with a jackpot.

The summer is a particularly dull time for European bookmakers, as football punting slows to a trickle. And without football, a void opens for bookmakers where the absence of a bet-driving product is felt.

This year's Tour de France reintroduced bookies to a level of entropy that, for the not-so-distant past, has plagued the sport and played havoc with handicapping.

Staggeringly, 47 (of 189 total) riders did not finish this year's race--a dropout rate of 24.86 percent--several of whom were enmeshed in the by-now household cycling phenomenon, "blood-doping scandal."

Christian Moreni, who rode for the Italian Cofidis team, tested positive for blood doping after the tour's eleventh stage on July 19 and was unceremoniously escorted from the race by French police a week later. The Cofidis team subsequently withdrew.

On July 21, a blood-doping screening for pre-race favorite Alexander Vinokourov came back positive. Subsequently, Vinokourov and his Astana teammates withdrew at the behest of tour organizers, the Amaury Sport Organziation. Unlike Moreni, Vinokourov did request a "B-sample," or a follow-up test to confirm the results of the initial "A-sample" analysis.

Then, on July 25, Rabobank rider and then tour-leader Michael Rasmussen was sacked by the team after failing to inform anti-doping officials of his whereabouts twice while training in Mexico this year.

That day, some bookmakers called to a halt odds-betting on the tour.

"We stopped offering the odds to international bettors after July 25 (after Stage 16) because of what happened with Rasmussen and Christian Moreni," Kal Suurkask, media relations for Bodog, told IGN. "We decided not offer the odds for the last four stages."

“After every stage, we opened all the betting offers like 'Who will win the race?’ and so on," said Inga Lundberg, who heads investor relations for Unibet. "In the last week, we suspended the offers from 11:30 p.m. 'til 8 a.m. as [we felt] news could come out any moment which could have an impact on the odds.

“Once all the news about Rasmussen came out," she continued, "we suspended immediately all the offers we had. The next morning, we offered new odds with Contador as a big favorite.”

Austrian bookmaker bwin, however, has adopted a different approach to betting on the tour. Heike Mayer, of the company's corporate relations department, explained bwin's "all bets stand" policy.

If the starter, Vinokourov, for instance, on whom the bet has been placed, fails to participate--no matter what the reason--the bet is lost if the event takes place.

Even after the Stage 16 fiasco, bwin continued to offer bets on the tour.

This year, the number "1" was not available as last year's winner, American rider Floyd Landis, is still at odds with the U.S. anti-doping officials and awaits the verdict of a doping hearing. Landis was ineligible to participate in this year's race.

In addition, reported the BBC, 2006 Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso was recently handed a two-year ban, and 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis admitted using performance-enhancing drugs, as did former Telekom team-mates Eric Zabel, Udo Boelts, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn and Rolf Aldag.

Rob van der Gaast has a background in sports journalism. He worked for over seven years as the head of sports for Dutch National Radio and has developed new concepts for the TV and the gambling industry. Now he operates from Istanbul as an independent gambling research analyst. He specializes in European gambling matters and in privatizations of gambling operators. Rob has contributed to IGN since Jul 09, 2001.