New kid on the block shook up betting as we knew it
The Racing Post editor with some of his greatest Sporting Index memories
It was the era of Blur v Oasis, when lads’ mags sold millions of copies and football’s popularity was soaring as the Premier League age took root.
And in keeping with the Britpop spirit of the mid-1990s, Sporting Index burst on to the betting landscape and changed it for good.
This sexy upstart with its exotic markets and exhilarating risk potential shook up the traditional fixed-odds world, opened our eyes to the potential to bet on virtually anything and had everyone talking about shirt numbers and distances, even those of us who didn’t dare to actually dip our toes into the piranha tank.
Our previous definition of exotic was a half-time/full-time double result wager or a dabble on Miss World, so the range of markets Sporting Index and their rivals City and IG were offering was little short of mind-blowing, as was the potential to win or lose huge sums.
Suddenly we took notice when there was a flurry of late bookings or a 66-1 winner at Ripon or someone scored a double-century as we knew the chances were on one sofa sat someone with their head in their hands in despair while somewhere else a buyer was dancing around their lounge in delirium.
Eventually, having tried to create a loose staking strategy that would hopefully prevent me having to rob a bank to cover a bad start, I took the plunge and opened an account.
There were ups and there were downs. I was, like many people I suspect, too keen to buy action. If I sold goals I couldn’t bear to watch the ball go anywhere near either penalty box. And there were times when I convinced myself that the players knew what I had done and somehow acted to ensure I lost, which underlines how unsuitable my mindset was to this perilous medium.
March 13, 1996 was the craziest day of my spread betting career and one that caused Sporting and their competitors to sit down and realise they needed to tighten up their rules.
First I had a recklessly big buy of Klairon Davis on the Champion Chase index, which gave me ammo to have a decent tilt at Sri Lanka, who I’d tipped at 66-1 to win the cricket World Cup, in their semi-final against India.
So I sold India’s supremacy and watched in delight as they crumbled to 120 for 8 chasing 252 for victory. I was on course for my biggest-ever win but then the crowd in Eden Gardens decided they didn’t like how things were going and a series of small fires were lit around the stadium.
The players were taken off the field, the livid Indian fans refused to calm down and Sri Lanka were eventually awarded the victory.
But Sporting’s rule book did not make provision for such an outcome – subsequently they created the perfectly sensible midpoint settlement – and bets were voided, much to my horror.
The next cricket World Cup threw up the greatest spread story of all when Sporting decided to bet on total tournament wides.
I received a call from my Racing Post sports desk colleague Paul Kealy, who barely knows how many stumps they use in a cricket match, to say he had received a press release from Sporting and that, after some rudimentary research based on looking at a few of the warm-up matches, it was clear the firm had not factored in that the bowlers were struggling like mad to control the new white ball.
Keals was convinced the opening quote of 240-260 was ridiculously low and was calling to tell me, possibly in the hope I would for once relax the rule that prevents staff taking prices before the readers can.
We agreed we would have to wait until trading began the following morning, by which time the quote rose but nowhere near enough.
There were nearly 1,000 wide deliveries in the tournament and Sporting lost around £500,000, albeit they gained huge amounts of publicity.
Come the 21st century and suddenly Sporting’s mantle of betting’s blue-eyed boy was challenged by dotcom upstarts like Betfair and bet365, but they remain to this day a provider of a solid, vibrant spread betting service.
And though their flair and imagination have been imitated by the newer kids on the block, there is still nothing to match the joy of watching an event knowing your buy has already gone through the spread and it is just a question of whether you win a little or a lump.
Sporting Index's maddest moments
Brian Lara 375, Antigua, April 1994
On April 16, 1994, Brian Lara walked out to bat on the opening day of the fifth Test between the West Indies and England at St John’s, Antigua with his side 11 for 1. He proceeded to bat for 12 hours and 46 minutes over two days, scoring 375 painful runs from 538 balls, including 45 boundaries.
Sporting Index was still in its infancy and this famous knock was almost their last-ever trade. It will always be remembered for the fact that every boundary cost £1,500 – the then chairman described it as like being in the dentist's chair for 48 hours.
Cricket World Cup wides, England, May 1999
Just days before the 1999 Cricket World Cup, the trading team unveiled over 100 markets on the tournament. The predictions were pretty spot on – except that for the total number of wides bowled in the 42-game competition, at 245-265, which was based on comprehensive stats from previous World Cups, but failed to factor in how much the new white ball would swing in English conditions.
Betting enthusiasts were knocking each other over to buy as word of the error spread and eventually, when the 979th and final wide was bowled in the decider, Sporting Index had lost a shade over £500,000.
2010 UK general election
Having proved in successive general elections that Sporting Index predictions were far more accurate than the polls, traders weren’t too concerned that their forecast of a 20-plus seat outright majority for the Conservatives didn’t tally with most projections.
But when the crucial 10pm TV exit poll again pointed to no party getting an overall majority, the trading floor was hit by a tidal wave of buyers getting on Labour seats, matched pound-for-pound by sellers of Conservative seats. Among the chaos, clients who had bought Liberal Democrat seats early on in the campaign sat back as Nick Clegg’s performances in the TV debates led to a surge of support for the party.
Had just England counted, the Tories would have secured their majority. A lack of support from the people of Wales and Scotland cost a cool £1 million.
Portugal 7 North Korea 0, Cape Town, June 2010 World Cup
This group contest remains Sporting Index’s most expensive game of international football. It took Portugal 29 minutes to open the scoring in the pouring rain in Cape Town and the teams trudged off with the score still 1-0 at the break.
However, buyers of shirts and total match goals were out in force and the alarm bells began to ring when first Simao (53 minutes) and then Almeida (56 minutes) increased Portugal’s lead. Tiago soon made it 4-0 and Liedson 5-0 in the 80th minute. There may only have been ten minutes left on the clock, but Ronaldo (87 minutes) and then Tiago (89 minutes) completed the rout at a cost on those two markets alone of just under £1 million.
Arsenal 7 Newcastle 3, Premier League, December 2012
Theo Walcott scored a hat-trick and set up two goals as Arsenal won a thriller. What was most incredible, however, was that eight of the goals came in the second half, with three in the last ten minutes.
Walcott’s goal minutes, originally pitched in the 20s, made up at a staggering 183, costing just under £200,000. In fact, Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, Demba Ba and Sylvain Marveaux all contributed to a loss of nearly seven figures. It is Sporting Index’s most expensive domestic football loss on record.