It All Started With… The History of Sports Betting, or Why We Bet on Athletes

Betiton
15 min readJun 23, 2021

It all started with… the series that explains the beginnings of gambling powered by Betiton™

Welcome to another entry of our series ‘It All Started With…’, where we delve deep into the history of casino games and gambling activities in order to uncover their origins and understand how they came to be so popular. We’ve already written a number of articles on other casino games like blackjack, baccarat, and roulette.

If you’d like to have a look at what we’ve already written, we encourage you to browse through our currently published pieces. This time round, however, we won’t be looking at a particular game but instead we’ll be looking at the history of sports betting.

coins and a tennis ball on a computer, implying online sports betting
Image by top10-casinosites from Pixabay

‘It all started with a wager that was placed and then lost forever in time…’

When looking at the history of a concept as broad as “sports betting”, several questions will inevitably arise: how can you trace the very beginnings of something as natural to the human race as gambling? At the same time, how does one even look for the beginnings of something that has little to no written history?

Of course, we know that it’s impossible to find a definitive answer to any of these questions, or to even find a definite beginning of sports betting at all. However, that’s not to say that we won’t try anyway. This is because looking at the historical material related to betting can prove useful nonetheless.

So, without further ado, let us look at the possible historical reasons for the popularity of sports betting.

The Origins of Sports Betting: What Was the First Sports Wager Ever Made?

It can easily be assumed that the origin of sports betting precedes written history, and that the first ever wager will forever be lost to us in history. In fact, it might be reasonable to presume that sports betting came to be not long after people started doing sports. In other words, the origin of sports betting is intimately tied to the “origin” of physical, or rather sporting activities.

Thus, the origin of sports betting and the origin of sport itself are inextricably linked, so much so that one cannot determine the starting point of one without the other. This, however, runs into a problem: the “creation” of sporting activities is itself lost to history. In fact, there is evidence that humans engaged in physical activities for their own sake way before any written record of them.

In fact, cave paintings found in Mongolia — which roughly date back to 7000 BCE (for context, the first Olympic Games took place in 776 BCE) — portray a wrestling match being eagerly watched by a massive audience. Therefore, truly pinpointing the starting point for sports betting is impossible, to say the least.

However, we can appreciate the fact that by the time the Olympic Games and the Colosseum were popular, sports betting was just as popular. In fact, wagers were placed on the outcomes of Olympic competitions and gladiatorial matches, meaning that sports betting was already a popular activity in those days.

The Evolution of Sports Betting: What Did Bettors Bet On After the Classical Period?

From then on, it seems that sports betting never waned in popularity, but merely shifted its focus: for example, in Italy, wagers were placed on bocce (a game similar to lawn bowls); in Germany, wagers were made on skittles (the ancestor of bowling) and quoits (similar to ring toss).

It seems as though the English possessed a particular flair for creatively coming up with things to bet on. In fact, David G. Schwartz is said to have remarked “When nature or society did not present opportunities for a bet, Englishmen invented them.” In other words, the English loved to bet.

In fact, the English seemed to have never passed over any opportunities to place bets, going so far as to place wagers on archery competitions, jousts, and other competitions and displays of military skill. However, sports betting in England took a slight turn for the weird as anything and everything became fair game for betting.

In Renaissance fairs, carnivals, and festivals, a new sports betting opportunity in the form of “shin kicking” emerged. Shin kicking was, quite literally, a “sport” where carnival patrons would kick each other in the shin until one of them gave in. Spectators would then wager on who they thought would be the first to surrender.

Well, that was more painful than it was weird but the next trend in English sports betting would take the cake of weirdness. During the 18th and 19th centuries, a new trend of “competitive walking” known as “pedestrianism” became extremely popular. “Competitors” would undertake “walking feats”, such as walking over great distances or attempting to cover a certain distance over the shortest amount of time possible.

In fact, “competitors” would walk miles and miles as part of this “competitive sport”. One “competitor had walked 100 miles (160 kilometres) in 21 hours 35 minutes, and another successfully accomplished his challenge of walking a mile (1.6 kilometres) per hour for 1000 hours. Punters would then place wagers on the outcomes of these “walking feats”.

A Move Towards Organisation: How Organised Sports Influenced Sports Betting

Pedestrianism eventually died out and not long after, organised sports and sporting organisations started coming into being as a result of cultural movements that emphasised physical activity as a way of being hygienic. In fact, The Football Association started operations in 1863; the Rugby Football Union started in 1871; and Rugby League came into being in 1895.

Moreover, sporting competitions were being held at around the same time: The Open Championship — also known as the British Open — was first held in 1860, making it the oldest golf tournament in the world. Not long after, The Wimbledon would also be held in 1877, making it the oldest tournament of its respective sport: tennis.

Carrying on with this trend of being the first in sporting affairs, England is also the home of the first purpose-built motor-racing course, which was opened in 1907. This is the Brooklands in Weybridge, Surrey. With this shift to organised sports, gambling was soon to follow and bettors would bet on the outcomes of these organised competitions.

However, as anyone who’s placed a bet on any sport would know, betting on organised sports is usually done through bookmakers. For those not in the know, a bookmaker is a person or organisation that offers and accepts bets on various sports and sporting competitions. This, then, leaves us with having to uncover the origin of the bookmaker.

When Accepting Bets Became an Actual Profession: The Origin of Bookmaking

As some of you might already know, sports betting and gambling in general were largely illegal for most of history. Obviously, that never stopped gamblers in the past, most especially the nobility. In fact, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the aristocracy loved betting on horses — something which was reserved solely for them.

However, the growing popularity of the races and the sheer extravagance of some of them meant that large crowds of people were being attracted to them. So, despite the fact that these races were meant to be private competitions, they started becoming public events; as a result, the crowds that started gathering also began wagering on these races.

Thus, what was reserved exclusively for wealthy horse owners started also being enjoyed by the common folk. As the races started becoming more popular, establishment owners such as innkeepers began advertising the races. A sort of feedback loop then came into effect: the more establishment owners promoted the races, the more the organisers were encouraged to organise the races next to these establishments.

The cycle essentially fed itself, meaning that many races were held next to pubs and inns where people from all walks of life went to enjoy the races — both through spectating and through betting. As a result, the establishment owners started taking it upon themselves to accept the wagers made by these thronging punters.

However, it’s a well-known fact that gambling and alcohol don’t mix very well, and thus the British government cracked down on gambling in establishments where alcohol was served. This, then, led to the creation of betting shops, establishments specifically created by bookmakers for the accepting and arbitration of bets.

As part of their “duties”, bookmakers had to keep track of the various bets they were accepting, leading to massive bookkeeping tasks at the same time. Moreover, owing to the fact that betting was still largely unregulated and that most punters were relatively poor, betting was based on a credit system rather than through direct stakes. Thus, cash bets were quite rare.

This led to the necessity of having to make bets official, often by settling disputes and deciding on the value of the items staked. When the items staked were of unequal value, the bookmaker would declare what the difference was and a process in which the bets would be equalised was then initiated.

A player would add money over and above his bet into a cap. The involved players would then put their hands holding money into this cap and then take them out of the cap. Depending on whether they agreed or disagreed with the evaluation, the players did either of two things:

  1. Either they took their hands out still holding onto the money, which meant they agreed with the evaluation;
  2. Or else they took their hands out empty, which signalled that they disagreed with the evaluation. However, this also meant that they forfeited the money they placed in the cap.

This process also took place when the odds of a match were unequal and had to settled by the bookmaker. The process came to be known as “hand in cap”, which eventually evolved into the word “handicap”. “Handicap” then came to be a term used predominantly in horse racing, where a superior horse was to be given extra weight as a “handicap”.

Of course, as with everything else, betting continued evolving and bookmakers started offering wagers in cash as well as fixed odds on horses, rendering the “hand in cap” process superfluous. However, the Betting Act of 1853, titled ‘An Act for the Suppression of Betting Houses’, made it illegal for betting houses — along with any other place dedicated for betting — to operate.

A number of other acts would follow in 1854, 1874, and 1906; however, gambling proved to be popular nonetheless. It seems that after several decades of attempting to control gambling to no avail, lawmakers decided to regulate gambling on horse racing through the Racecourse Betting Act of 1928. This was the first in a series of acts that served to legalise and regulate gambling.

Even the French Loved to Gamble: On the Invention of Pari Mutuel Betting

Not long after the Betting Act of 1853 came into effect, a new form of sports betting was invented on the other side of the English Channel. It was between 1856–1857 that Joseph Oller, a renowned Catalan businessman, entrepreneur, and impresario, came up with the concept of pari mutuel” betting.

When he was sent to Bilbao in a fruitless attempt to get him to improve his Spanish — since, ironically enough, the principal language of Bilbao is Basque and not Spanish — he attended a lot of cock-fights. These matches were often accompanied by much betting, which Oller paid much attention to.

When he noticed that many bettors tended to get into disagreements over bets, it’s said that Oller came up with his idea for pari mutuel betting. For those that don’t know how this betting system works, it’s essentially a form of pooled betting: wagers are placed into a pool and, after a bookmaker’s commission is deducted from the pool, the winnings are distributed to all the winning bettors.

However, pari mutuel betting is different from the pool betting of the time. When Oller went back to Paris in the 1860s, a form of pool betting known as the “blind pool” was extremely popular at racecourses. With the blind pool, the winner would take the entire pool (after a bookmaker’s commission has been deducted, of course).

The whole point of the “blind” pool, however, was that bettors didn’t get to choose which horse to back. Instead, each horse had a ticket, but the matching of the horse and the ticket was completely random. Oller saw this as an opportunity for a business venture, and in 1865 opened a mobile betting office which accepted off-course wagers.

Oller’s business was an itinerary one, meaning that he went from course to course, accepting people’s bets without having to even step foot into the racecourse. At first, Oller provided the standard blind pool that was already popular; however, in 1867, he switched to pari mutuel betting, apparently due to his concerns over the legality of blind pool.

This is due to the fact that games of chance were illegal in France, and hence blind pool can truly be considered as illegal due to the fact that punters didn’t have a say on which horse to back. However, with Oller’s system, punters could choose which horse to bet on according to their knowledge of the horses’ forms, and thus could be said to have made an informed decision.

According to this line of reason, Oller’s system could be said to have been a game of skill since punters could use their knowledge to decide which horse to bet on. Needless to say, Oller’s system was extremely popular, which made Oller extremely wealthy in a mere matter of years.

In fact, by 1873, 6 years after adopting his pari mutuel system, Oller was generating revenue to the tune of 5 million francs (and over) per annum. However, his success was rather short-lived as in 1875, he was taken to court over providing gambling services and was found guilty and sentenced to 18 days in prison.

At the same time, pari mutuel betting was declared illegal. This was part of a series of crackdowns that attempted to outlaw gambling completely. In 1869, pool gambling was found to be illegal; moreover, in 1890 bookmaking was also declared illegal, and thereby banned.

However, by the turn of the century, France was beginning to loosen its tight grip on gambling regulations, starting with Act of June 15, 1907, which allowed gambling in seaside resorts and spa towns. Several other acts of legalisation followed, including the reestablishment of the National Lottery in 1933, the legalisation of slot machines in 1997, and the legalisation of online gambling in 2010.

How the Internet Changed the Face of Sports Betting: On the Introduction of Online Sportsbooks

With the creation of that wonderful thing that we call the internet, bookmakers took to the world wide web in order to provide their services. The first online sportsbook, known as “Intertops”, opened its “doors” in 1996 — incidentally, it’s still online to this very day.

The first online sports wager was placed in the same year on January 17th. The wager was placed by a bettor from Finland named Jukka Honkavaara. He had staked $50 on Tottenham Hotspur to defeat Hereford United. His wager was successful; however, he only made $2 as profit.

Despite not getting much in the way of returns, Honkavaara’s bet was arguably the most significant in the history of sports betting as it served to establish online sports betting. Not too long afterwards — that is, at the end of the 1990s — the first form of in-play betting started being offered.

Punters would communicate with bookmakers over the phone and place wagers on a match exactly as it’s progressing. Then, only a few years later, in 2002, live betting as we know it started being offered. However, prior to the implementation of live betting, Intertops went on to establish another first. In 2000, Intertops become the first mobile betting site in history.

From then on, further developments to sports betting continued to be undertaken. Many of these developments included new and interesting markets on sports, which made sports betting so much more varied than ever before. Nowadays, sports bettors are spoilt for choice as they have thousands of betting markets at their fingertips.

Why Was Sports Betting Created?

As we said before, there is something so inherently human about gambling, that sports betting must have emerged naturally in the course of human evolution. The allure of gambling is likely the result of a deep-rooted human predisposition to risk-taking, which gives people a natural high with each risk taken.

If sports betting has a long history, as we mentioned, then there must have been natural reasons for people to engage in sports betting since at the very beginning of sports betting, nobody would have known how lucrative sports betting might actually be.

Thus, we can only speculate that sports betting was created thanks to the inherent human predisposition for risk-taking.

plastic horses and fake money implying horse racing betting
Image by Gianni Crestani from Pixabay

How Did Sports Betting Become So Popular?

There are several reasons as to why sports betting became so popular, including the above-mentioned instinctual human fondness for risk-taking. The natural excitement that people enjoy when taking a bet would have surely contributed to the popularity of sports betting.

At the same time, when people place wagers on a game, it’s usually done as a way of supporting their favourite team or player; furthermore, people generally bet on their favourite sports. Thus, the natural exhilaration of risk-taking and betting is coupled with the enjoyment of watching one’s favourite team, competitor, sport, and so on.

This way, betting would have boosted the enjoyment of watching sports — and still does. Moreover, it seems that the allure of sports betting can also have been due to the fact that sports betting was seen as an easy way of making money. At the same time, this provided a form of escapism to those that hoped to win big.

It must have been the combination of all these factors that made sports betting as popular as it is today.

The Future of Sports Betting

It’s impossible to imagine the world without sports betting. If sports betting has been such a permanent custom within human history, we can safely assume that sports betting will be around for the rest of time. Moreover, we firmly believe that sports betting will continue to grow in popularity as well continue to be innovated upon.

Bookmakers are constantly coming up with new ways of betting on the same sports, which keeps sports betting fresh and varied. Furthermore, new sports are bound to be invented in the future, which means that bookmakers will have “new material” on which they can offer betting markets. We believe that these constant innovations go a long way into retaining the popularity of sports betting.

Conclusion

It all started with the creation of sports, or rather physical activities for their own sake. At some point in history after the creation of sporting activities, sports betting must have come into existence naturally, thanks to the inherent risk-taking nature of people where people are naturally inclined to take risks as a way of receiving a rush of excitement.

Afterwards, sports betting never seems to have left but merely “shifted focus”: from Olympic games, to gladiatorial matches, to horse racing and everything in between. In other words, everything was fair game for placing wagers on. Along the way, and largely thanks to governments’ efforts to impose strict restrictions on betting and gambling in general, sports betting was revolutionised a number of times.

In England, purpose-built betting shops were opened after the government banned betting in establishments where alcohol was served. This led to the “creation” of bookmakers: people that accepted bets (generally on horse races), as well as made them official and arbitrated on the value of non-cash bets.

Due to the fact that bookmakers had to act as arbiters and settle the value of bets that were made with items instead of money, the handicap was invented as a form of agreeing upon the value of wagers and odds. This eventually evolved into the handicap bet that we know today.

In France, pari mutuel betting was invented by Joseph Oller after seeing bettors get into heated disputes with each other over their bets. He implemented his system in 1867 to great success. Despite being on the receiving end of justice, pari mutuel betting continues being popular even today.

Sports betting remained caught in the turmoil of governmental efforts to restrict gambling as much as possible. However, in the 20th century, various acts were enacted in order to legalise and regulate gambling. Nowadays, numerous countries have legalised gambling and as a result, sports betting too.

Finally, with the creation of the internet, sports betting went online, with the first online sportsbook being created in 1996 and the first sports bet being placed that very same year. Not long after, in-play betting was being offered and in 2000, the world’s first mobile betting site was also created.

Afterwards, bookmakers continued being creative, offering new betting markets that require various conditions in order for punters to win their bets. This served to make sports betting much more interesting than before. Constant new markets have served to perpetuate the popularity of sports betting; however, only time will tell where sports betting will go!

In the meantime, join us on our next entry where we’ll be going into the history of another highly popular casino game!

Other Articles in Our Series It All Started With…

Curious to know more about the history of gambling? You can find out more by reading our other articles in our series It All Started With… which you can find below:

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