Even though sports events and horse racing attract the vast majority of wagers placed with bookmakers, it is by no means necessary to be a sports enthusiast to take a keen interest in betting. One can wager on just about anything that comes to mind, from whether next Christmas will be white to what year the first human will set foot on Mars. There are markets for reality television, politics, award contests, and much more, all of which fall under the category of wagers known as “novelty betting.”
An Established Tradition
Novelty betting—which is also known as “exotic betting” in some areas—can be loosely defined as “wagering on non-sporting events.” It is certainly nothing new, having been around since the first dare was ever uttered, “Put your money where your mouth is.”
During the Renaissance, traveling carnivals gave patrons the opportunity to gamble on “shin kicking.” Participants would kick each other’s shins to determine who had the greater physical prowess and ability to withstand pain. In 18th and 19th century, “pedestrianism” became popular, with participants wagering on how long it would take to walk, run or hop a certain distance. In 1789, an Irish lad won £20,000 by walking to Constantinople (Istanbul) and back in less than a year. Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, “Around the World in 80 Days,” was based upon this craze. As one professor of Gaming Studies has put it, “When nature or society did not present opportunities for a bet, Englishmen invented them.”
But the phrase “novelty betting” should not be taken to imply that such bets are somehow less serious than or subordinate to the action on sports markets. In fact, some of the biggest payouts in history have been generated by novelty betting.
In 1989, a 40-year-old night-shift worker from Newport entered his local betting shop and put down £30 on an accumulator, backing a series of events to occur before the turn of the millennium. His wager included 4-1 odds on Cliff Richard being knighted, 3-1 on U2 remaining a pop group, 5-1 on Eastenders surviving as a BBC soap opera, and two popular shows, Neighbours and Home Away, remaining on British television at 5-1 and 8-1, respectively. All five predictions came true, netting the South Wales resident a whopping £194,400 at 6,479-1 odds.
Fancy a Wager?
More recently, U.K. bookmakers have reinvigorated their business with an increasing array of novelty betting markets. Among the new favourites are bets on TV shows—who will win the X Factor, Big Brother, and Strictly Come Dancing. Political wagering has spread from the traditional U.S. Presidential and U.K. General elections to mayoral races and even whether a law will be passed in California allowing same sex marriage.
One of the leading proponents of novelty betting is paddy Power, Ireland’s biggest and most successful bookmakers. Among its many categories of “non-traditional” betting offered are Music, Hollywood, and TV Specials. Also listed are Pageants, Politics, Current Affairs, and Weather. It is possible to place a stake on who will be the next Pope or become the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Or how about a few quid on the world’s next volcano to erupt?
Those who follow celebrities can bet on markets relating to their weight gain, divorces, rehab, and even their life expectancy. Some tabloid columnists now quote the bookmakers’ odds as a reference when writing about a star’s behaviour. When Katie Price married Peter Andre in 2005, bookmakers gave short odds on the marriage lasting less than a year, and punters made off with bundles as the couple stayed together till mid- 2009.
Even Harry Potter has been a subject of novelty betting. In 2006, betting was heavy on which character would be killed off in the last book of the J.K. Rowling book series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Potter himself was favoured at 4/5 odds, but when a newspaper reported a pre-publication copy of novel had been stolen, bookmakers had to withdraw their markets. The one thing novelty betting does not cover is any market that can be manipulated.