FA accused of ‘double standard’ in allowing club owners to bet on football while banning players

<span>Photograph: Nick Potts/PA</span>
Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

The Football Association is facing claims of double standards after a Guardian investigation revealed that the owner of a Premier League club may have benefited from bets on the game placed in his own name.

The disclosures involve Matthew Benham, the owner of the Premier League club Brentford FC, whose star striker, Ivan Toney, is serving an eight-month suspension for breaking the FA’s strict gambling rules.

Benham is one of a select few multimillionaire club owners who enjoy an opaque arrangement with the FA that allows them to be involved in betting. The Guardian has seen evidence that appears to show that Benham has made money from bets on football placed in his own name, via a UK-based gambling syndicate called MSPP Admin. Benham said he abides by all FA betting rules.

The governing body prohibits anyone involved in football from betting on any match, anywhere in the world, under laws designed to protect the integrity of the sport, resulting in tough penalties for footballers, including the England striker Toney.

The FA is now facing calls to reveal the full terms of its deal with the owners, which has been in place for a decade. Other proprietors that the FA allows to run a betting business while owning a football club include the Coates family behind Bet365 and Stoke City, and the Brighton owner Tony Bloom. There is no suggestion that any of them have benefited from bets placed in their own name.

The association, which oversees all football in England, has consistently refused to give full details of exemptions given to some football club owners but has said that anyone with a “significant interest” in a football club must not be “directly involved” in activity such as setting odds or placing bets.

Information seen by the Guardian raises questions about the nature of Benham’s involvement in football bets.

Benham is the majority funder and beneficiary of MSPP Admin, a tiny, London-based company that bets in the UK and in Hong Kong, where it does so via private counterparties – people willing to take the other side of a bet.

Such syndicates pool money invested by multiple bettors and adopt a unified betting strategy to maximise returns. MSPP Admin is understood to have placed bets on behalf of Benham and other unnamed individuals.

The chair of the west London club, Cliff Crown, is listed as one of two co-owners of MSPP Admin, along with the former Brentford director and longtime Benham friend and business associate Philip Whall.

According to evidence seen by the Guardian, some of the wagers are placed in Benham’s own name.

Separate evidence seen by the Guardian shows that MSPP Admin placed frequent bets on football matches around the world in its own company name, some as recently as autumn 2022. None was on matches in the UK.

Typically, MSPP Admin bets via exchanges, companies that charge a fee to match someone placing a bet with someone else happy to take the other side of it.

The FA is understood to have made inquiries about whether Benham placed bets in his name within the UK. However, there is no suggestion that the syndicate has bet on Brentford, the Premier League or competitions in which the club is involved.

A spokesperson for Benham said: “Matthew Benham, alongside other club owners who have a financial interest in a betting company, is subject to an FA policy which, if abided by, ensures that their betting companies may continue to bet on football.

“In particular, those the policy applies to must not, among other things, have any direct involvement in setting odds or placing bets on football or pass on any inside information. This policy has been in place for almost a decade.

“Matthew fully complies with this FA policy. He abides by all its conditions and restrictions and is also subject to regular third-party audits to confirm compliance.”

The spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether Benham had profited from bets placed in his own name, nor how this would comply with the FA’s requirement on direct involvement.

The FA updated its betting rules in 2014 to strengthen a regime designed to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of the game. It drew up a policy specifically designed for gambling bosses who own football clubs but has repeatedly refused to publish this policy.

The FA has indicated that “stakeholders” such as leagues and club owners are the only people that need to see the whole document.

Clive Betts MP, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on football, warned of a double standard in the betting rules and questioned the secrecy surrounding the policy.

“It seems contradictory and very unfair if footballers are being pursued, in many cases quite rightly, but owners who are in a more senior position get away with what appears to be similar activity,” he said. “Transparency is the essence of this. Stakeholders in football are the supporters and they need to know what’s going on.

“The FA has to come clean and tell us what the rules are. If people are complying with the rules, we need to see what the rules are that they’re complying with. I can’t begin to understand why the FA don’t release it [the policy].”

Nick De Marco, a leading sports lawyer who represented Toney over the Brentford striker’s own gambling ban, called on the FA to be transparent about its position on football bosses’ betting.

“It’s been reported for some years now that the FA has an ‘unpublished policy’ exempting certain individuals from their betting rules,” he said.

“I believe it is difficult to justify keeping such a policy secret, assuming it exists, when the FA regularly charges and bans players and others in football for betting in the name of ‘integrity’. Transparency and integrity would suggest that any such policy ought to be published.”

In 2018, the FA lost a battle against the then Bournemouth owner Maxim Demin, after attempting to charge him with multiple counts of breaching betting rules.

Demin’s lawyers successfully argued that he was not subject to the rules because he did not have a role in the club’s day-to-day operations.

However, the FA is understood to have strengthened its guidelines since then to ensure that club owners are covered, even if they do not have an operational role.

Brentford FC’s website describes Benham as having a “significant interest” in the club, the same designation that the FA says governs its betting rules.

A spokesperson for the FA said: “We have a stringent policy in place for any participant who has a significant interest in both a football club and a betting company, which has been approved by the Football Regulatory Authority.

“The policy includes a set of strict conditions and reporting obligations, and expressly prohibits these individuals from having any personal involvement in, or passing on of information related to, the setting of odds, the determining of markets, or the selection or placing of individual bets on football.

“We will always take the appropriate disciplinary action if these rules are breached.”

Football and betting have developed ever closer ties over the past two decades, fuelled by the legalisation of gambling advertising, the rise of the smartphone and the increase in the number of televised games.

That has allowed the game to attract a flood of cash from sponsors, as well as investment from entrepreneurs who have profited from the explosion in online gambling.

Benham previously worked for Tony Bloom, before carving his own path in the world of data-based sports gambling.

The pair reportedly fell out but have each ended up steering their clubs to the Premier League after years in the wilderness, using a data-led approach that is now being adopted by more established and wealthier clubs.

Benham’s business acumen in the statistics and gambling world has allowed him to amass a personal fortune believed to exceed £150m. He is the founder and majority owner of Smartodds, which uses cutting-edge statistical models that clients can use to inform sports betting.

One such client is MSPP Admin, the syndicate of which Benham is the majority member.

Wealth acquired chiefly through betting allowed Benham to buy Brentford in 2012 and fund the club’s rise to the Premier League in 2021, often deploying sophisticated data analysis to steal a march on richer clubs.

In 2014, he also became the majority shareholder of the Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland.

Requests for comment to Crown and Whall sent via Brentford FC were not returned.