When Wimbledon Spectators Were Served Up Ace Betting Shop
FORTY YEARS ago, bookmakers William Hill made an announcement which rocked the sporting world - confirming that the company had signed up to operate a betting marquee on-site at the All England Club, during the course of the 1975 Wimbledon Championships.
This was the first, and remains the only, time that such a facility was ever provided at the world's most prestigious tournament. It was also the first time an on-course betting facility was made available at any major sporting event.
It was not universally welcomed: 'I will attempt to get a rule passed that will forbid any of our players betting on individual matches' declared leading player and president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, Arthur Ashe. 'If betting comes in and spreads, the opportunity for a little hanky-panky would be limitless.'
Players were indeed banned from visiting the betting shop marquee, which was duly installed right at the heart of the action on what was known as the 'Strawberry Lawn', surrounded by other spectator-magnet venues offering refreshments and products of all types.
Recalled Hill's Media Relations Director, Graham Sharpe, who attended the tournament and worked in the betting marquee, 'We employed the British Number 3 player of the day, Buster Mottram, just 20 years old, to advise our slightly older tennis (also golf and football specialist) odds compiler, Tommy Graham.
I fear Mr Ashe may not have been aware of what his members were already up to when it came to placing bets: - 'At Wimbledon I would bet on myself in each round' confessed Jimmy Connors in his recent autobiography, The Outsider. 'Every year. The local bookmakers knew me well.''
The media had a field day covering the activity in the betting marquee. It became such a media sensation- front and back page news in the national press - that the most popular cartoonist of the day, the Daily Express's legendary Giles, produced a Wimbledon betting-related cartoon with the caption showing a group of ladies, one clutching a pair of binoculars and telling the others, 'There goes my 7/4 bet - according to that tic-tac man my player has just belted a linesman.'
Staff drafted in to work there, headed up by John Reynolds, manager of Hill's busy Shepherd's Market branch in central London, were permanently busy, fending off tv cameras and reporters to grab the bets being thrust towards them.The shop was thronged with spectators placing bets on the games they were about to watch.
However, when William Hill sat down later in the year with Wimbledon officials to discuss continuing the relationship, something seemed to have changed, recalled Sharpe:
'Not only were we not offered the same site for our facility - they now wanted us located out in the general area of the toilet facilities, if I remember correctly, and the price had dramatically increased exponentially.
The general feeling was that even had we agreed to pay up and accept the new position they would have come up with another obstacle. So we agreed to disagree and the tournament has never since offered spectators such a popular and appreciated service again.'
And it should also be recorded that the 1975 Wimbledon ended profitably for William Hill as, irony of ironies, their arch-critic Arthur Ashe ran out a four set winner against red-hot favourite and regular punter, Jimmy Connors!
'To his own frustration, I'm sure, Arthur Ashe's delight at winning the tournament was matched by our own delight that he had saved us a huge payout to backers of the popular Jimmy Connors'.