Euro 96 nets pounds 80m as punters spread wings

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Work was the last thing on most people's minds at 7.30 last night but in the betting business it was far and away the busiest evening yet in a frenetic summer of sport.

Bookmaking giant Ladbroke said last night that punters had wagered more than pounds 80m on Euro 96 so far, making it Britain's biggest betting event.

The bets easily outstripped the pounds 65m put on the Grand National each year with one punter betting a staggering pounds 20,000 on an England victory at odds of 2 to 1

For traders at Sporting Index, the spread-betting specialists, it was chaotic business-as-usual trading on their Kennington trading floor. The rich combination of sporting events this year, and the expansion of live television coverage, has been a bonanza for the mushrooming world of sprea- betting.

Spread-betting has become one of the boom leisure activities of the 1990s with Sporting Index alone taking 15,000 bets a week, 10 times the level of the whole industry just four years ago.

Born on the trading floors of the City, where rivals IG Index and City Index still do much of their business, Sporting Index has taken the concept to other gamblers and believes fewer than a quarter of its customers now work in the Square Mile.

William Hill has a spread-betting operation and Ladbroke plans to launch in November, a move welcomed by Sporting Index's Lindsay McNeile, who is happy for the betting giants to take on the expense of educating non- City punters in the intricacies of betting on a spread.

For anyone who has bought or sold a share, the idea is simple enough.

For any given event, Sporting Index's traders will offer a buy and sell price which means that unlike with a fixed-odds bet at a bookie, a punter can gamble on an outcome being either better or worse than the market- maker forecasts.

They either buy the bet at the higher price in anticipation of a better outcome or sell at the lower if they think that Sporting Index has over- estimated.

Before last night's game, for example, a spread of 43-46 was being offered on the timing to the nearest minute of the first goal. That meant that Shearer's early strike for England was a windfall for anyone who had sold at 43.

Sadly for the punter, and to the delight of the Sporting Index traders last night, most peopele expected a tight game with a late goal and so bought at 46. Within seconds of the game starting Sporting Index was pounds 7,000 up.

The beauty of spread-betting is that it can be applied to almost any sport.

Traders can offer a bewildering range of bets and punters can take a view on something not happening just as easily as on it actually taking place and change their bets or close out a position as events unfold.

Thanks to its roots in the City, spread-betting is regulated by the Securities and Futures Authority, which keeps close tabs on what is a highly volatile and risky form of gambling.

Some bets, for example on the number of runs a cricket team will score, are in theory open-ended and huge amounts can be won or lost.