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Burning question: Do bookies know something about MasterChef that we don't?

Culture

There’s a funny smell around Australia’s favourite cooking show and it has to do with betting on the outcome. Kishor Napier-Raman reports

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If you’re hooked on MasterChef, look away now. It’s down to the pointy end of the season, and betting sites are pointing to a clear winner.

At just $1.37 on Sportsbet, Emelia Jackson has pulled away as the favourite to take out the crown. She’s got similarly strong odds on TAB, PointsBet and Neds.

Something is not quite right.

In one of the best-rating television programs currently screening, Jackson has been the firm favourite for over a month, even while commentators were describing her as a “dark horse”, and expressing bafflement at her favour from the betting markets.

The tabloids were pointing at Reynold Poernomo (currently the second-favourite), as the likely winner.

And at the same time, the spread between Jackson and the contestants with the weakest odds (Callum Hann or Tessa Boersma depending on who you ask) is incredibly wide, for a show where every remaining contestant, in theory, has a good shot at taking out the prize.

Are those odds a bit too good to be true? They might well be — MasterChef was filmed before it went to air, which means there are plenty of people in the know who could be betting on the eventual winner.

Are the Masterchef odds being rigged by insiders?

Here’s what we know.

Tabloid Instagram muckraking suggests that Jackson will be joined in the top four by Poernomo, Laura Sharrad, and Poh Ling Yeow. That’s based on looking at when contestants posted Instagram stories about returning home from filming.

But odds on Sportsbet and TAB put Ling Yeow well out of contention. And while Instagram stories can shed light on who will be there at the very end, they don’t explain why Jackson’s odds are so good.

We also know that because the show is pre-recorded, there would be plenty of people who already know the outcome.

Neither Network Ten nor producers Endemol Shine responded to detailed questions about how many people might know the MasterChef winner, or whether they had concerns about insiders betting on the show.

But amid the army of production staff and film crew, there’s plenty of room for news of the eventual winner to spread.

Some of that information has trickled down to the everyday punters.

Posters on social media frequently claim to know the true winner. And Wikipedia edits from last weekend showed Khanh Ong’s elimination was forward-sizzled on the website well before the episode aired, causing outrage on Reddit.

It’s also worth looking at the odds of eliminated contestants. Neither Ong nor Sarah Tiong, the last two contestants booted off the show had the weakest odds. Simon Toohey, eliminated on June 7 had the worst odds at the time.

Why would anyone bet on MasterChef?

Whether or not Jackson’s odds have been swayed by insiders, the whole episode points to challenges in the growing, grey area of novelty betting that ha anti-gambling campaigners concerned.

“If there is insider knowledge, then this is no different to insider trading or loaded dice,” Alliance for Gambling Reform executive director Tony Mohr told Crikey.

It isn’t just Masterchef either.

Betting companies offer odds on other reality-TV shows such as Love Island, Married at First Sight and The Bachelor.

And as coronavirus turned off live sports, novelty betting markets grew in size and absurdity. In April, you could place a bet on what colour tie Scott Morrison would wear during a press conference. Sportsbet was sharply rebuked by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission for letting people bet on the Australian Securities Exchange.

This week, UK company Betway stopped offering odds on football transfers, partially because of concerns about inside information.

Mohr described this growth in novelty markets as “exploitative and dangerous”.

“The gambling industry has shown how desperate it is to exploit people during COVID-19 by offering all sorts of exotic markets,” he said.

But gambling companies say they follow relevant regulations to mitigate risks to punters betting on markets like Masterchef.

“The integrity of our betting markets is paramount for us and we actively monitor for unusual betting patterns that can indicate inappropriate betting behaviour,” a TabCorp spokesperson told Crikey.

Both TAB and Sportsbet put in place lower betting limits for bets on markets where the outcome has already been decided.

But how strong is the regulation of novelty betting?

Sportsbet told Crikey it complied with guidelines put in place by the Northern Territory Racing Commission’s Novelty Market Guidelines. (Many betting companies in Australia are registered in the NT because of a favourable tax and regulatory environment.)

Those guidelines, which run to two pages, make no real mention of a novelty market like Masterchef, beyond putting in place a $500 limit for bets on reality TV shows. There’s nothing in the guidelines about cracking down on insider betting.

So while insiders betting on Jackson might not be making life-changing amounts of money by taking a punt, this Masterchef episode leaves a bitter taste.

This article was first published in Crikey

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