The 1970s will be remembered for many things: disco music, bell-bottom trousers, Space Invaders, and, of course, the sight of families crouched around the kitchen table attempting to determine the position of a football. Okay, so Spot The Ball competitions may not have been quite so far-reaching as the Bee Gees or classic Atari Video games, but in the UK, they were a pretty big deal. So big in fact that around three million players used to take part every week.
Fast forward to the turn of the 21st Century, and the number of regular ball spotters had diminished to around 14,000. However, the game still exists and has been making something of a comeback in recent years. Here we explain how Spot The Ball works, and we’ll take a look at the history of the game, its fall from grace, and the recent versions behind the mini resurgence.
How Does Spot the Ball Work?
The premise behind the game is simple. Take a still photo from a football game, airbrush the ball out of the picture, and challenge players to correctly guess where the ball was by placing a small cross on the picture. It sounds relatively straightforward, which was part of the attraction to all those millions of players. However, identifying the ball’s location was rarely an easy task.
The photographs selected for the game were invariably tough to unravel, with players jumping with their eyes closed, looking in different directions, falling over, and so on. If you could place that little cross anywhere in the vicinity of the ball, you were doing pretty well.
What made the game all the more challenging was the fact that you needed a precise hit to claim the top prize. A cross merely touching the ball wouldn’t do. To bag the riches on offer, the centre of your cross needed to exactly align with the centre of the ball. Which suddenly makes it sound pretty difficult – and it was.
It was difficult, but popular nonetheless, with legions of fans drawn in by the small-stake, big-win style of competition, which rarely fails to capture the imagination of the public. You just need to turn to the National Lottery to see how popular that kind of game can become (more of which later).
The Birth of Spot the Ball
The game was introduced to the masses by the same company that introduced the other 20th-century betting behemoth – the Football Pools. The Littlewood Football Pool began in Manchester in 1923 as a joint venture between John Moores, Colin Askham, and Bill Hughes. A flop to begin with, Askham and Hughes soon sold their share in the business to Moores. A regrettable decision no doubt, as by 1930, Moores was a Pools-made millionaire.
Not ones to rest on their laurels, Littlewoods added several new bet types over the years – the most famous of which was the Treble Chance which made its debut in 1946. 1973 is the year credited as the birth of the Spot The Ball competition, although examples of the game exist from as long ago as 1930. Whatever the exact date, it was during the 1970s that the game exploded in popularity, as players studied the photos hoping to bag the top prize of £250,000.
As with most success stories, wherever there are innovators, imitators will soon follow. Sure enough, a number of similarly named competitions, e.g. Find The Ball, began to appear in newspapers and other publications up and down the land, offering prizes ranging from expensive watches to cars and houses.
Why Did the Game Decline in Popularity?
As with its big brother of the football pools, the hammer blow for Spot The Ball came in 1994 as the National Lottery made its debut, with the game simply unable to compete with the scale of the prizes on offer in the new numbers game.
One look at the figures, and it’s not hard to see why. Whilst the Spot The Ball jackpot was fixed at £250,000 and never rolled over, the top prizes in the National Lottery began in the millions and became even more impressive following a rollover or two. Bigger prizes make for more media attention and word-of-mouth advertising, creating more sales, leading to bigger prizes and so on, creating a cycle which relegated Spot The Ball to the betting backwaters.
Despite the rapid drop-off in numbers, the game continued to exist in the shadow of the National Lottery. With fewer players, jackpot wins became rarer and rarer, with the most recent coming in 2004 when a grandmother by the name of Irene Robertson claimed the top prize. Nevertheless, over £16 million in prizes were distributed between 2004 and 2019.
Fast forward to 2023, and a visit to the current version of “The Pools” at thepools.com reveals no sign of Spot The Ball. However, the game isn’t dead and buried quite yet, with a number of other companies taking up the mantle.
Spot the Ball in the Modern Era
Here we take a brief look at what’s available to modern-day fans of spot the ball.
BOTB.com was launched by William Hindmarch in 1999 and is still going strong in 2023. The site features various ticketing options – beginning at just 90p – and offers prizes of luxury cars, cash, or some combination of the two, in addition to a range of runners-up prizes for those whose guess falls within a certain distance of the ball.
The year 2020 won’t be remembered fondly for many things, but it did provide a shot in the arm for the ailing Spot The Ball format. With so many people spending so much time at home twiddling their thumbs, the Kent-based firm, Balls Out, deemed the time was right to reintroduce the smash hit 1970s game to the masses.
Offering a selection of staking options, ranging from 25p to £50, and dishing out cash prizes of up to £25,000, in addition to luxury watches, holidays, and lifestyle experiences, this thoroughly modern version of the historic game has quickly gained a cult following online.
Let the Panel Decide
One interesting quirk of the modern Spot The Ball – and many previous versions – is that players are not guessing where the ball actually was in the photo in question, but rather where somebody else thinks it was. That might sound a bit odd, and it is really, but it all works as follows.
The matchday photos are taken as normal, although usually from low-key Irish Amateur games – presumably to discourage cheating in the digital age. The photo, minus the ball, is then presented to a panel of “experts”, who must then determine where they think the ball would be. This “expertly chosen” position is then used to determine the winning entries. Doesn’t sound like too difficult a job, and some pretty big names have taken to the task, with Terry Butcher and Ossie Ardiles amongst those to feature on the Balls Out panel.
It’s Definitely Not Betting … It’s a Prize Competition
Why do they use this unusual method of determining the ball’s location? It all comes down to the possible categorisations of a Spot The Ball competition. There are four possible categories into which this type of game may fall – three of which require an expensive operating licence of some description and one which does not. The four categories are as follows:
- Betting – An example would be a Spot The Ball game where several possible ball locations are labelled on the photo, and the player is required to guess which one is correct. This requires an operating licence.
- A Game of Chance – That is to say, there is no skill element involved. This requires an operating licence.
- A Lottery – Does not require sufficient skill and is mainly down to luck. Lotteries can only take place for the benefit of good causes with no commercial or private gain. This requires an operating licence.
- A Prize Competition – As defined on the Gambling Commission website, “If a panel of judges decide the position of the ball and players have to apply judgement, skill or knowledge to match their own decision of where the ball is with that of the panel, it is more likely to be a prize competition than a lottery.” This does not require a licence. Step forward, Terry Butcher.
Given the above categorisations, it is no surprise that Spot the Ball providers have opted to employ a panel of judges rather than shell out for an Operating Licence. Studying the photograph, whilst attempting to read the minds of others doing the same, certainly adds an interesting twist on what is a classic British game.