It may not be the world’s oldest profession, but taking bets on a sporting contest must be in the top three. And, where there’s betting and money, corruption is never far away.
Sadly, it may now have reached a high-water mark, with a long-awaited report into corruption and match-fixing in tennis speaking of a “tsunami” affecting lower-level tennis events.
The report, which cost nearly £20m ($28m), came after an Independent Review Panel (IRP) spoke to more than 100 payers and surveyed more than 3,200 professionals over a two-year period. However, it found no evidence of a cover-up by either the sport’s governing body or the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU); nor did it find any evidence of corruption at the top levels of the sport.
Of the 3,200 tennis professionals surveyed, 464 said they had first-hand knowledge of match-fixing, with Adam Lewis QC, who led the IRP, describing lower-level tournaments as “a fertile breeding ground for betting breaches.”
The report found that, from 2009 to 2017, men’s matches were responsible for 83% of the games where fixing was suspected. The report’s authors were told of a “match-fixing season” from October to the end of the year, when two or three games a day were fixed in International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments.
Why are matches fixed?
Simply put, not every tennis player is Andy Murray or Caroline Wozniacki. There are nominally 15,000 tennis professionals in the world, but perhaps only the top 350 men and 250 women are making enough money to break even, once coaching, travel, and all the associated costs are taken into account. As Lewis said, “It is a small step for a player who already intends to lose to inform others, so they can place a bet.”
To put it bluntly, a low-ranked player who knows he will not progress much further in a tournament can make more money from betting on himself to lose than he can by winning and then being knocked out in the next round.
What’s happening in Uzbekistan?
There are tennis tournaments going on all the time, all over the world. As I write this article, I have opened the home page of Bet365. There’s a tennis match going on in Uzbekistan; the tournament is described as the ITF Uzbekistan F2, so you must assume it is one of the “lower-ranked tournaments” mentioned in the report.
The current match is between Sanjar Fayziev and Konstantin Kravchuk. Right now, Kravchuk is leading by a set to nil and is the 2/9 favorite to win. Fayziev is available at 3/1.
The 33-year-old Kravchuk is ranked 355th in the world. Sanjar Fayziev is ranked even lower, at 390. So this is not a match between two of the world’s superstars: neither player is going to have people queuing to get into Wimbledon. Based on the figures above, you would assume that both players are right on the cusp of making a good living from tennis.
Not for one minute am I suggesting there is anything untoward going on in this match. I am sure that both Kravchuk and Fayziev are totally honest. But what the game does illustrate is the plethora of betting opportunities in tennis. According to the report, about 60,000 matches were available to the betting market, up from 40,000 in 2013 and roughly six times the number of horse races there are each year in the UK.
Even though the sport’s governing body says every match is scrupulously monitored, and despite the fact that the sports betting companies are always watching for suspicious betting patterns, the simple fact is that there is so much tennis being played that monitoring every game must be virtually impossible.
Yet the sports betting companies are queuing up. To get market share, new companies are going to have to accept bets wherever they can, including low-level tennis tournaments in far-off lands.
Italy’s gambling regulator recently received 70 applications to operate in the country. Add in countries in Eastern Europe that are offering tax concessions to attract sports betting companies, and it appears that there is no shortage of potential companies, or countries willing to offer them a home.
Data integrity vs. player integrity
But there is one final point: We wrote yesterday about the potential roll-out of legalized sports betting in the USA and the fact that this has prompted the NBA and MLB (supported by the English Premier League) to advocate charging the sports betting companies a fee for using the leagues’ data – the so-called “integrity fee”.
In principle, you can see the argument for it: The sports betting companies make money from the data, so it is only right that they pay a fee for that data and the fact that the data can be relied on.
But the integrity of the data is nothing without the integrity of the players and betting will always offer the potential for corruption, at whatever level the sport is being played. Whether it is tennis or any other sport, if the governing body cannot guarantee the integrity of the players, then the integrity of the data is worthless.