(Bloomberg) -- Two years ago, after Buzzfeed and the BBC reported widespread match fixing in tennis, the sport’s governing bodies created an independent panel to review the problem. Last week, that panel came back with a report of rampant corruption in the lower levels of tennis.
The three-lawyer panel also identified a culprit -- a data deal that makes results from low-level matches instantly available to betting markets -- and suggested that the $70 million partnership between the International Tennis Federation and global data firm Sportradar be dissolved immediately.
The report’s recommendation has consequences for the U.S., where the Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the prohibition on sports betting. In anticipation of the court’s decision, legislators are debating whether to offer sports betting and, if so, how to structure any laws to minimize corruption.
Official data -- like that in Sportradar’s tennis deal -- feature prominently in those discussions. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have argued that bookmakers should be required to use official data feeds. They also want a say in the types of bets offered. Both measures, they say, would limit gambling on games or events they consider at higher risk for corruption.
Their arguments parallel the tennis report, which found the sport’s smallest events more corruptible: players and referees earn less, and there’s less oversight in general. By restricting the official data feeds to lower-level contests, the governing bodies say, they can discourage betting on these vulnerable events.
Sportradar, in its current deal, pays the ITF for its official data and sells it to bookmakers around the world. The Swiss company offers data for some 60,000 of those lower-level matches each year -- precisely the events that see a disproportionate amount of tampering. The panel reported that match fixing was “particularly acute and pervasive” in tournaments that have minor prize purses of $15,000 or $25,000 and limited monitoring of betting patterns. (As of this year, Sportradar now also provides monitoring services for ITF events.)
The report says the Sportradar deal, which was signed in 2012 and extended in 2015 at six times its initial price, sparked the corruption. In the two years prior to the initial agreement, only three ITF events raised red flags for corruption. By 2016, one year after the $70 million extension was signed, that number had jumped to 240 events. (It was 185 last year.) Both the increase in the price of the rights and in suspicious incidents coincided with the rise of online and mobile gaming, which has led to a rapid rise in gambling on sports at all levels.
Sportradar has defended the agreement and disagreed with many of the report’s conclusions. “Prohibiting data partnerships will not stop betting, live or otherwise, on these matches nor will it remove corruption risk at this level,” the company said. “Pre-match betting will remain available; unofficial data will be collected; generally available match statistics can be used by betting operators anyway; the risk of data fraud and ghost matches will increase; and there will be no clear contractual basis by which operators will be bound to reporting and transparency requirements. This will almost certainly encourage black market activity.”
Tom Russell, Director of Legal and Regulatory Affairs for Sportradar’s biggest competitor, Genius Sports, said data partners and league control is critical. Without it, “effectively it’s a free-for-all where anybody can get data and offer betting markets,” he said.
Sportradar called the prospect of terminating its deal early “unrealistic” and “potentially unlawful.”
Regardless of the level of play, if people want to gamble, someone will offer to be the book, said Declan Hill, an expert on betting corruption. “Sixth-level soccer games in Estonia and Lithuania are being gambled on. Gaelic Highland caber tossing ... They are running books on almost every conceivable sport down to almost inconceivable levels,” Hill said. “North American sports have very late in the game woken up.”
U.S. lawmakers are quickly catching up. At some point before the end of June, the Supreme Court will rule on New Jersey’s attempt to offer sports betting, and if New Jersey wins, the country’s sports betting laws will get cobbled together state by state, at least at first.
U.S. leagues, particularly the NBA and MLB, have spent the last few months touring statehouses lobbying for their preferred gambling framework, including the requirement that sports books use official data. There’s also a discussion about who will monitor U.S. betting patterns to spot suspicious activity.
In 2008 the ITF, along with the Association of Tennis Professionals, the Women’s Tennis Association and the Grand Slam Board, formed the Tennis Integrity Unit as an independent body to monitor corruption in all levels of pro tennis. Tampering is not unheard of in team sports, but tennis is unusually vulnerable to match fixing. It’s a solo sport, and in-game betting means a player can intentionally throw a game and not dramatically hurt his chances to win the match. Suspicious alerts happen as high as Grand Slam matches, and the report finds that midlevel contests actually have more than double the rate of integrity alerts than the lowest rungs. (IMG has the data rights to most of those midtier matches and is barely mentioned in the report.)
In the U.S. some believe national enforcement efforts are warranted, especially because several jurisdictions may need to work together to monitor and investigate fraud. “This is why having a collaborative model, instead of just one data provider and just one integrity monitor is optimal,” said Jake Marsh, head of integrity operations at U.K.-based Perform Group. “Otherwise you will end up with silos.”
The panel’s other recommendations called for empowering the TIU and its partners to have more oversight as well as eliminating betting sponsorships, which are a major source of revenue for sports leagues around the world. The group will now accept feedback from relevant parties within the tennis world, and release a binding set of recommendations later this year.
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