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Tackling betting corruption is no easy fix

Bent games are rare and difficult to detect, but tennis is trying to address problems from the bottom up, and football should take heed.


This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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Looking at betting patterns you often get a sense of it and I have personally left a few games greatly concerned that what I have seen was rigged.

Tennis provides a “fertile breeding ground” for breaches of integrity and is engulfed in a “tsunami” of betting-related corruption at some lower levels, due to online gambling.

That is the primary lesson to be taken from an independent review of the sport. And it is a report that should be followed with interest by those involved in football.

The Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis, set up in February 2016, claims tennis faces a “serious integrity problem”, particularly at the lower levels of the sport where players often struggle to break even due to the associated costs of competing. And that is especially so on the men’s circuits.

This should chime with the experience in football – a sport which is crying out for some form of income redistribution between the gilded cage elite level and the hand to mouth part-time game, that nonetheless draws its players from the same professional pool.

Among the tennis review’s most eye-catching recommendations is a call for the restructuring of the professional game and a significant reduction in tournaments deemed ‘professional’, in which players end up out of pocket due to the cost of competing. It stands to reason that this makes players “vulnerable to breaches of integrity” as they seek to make ends meet.

And just as in football, horse-racing and in cricket, it is the lack of a sustainable earnings model for too many people involved in the sport that is the elephant in the room. This is an issue that must be addressed if the authorities are serious about promoting healthy competition.

Led by Adam Lewis QC, the panel was set up in January 2016 after a BBC and BuzzFeed News investigation uncovered suspected illegal betting on tennis.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation concerns the number of players struggling to make a living from professional tennis.

Lewis’ report confirms: “Only the top 250 females and 350 male players are making enough money to break even before coaching costs, yet there are 15,000 nominally professional players.

“It’s a small step for a player who already intends to lose for other reasons to then bet or inform others of his or her intentions so as to make enough money to continue playing.”

He also said the number of alerts to suspicious matches had risen from three in 2012 – the year the International Tennis Federation first sold live scoring data –  to 240 in 2016.

The panel also found “evidence of some issues” at Grand Slams and tour events, although it did not uncover evidence of a widespread problem at those higher levels.

However, it did claim ‘tanking’ – players seemingly giving up during matches – which has been a feature at some high-profile tournaments, has been too often tolerated by the tennis authorities.

But what does this betting tsunami mean for fans and punters?

This is a really interesting question and the choice of terminology is apposite, even if it stretches the bounds of taste  – given the devastation of the infamous 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed 230,000 people and made 1.7 million people homeless in South East Asia. The level of devastation was horrific and clearly not at all comparable to levels of betting corruption or their impact.

But just as a tsunami is a rare event in nature, it is a rare enough event in its betting form to be broadly statistically irrelevant over the piece. Despite the shadow it casts.

This is because fixes by necessity have to be infrequent. For a swindle to work it has to go undetected. And the best way to do that is to strike hard with a rare fix rather than look for small gains from multiple, regular fixes.

That fact should broadly reassure the casual punter. Even if there’s bullets flying around with your name on them they are are few and far between, by necessity.

As I understand it there’s been a long-term problem in some live sports, specifically tennis and horse-racing, with punters situated at events able to exploit a tiny delay between feeds of live pictures and live events unfolding in running on the betting exchanges. But this loophole is likely closed. I haven’t heard it mentioned recently.

As an observation generally, all individual sports with betting are open to manipulation because one person is in control of all outputs.

Snooker, golf, tennis and boxing are four that spring to mind as vulnerable immediately and cricket is a series of individual contests, contextualised within a team game. If you wanted a negative outcome from a specific bowler or batsman it could be easily contrived.

Relative to a skilled punter’s typical turnover of bets then 1-2 occasions where you might in theory catch a bullet won’t leave a dent that would stop you betting in what is broadly a straight endeavour.

Bet365, to name just one bookmaker, stream 140,000 live events a year, a tiny number relative to the full gamut of their betting provision that must stretch into millions of unique games, matches, tournaments, races and multiple millions of individual markets within those events. Even a so-called bent bets tsunami wouldn’t register over-much when set against those numbers.

But cards on the table here. Most punters lose because they have too many bets, because they lack emotional and organisational discipline and because they fundamentally don’t understand the nature of the endeavour they’re involved in and what it takes to win over the long haul. In that context worrying about fixed games is like tears in rain.

Yes, I believe games are fixed, from time to time. But probably not as often as conspiracy theorists assume.

Yes, I believe games are fixed, from time to time. But probably not as often as conspiracy theorists assume.

This is especially the case in games (football) where there’s little at stake and where the participants are poorly paid and disaffected. The temptation must be great in this context, especially where players’ careers have taken a dive from initially fairly lofty heights.

And I welcome the tennis solution of trying to make it financially unattractive (or indeed unnecessary) to throw games by improving payments and prize money. And that is the fundamental root of match-fixing as far as I can see – the fundamental income inequality between the top of the game and every other level below.

It must be very tempting for part-time players to commit a ‘minor offence’ to make ends meet, pay off the Christmas costs or subsidise a summer without earnings. That’s just the way it is.

Looking at betting patterns you often get a sense of it and I have personally left a few games greatly concerned that what I have seen was rigged. I have also been contacted by odds compilers asking for information regarding games or individuals whose account activity has been flagged as suspicious.

But that’s literally one or two games, added to an unfounded anecdotal suggestion of others (a handful over a decade). It is wrong and it is heartbreaking to witness. But those numbers are virtually nothing in the grand scheme of things.

I have also heard that match-fixing is now happening at the highest level and there were jungle drum murmurings that there were rigged games at the 2014 World Cup, Cameroon v Croatia (0-4) and Algeria’s second group game against South Korea (4-2).

The problem is that ineptitude often looks like corruption if you choose to see it that way. And a fix on goals or a match result would be impossible to catch without supporting betting market evidence, gained from a source that truly understands the genesis of specific real-time betting activity.

Even Liverpool v Roma in the Champions League semi-final first leg played out like a bent game, with the Italian coach Eusebio Di Francesco starting the game with a suicidal selection for the tactical solution he’d enacted, and he maintained it despite all the evidence suggesting he should change things. But no-one thinks the game was crooked and rightly so. Roma’s game solution was ‘criminal’ but it wasn’t corrupt.

Back to the World Cup 2014 example, the betting patterns on the game between Croatia and Cameroon apparently saw a big late surge of money, €20m in Asia all one way just before kick-off.

Just coincidence? Maybe the actions of a major syndicate or a response to team news? Perhaps.

Watch the highlights on YouTube and decide for yourself:

the goals, the body language, Song’s red card, the tracking back (or lack of it), the sparse effort defending and also a fight between two Cameroon players that isn’t on the clip paint a very fishy picture if the betting intel was indeed just as described.

It has also been suggested that there are websites that specialise in fixed games. And again, based on anecdote, I would believe that the balance of probability suggests they do.

They are (I have been told) dark web sites where iffy players can communicate with iffy fixers and conjure up their fixed game together. I think you need to know someone to know someone who can put it all together.

I have even heard there are price lists relating to the kind of fix required and the level of football.

This is because issues of betting liquidity (how much can be placed and where) are vitally important. If a criminal is paying big money to arrange a fix then he needs to know in advance he can get his money on at a price and at the right volume to make the enterprise (and its risks) worthwhile.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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