This is the first in a two-part series at Legal Sports Report that explores match-fixing; what it is, how it happens, and what can be done to prevent it. Part I focuses on types of match-fixing and discusses some common threads across match-fixing cases. Part II looks at some recent US match-fixing incidents and discusses how match-fixers induce cooperation. Part two is here.
Fears over match-fixing have served as a common argument in opposition to the expansion of sports betting by the major professional sports leagues and the NCAA, with references often made to the 1919 World Series fix. While mob figure Arnold Rothstein always denied fixing the Fall Classic, his penchant for gambling and fixing horse races has seen him convicted by the jury of history.
There has been a long history of fixing in the US, with legislation occasionally following high profile incidents. With PASPA falling at the stroke of Justice Samuel Alito’s pen, this marks the beginning of a new era. For the first-time, sports gambling will be legal and likely widely available across the United States.
Match fixing persists across sport; it is perhaps one unifying bond across virtually every sport. Match-fixing incidents have been alleged in sports from badminton to Formula 1. Recently, an independent review panel found a “tsunami of corruption” in lower levels of professional tennis.
Bloomberg noted that the report found one of the causes is a data deal between Sportradar (Sportradar US, a subsidiary of Sportradar, is an official data partner of the NFL, NBA, and NHL), and the International Tennis Federation. The internet has made it possible for data regarding even low-level tennis matches to be streamed to betting sites at near instantaneous speed.
It is unknown whether a legal betting market in the US will embolden match-fixers, but what is known is that in a legal and regulated market there are additional tools for fighting the scourge because incentives are available to encourage cooperation of witnesses and resources are available to enable law enforcement to conduct a thorough investigation.
Defining the terms of sports integrity
Here’s a look at some key words and phrases when considering the integrity of sports:
Match fixing is a broad term that incorporates a number of different activities that result in the manipulation of some aspect of a game, including the end result.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines match-fixing as: “dishonest activity to make sure that one team wins a particular sports match.” This definition is far too narrow and does not encapsulate all the ways of manipulating a contest. As match-fixing can include:
Point shaving is often used as a means of approaching impressionable match-fixing marks, because in a point-shaving scheme, the objective of the fix is to lose by less than the point-spread not to lose the game itself. The fact that the team does not need to lose the game can be psychologically and morally enticing to certain players who may feel an obligation to teammates or coaches not to lose, but are able to justify shaving points because they are still able to put a ‘W’ on the board.
Tanking in the match-fixing context can be distinguished from the “trust the process” version of tanking that has become a seemingly legitimate model of franchise building in the NBA. However, the two types of tanking are not totally unrelated.
Tanking in the match-fixing context is generally described as a player or team intentionally putting in a sub-par effort. Though tanking sounds sinister in nature, it can sometimes be advantageous for players depending on tournament structures. This quirk was the case at the 2012 Summer Olympics when eight badminton players were disqualified for tanking.
Spot fixing occurs when a player seeks to manipulate a specific event in a sporting event. This type of fixing has frequently been linked to various popular, but often insignificant events within a game, in-play betting opportunities can make spot-fixing lucrative and often difficult to detect. Wagers accepted on things that are easily controlled by players — like the number of throw-ins, corner kicks, or pies eaten by goalies — are fertile ground for fixers.
Gambling versus non-gambling corruption
Match-fixing comes in two prominent conceptualizations.
Gambling-related match fixing occurs where an individual or group seeks to manipulate a result in order to win a wager themselves or to assist others to win a wager. This type of behavior can have a significant cost for not only books, but for honest bettors who are not in on the fix.
Non-gambling related fixing can occur for a variety of reasons. Often tournament structures, or tournament schedules may incentivize a player to reduce effort in order to receive a more favorable match-up at a later time or obtain additional rest before a more lucrative tournament in coming days.
How does match fixing happen?
Dr. Declan Hill, of the University of Wuerzberg, is likely the foremost academic expert on match fixing, having spent time around various match-fixing operations while earning his Ph.D. from Oxford.
Hill found that match-fixing seems to flourish under three very specific conditions.
- The first condition that match-fixing tends to gestate in is where there are vast illegal gambling markets. These markets are often networked through international criminal syndicates.
- The second factor that leads to an increase in match-fixing incidents is poor wages to players and referees. Poor wages provide a fertile ground for match fixers to take advantage of players who lack the resources to provide for their needs.
- The third and final factor, which Hill linked to increases in match fixing was a perception that a league was corrupt. A perception of corruption or the perception that a league or players are open to corrupt activities can create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for would-be match fixers.
Is the US susceptible?
If we do a little back of the envelope math involving Hill’s three factors, there is a potential problem for one American sports entity in particular.
While it remains to be seen how much of the illegal gambling market will be swallowed by the disinfecting sunshine of legalization, at present there is a vast illegal betting market with a value in even the most bearish estimates in the tens of billions. Most leagues do not have an issue with poorly compensating players, or referees, with even Major League Soccer players averaging $160,000 per year.
Of course, the outlier is the NCAA, who does not allow for direct compensation beyond tuition and grants in aid. This could leave NCAA athletes particularly vulnerable to match fixers, especially if they were to come into a time of financial hardship. The final factor, is whether there is a perception of corruption regarding the league. This is likely a matter of debate, though there is certainly some anecdotal support that some leagues or organizations may treat players more fairly than others.
In Part II of this series, we will take a look at how some of the more recent corruption incidents in the US have unfolded, what the consequences were, and the lessons learned.