Even if you ain’t afraid of no ghost, Roger Goodell sure is.
The NFL plans to present today in its testimony to Congress the perceived integrity threat of “ghost games” as a reason why federal sports betting legislation is needed.
We’re not talking about crossing the streams or Demi Moore at a potter’s wheel here. The Shield wants legislators at Thursday’s sports betting hearing to fear bettors being duped by fake games as justification to require sportsbooks to buy official league data.
A ghost in the (sports betting) machine?
Go inside the ghost games idea in this passage from the seven-page letter submitted to Congress on behalf NFL executive vice president Jocelyn Moore:
Use of official league data also protects consumers from fake matches or “ghost games” created by criminals or unscrupulous operators.
In this scenario, a sports betting fixture is listed through one of the numerous companies that provide unofficial data to the bookmaking industry. But it is either a fake match (one that takes places but is played between two different teams than the ones listed) or a ghost game (one that does not take place at all).
There are multiple recent examples of such incidents in lower level soccer leagues around the world. Similarly, we are concerned that NFL fans could find themselves betting on fake in-game proposition bets, bets that seem real but are in fact fraudulently designed to dupe unsophisticated bettors.
Such scenarios could be eliminated by requiring sports betting operators to use authentic data provided by sports leagues.
This is the second time the NFL leaned on the ghost games concept in an official submission. The league first referenced them in a June letter to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board that closely mirrors the sky-high asks in its testimony to Congress.
Fair sitch or Blair Witch?
Give the NFL this much, but only this much: ghost games exist. In fact, in the recorded history of sports and match fixing, we can find only a handful of documented cases of successful ghost games.
The last known one took place in a Belarusian soccer league in 2015. In this version of the scam, fixers convinced Bet365 and SBOBET to book action on a match that never took place. Once the trusted bookmakers post the match, illegal bookies could credibly take wagers on it. The fixers then employ fake spotters to transmit bogus information to the books about the progress and score of the match.
The known cases of successfully executed ghost games involve fairly obscure soccer matches. One featured a sophisticated fixer who convinced two teams not to show up and staged his own fake match.
None were televised or streamed. And if you want to know why no NFL bettor ever would fall victim to a ghost game, start right there.
No, you did not see a ghost
For a ghost fixing scheme to succeed, the culprits must control all information flow about the pretend game. Teams, league officials, data companies, and sportsbooks are either wittingly or unwittingly complicit in multiple steps leading to a fake.
That, in theory, is why the NFL wants to force operators to buy its data feed. If a pro sports league provides books all the data on its games, the league claims only then can the information not be compromised.
Yet if only one source — the league — delivers data, fixers and their hackers need only to infiltrate that one source to plant bad information. And even that quick dismissal gives more weight to the league’s argument than it deserves when you consider the voracious consumption of all 256 NFL games in a season.
Every NFL game is televised nationally and scrutinized deeply. Cross-checking of what happens on the field takes place in real time by tens of thousands of fans in the stadium and millions more at home.
Just four years ago, more than 205 million viewers watched at least part of an NFL game. You cannot ghost fix the most-watched professional sports league in the United States.
I always feel like, Nevada’s watching me
Among those regular viewers are Nevada regulators and sportsbook operators. The granddaddy of US legal sports betting not only monitors data and betting trends, but helps identify match fixing for pro sports leagues. Becky Harris, who chairs the Nevada Gaming Commission, will use her part of her testimony to the House sports betting hearing to highlight the state’s success in weeding out match fixers.
Integrity of matches matters as much to Nevada sportsbooks as anyone because no one would trust them after they, say, somehow booked a fake match. They have not done so in decades of existence without being forced by law to buy official league data to power their increasingly intricate betting systems.
If Nevada successfully dodged potential fakes for this long, it logically holds that regulated operations in Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, and West Virginia can too. These new sports betting states draw on the expertise both of Nevada and of the European parent companies backing many of their operators.
So why is the NFL doing this?
Goodell, Moore, and the staff at 345 Park Avenue are plenty smart enough to know the NFL is as susceptible to ghost games as it is to alien invasion. But the league is not happy about losing PASPA’s federal sports betting ban and wants Congress to build a new nationwide firewall.
To accomplish that, it brought out a scare tactic that looks credible on the surface. Ghost games are real, if only on the quiet backroads of sports.
Undereducated legislators on the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigation might perk up at the funky name and salacious details. Remember that none of the subcommittee’s 19 members comes from a state with legal sports betting.
Ghost games are not a threat to the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB. They are the rarely seen straw herring, somehow both a clever distraction and a fake threat wrapped in one shiny deceptive package.