Threats to sporting integrity in the modern era
With the betting market at its largest point in history heading into 2022, the nefarious side of the industry has grown in lockstep. Tom Mace of Sportradar talks about what can be done to keep sports clean.
Sportradar, a sports betting data provider, identified 900 suspicious matches across 10 sports in 2021, a 30 percent increase from the 692 detected the year before.
While suspicious matches do not always indicate wrongdoing, the rapid increase in the number of alerts is cause for concern. "That tells you what you need to know in terms of in which direction the problem is going," says Tom Mace, director of global operations for Sportradar Integrity Services.
"As far as we’re concerned, the levels of match fixing were increasing in 2021 – and that’s going to continue in 2022."
In the coming year, a greater diversity of match-fixing threats, according to Mace, could exacerbate the problem. Aside from traditionally targeted sports like tennis, ice hockey, cricket, basketball, volleyball, and esports have all seen an uptick in suspicious activity in the last year.
Manipulation in betting patterns is becoming more common at the lowest levels in sports with more established betting markets.
Fixers in football are making their way further down the league ladder. "About 40% of all suspicious matches we detected came from the third tier or lower," Mace says, "which is quite concerning when you consider the types of players playing at this level."
"What’s the level of integrity protection afforded to these competitions?"
He emphasizes that the game's elite level is well protected, with Sportradar worldwide monitoring the top two divisions on behalf of Fifa. Integrity infrastructure, such as dedicated reporting structures and educational programs, is built around top-tier competitions.
"But currently, that’s certainly not reflected the further down the league system you go," Mace adds. "In England, for example, you can bet down to the 10th division, which is little more than park football."
This isn't a problem that can be solved by simply turning off the betting machines. Andreas Krannich, a colleague of Mace's, has previously warned against such a strategy, claiming that it would only drive betting offshore and make it more difficult to investigate potential corruption.
Instead, more emphasis should be placed on ensuring that individual athletes are aware of the consequences of manipulation and how to avoid fixer approaches.
People at risk
While sports governing bodies are given considerable protection from threats to sporting integrity, athletes will always be the most vulnerable.
"One thing I think is guaranteed is that athletes and sports people will continue to be more exposed than ever to match-fixing approaches, primarily on digital media, social media platforms and the like," Mace adds.
For example, Sportradar noticed an increase in athletes being approached on social media platforms to fix matches in the last few months of 2021.
"We already know that in the last 18 months, some of these random approaches on social media have turned out to be fixed matches and have been prosecuted as such," Mace says.
To address the problem, he believes two things must occur. First, sporting bodies must pay more attention to the issue, and athletes must be better informed about the dangers of match-fixing – and social media.
He explains that while social media can be a useful tool for athletes to connect with their fans, it also carries the risk of being exposed to approaches. Sportradar has responded by providing educational resources to help athletes understand how they may be targeted on social media. They were launched in February of last year, following the release of a monitoring service to protect athletes from social media abuse, as online harms are increasingly falling under the integrity remit.
Match-fixers on the lookout for new ways to gain an edge in the betting market, governing bodies, and data providers, on the other hand, face a significant challenge in staying one step ahead.
The anti-doping campaign
And, as the fixers expand their reach into new markets, the industry responds by casting a wider net to deal with a variety of integrity threats.
Sportradar began offering anti-doping services in 2019 after realizing that its intelligence capabilities could be very useful in the industry, according to Mace.
He goes on to explain that “Anti-doping is relatively well funded compared to anti-match fixing.”
“More recently we’re using our strong tech background and focus in Sportradar, in addition to developing remote testing products, to help the anti-doping fight.”
Other methods are being used by the company to strengthen its anti-match-fixing defenses. It is increasingly incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into its bet monitoring practices in order to better detect suspicious betting patterns.
"We’re not only monitoring the data in particular matches that take place, we’re actually trying to harness the power of the historical data, so that we can actually understand and learn from the prior matches and suspicious instances that we detect. We then start factoring these sort of things into our models and algorithms so they become smarter." Mace says.
Keeping the biggest tournaments safe
As Mace points out, the threat is greatest for individual athletes or those at the bottom of the sporting pyramid.
This means that the stakes for the year's major events may be lower. The Africa Cup of Nations has just finished, and the Winter Olympics are currently in full swing. And, of course, the 2022 Fifa World Cup will begin in November in Qatar.
He claims that, while match-fixing is a risk in any tournament, the relative wealth of the players participating in the World Cup may result in fewer attempts to fix games. Because the players are wealthy, they may lack the motivation to take such a risk.
“The World Cup is in many respects low-risk because most of the players that are going to be there are going to be mega rich to the top of their game,” Mace says.
"The World Cup will be scrutinized by the media and the public more than any other sporting event in the world." On the other hand, it is by far the most popular betting event in the world, with hundreds of millions of dollars being wagered on each match during the World Cup.
"There’s going to be more scrutiny from the media and the public on the World Cup than any other competition in the world. On the flip side, it’s also by far the biggest betting event in global football, and there’ll be many hundreds of millions bet every single match in the World Cup."
"From the fixer’s perspective, the liquidity and the volumes in the market will present a risk. It’d be a fixer’s dream to manipulate a match in the World Cup just because of the volume, but in practice, that is going to be on the lower end of the risk scale because it’s also one of the most protected events. "
Collaboration will be critical in defending against threats to integrity. Data analysts like Sportradar, betting operators, and sporting governing bodies all rely on the information provided by all parties involved, so information sharing is critical. When it comes to identifying such threats, Mace notes that governments have come a long way in the last decade, but there is still work to be done.
"Compared to 10 years ago it’s a major improvement," he says. "If we look at where we were 10 years ago, it was really a small number of governing bodies invested in things like bet monitoring."
"We first started working with UEFA in 2009, they were the first to do a systematic monitoring of their competitions. Thankfully the monitoring is accepted as more or less standard now. There’s not many sports now that don’t recognise that integrity is an issue and that don’t assign a good amount of budget and resource to it."
While the level of protection has increased significantly, Mace believes that more progress is urgently needed. Fixers move to less protected areas as some tactics and avenues are cut off. "So we need to make sure that all sport should be monitored, not just the top levels of competition," he adds.
As betting markets have grown in size, so have the strategies for taking advantage of them. The regulated gambling market faces a difficult task in keeping the situation under control.
By fLEXI tEAM