Tennis, court-siders and the challenge of dealing with sports betting

Anyone who’s spent any time watching sport on British TV will be more than familiar with the dulcet tones of Ray Winstone.  Sport is, so the actor famous for his hardman persona will tell you, “all about the in-play” as he plugs the odds for the self-proclaimed world’s largest online gambling company.  According to one of their competitors “sport means more when you bet on it” whilst a third betting company ratchets up the excitement by claiming that “right now, anything could happen”.  If you believe the adverts, the sporting world is a fast-moving, emotionally-charged adrenalin rush where banter and pay outs dominate.

Glamorous though it may look (to some), there is plenty going on beneath the surface that the watching punter won’t be aware of.  Indeed, even investigative journalists who spend their lives looking in to how sport works know that things go on that even they can’t really get a handle on.   It is, for example, one thing having a five pound flutter on five correct results to keep yourself amused on a Saturday afternoon, it is quite another to be in regular contact with participants to try and get ahead of the game.  And, as we know, that happens far more frequently than sport purists have traditionally been prepared to admit.

Where once football and cricket led the way, tennis now seems to be the focus of attention.  Indeed, recent reports give the impression that tennis is a sport beset by betting problems.  As Sean Ingle revealed in the Guardian on Tuesday 9th February, there is an ever-growing body of evidence that shows tennis umpires, for example, in an increasingly worrying light.  In the lowest ranking tennis tournaments, umpires can be asked to use hand held devices to automatically update scores.  These scores naturally flash up in the stadium but, with data systems such as those developed by Sportradar, they can also instantly flash up in the betting shops and on to computer screens around the world.

In a world ever more obsessed with sport, this is great for someone who thinks they’ve spotted a diamond or can see a shock coming.  They can back their judgement and bet as the game continues (‘in play’).  Just like stock market traders, they are putting their money where their mouth is and, if their hunches are right, reaping handsome rewards.

The problem comes in that with ever-increased amounts of data comes the potential for (quick and skilful) manipulation of it.  As Sean Ingle notes, if an umpire takes 30 seconds or so to update the score in a tennis game, then that gives someone at the match the chance to place bets whilst the ‘old’ odds are still in place.  The ‘court-sider’ is either placing a bet on something that has already happened or is advising others to do the same.  In worlds of big revenues these time-lapses can make real differences to who wins and how much they win.  It’s also not surprising that some inside tennis (and tennis won’t be alone) look upon it as a chance to make a quick buck.

In corruption terms this is a classic principal/agent challenge.  The paying public provide the funds that help the sport remain viable.  They do this either by going to the events themselves, or prompting sponsors to underwrite them (the events) in the hope that the connection will help them in their business activities. They are the ‘principals’ who, in theory at least, have the power to decide whether tennis as a commercial entity ultimately has a future or not.  The agents – the players, the officials and those who are involved in getting the game played – do their best to provide a genuinely competitive product to appeal to the watching public.

There is, however, always the option of doing things that whilst often insignificant for the final result, undermine the very ethos around which sport is played; deliberately bowling a no ball in cricket, trying to ensure there are a set number of throw ins in a football game and so on.  The agents have, in other words, discretion as to how the game is actually played, and it is often the human touch – the inspirational moments and the mistakes – that make sport what it is.

The challenge for those interested in tackling the corruption that underpins some of the betting scandals is how best to regulate this discretion.  In a world where it is simply expected that people ‘do the right thing’, then there is no problem.  But that is not a world that we can take for granted. Rules, regulations and procedures, however, only ever get us so far in this regard – in the end, decisions are made, actions are taken, and they are, at least in some part, at the discretion of the participants involved.  If they weren’t, we’d be watching robots going through the motions.

What, in other words, do we do when an athlete has a breakdown and loses from a seemingly impregnable position?  Or what do we do when somehow a victory is pulled miraculously from the jaws of defeat?  In the true Corinthian spirit we should applaud all the actors involved and be pleased that sport is providing such great entertainment.

But in a world of dark corners, rapid data flows and lots of money, that Corinthian spirit simply cannot be taken for granted.  The sharp-eyed and unscrupulous will use the discretion that is inherent in all sporting contests to make their living.  Furthermore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they concentrate on (1) sport at slightly lower levels, (2) sports where individuals (as opposed to teams) have rather more leeway to shape outcomes and (3) where data is available in abundance.  An awful lot of sport falls in to those categories.

The world of anti-corruption analysis has long been warning that sport needs to up its game.  A world without corruption is impossible, but a world where sport is a multi-billion pound business needs to adopt the same standards of compliance and oversight as do other global businesses.  As things stands, sports such as tennis are illustrating more or less exactly how not to do that.

By Dan Hough


Posted in Sport

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