The Covid-19 crisis has led some sports to innovate by holding remote events. But that has also created new opportunities for corruption and match-fixing. Billy Pratt, currently taking our Master’s in Corruption and Governance, looks at match-fixing allegations in a remote darts match – and implications for how the sports industry can adapt to new conditions.
Following several months of Covid-19 related disruption, sports fans have been treated to a gradual return of live sport to their TV screens. Whilst the return of industry dominators such as football made news, a few others found ways of continuing despite strict lockdown regulations. The online suitability of esports lead to a boom in viewership for competitive gaming. Whilst not a sport in the purist sense, WWE were quick to move their wrestling shows to a crowd-less studio and never stopped. Then we have darts, which started to stage matches remotely with cameras in players’ homes to record them throwing darts at their own boards. Using this format, several professional events were hastily organised and streamed online, providing entertainment for sports-hungry fans at home and something to do for darts players with time on their hands.
Whilst these events were generally seen as a success, recent news has dampened the mood with two players, Wessel Nijman and Kyle McKinstry, being charged with match-fixing during a remote event in April. Nijman has confessed to the charges, whilst McKinstry is expected to appeal. Despite the occasional rumours, darts is not a sport typically associated with corruption, with only one confirmed betting-related match-fixing case in its professional history. The 2017 UK Sports Integrity Index even went as far as to name darts as the professional sport with the most integrity. For this reason, it is pertinent to question why this happened, if the move to a remote format was responsible and if so, what lessons anti-corruption efforts in professional sports should learn. With the winter months to come and another lockdown possible, sports fans may find themselves yet again at home watching darts being played remotely via video link.
The most obvious impact of the pandemic on sports as an industry has been the reduction of events, slashing earning opportunities for players. Whilst those at the top level of professional sports are well documented for their lucrative wages, the situation for those lower down is much less stable, even during normal times. Darts is no exception, with the number 1 ranked player Michael Van Gerwen earning over £1.5 million in prize money over the past 2 years whilst Nijman and McKinstry only earned several thousand each in the same time period. There are several papers within corruption literature which explore the relationship between salary and the incentive to corrupt. Within the realm of sport, Hill (2015) finds athletes are much more likely to match-fix later in their careers when they have greater awareness of their diminishing window for earning. With the pandemic postponing 14 PDC Development Tour events (which Nijman frequently played in), this may have been a factor. Given that the most high-profile remote darts tournament, the PDC Home Tour, had zero prize money on offer, it does not take an anti-corruption expert to see the allure of a match-fixing offer.
Whilst sports betting decreased during the UK lockdown as a function of there being less sport to bet on, sports corruptors quickly adapted. For example, one set of match-fixers managed to fool several well-known bookmakers into offering odds on an entirely fabricated Ukrainian football tournament. An estimated £100,000 of bets were placed before the tournament was revealed to be fake. What little sport remained saw huge betting interest with a 2,000% increase in bets placed on the basketball leagues of Tajikistan and Taiwan as well as in Belarusian football. Darts was one of the few sports that continued during this time and became a key asset for bookmakers, with several gambling websites even streaming these remote events. Match-fixing is often carried out with the intention of making or laundering money through gambling, and with Nijman and McKinstry being charged on the back of suspicious betting patterns, it is now clear that darts was targeted by match-fixers. Darts’s status as one of the few sports still available to bet on would only have made it a more attractive for fixers.
Remote Anti-Corruption Regulation
Professional darts is governed by the Darts Regulation Authority (DRA), who can be considered proactive in their anti-corruption work. They have confidential email addresses and hotlines for reporting corrupt approaches, clear and easy to follow regulations on betting and match-fixing  and partnerships with companies such as SportRadar to use the most refined match-fixing detection tools . These measures may partly explain why darts has rarely faced corruption issues before, and these measures also helped lead to Nijman and McKinstry being caught, for which the DRA deserves credit. However, the DRA’s usually effective approach failed to prevent corruption from taking place in this case and we must question why. With the change of format leading to players staying at home rather than travelling to a physical venue and interacting with officials, the DRA must examine if their anti-corruption efforts do enough to prevent match-fixers accessing and convincing players to fix when they are playing remotely. Match-fixing often depends on the ability of the fixer to communicate with the fixing player to relay information or instructions. In a physical tournament setting, such communication can be monitored or prohibited and there is evidence of this taking place with 2 players being officially warned for using internet devices during an event in 2017. During the remote events, officials were not only unable to physically monitor potentially corrupt communication but could not even prevent players from using internet devices capable of outside communication – indeed, the event relied on the players having internet access. The DRA’s anti-corruption approach was understandably designed for a pre-pandemic world, and must change before any more remote events are staged.
This case should prove instructive for a sports industry that will continue to be impacted economically until major gatherings are permitted again. The boom in esports viewership has led to the normalisation of watching two people playing video games against each other over the internet and betting on it. Even outside of a pandemic situation, remote darts events still provide content for bookmakers without having to pay for the logistics of a full sporting spectacle, but if they can’t be secured from corruption risks, these remote competitions may have to stop. The story of Nijman and McKinstry shows that even the more vigilant anti-corruption approaches need to be re-thought for our new conditions.