London | The Tennis Tsunami
Did it really need a two-year investigation costing over £15 million to determine that betting companies are not doing our sport any favours?
Fifty years after the advent of Open Tennis, the Independent Review Panel (IRP) Interim Report, commissioned by the governing bodies of tennis, investigated allegations of corruption in the sport and now confirms there is no evidence of cover-up or institutional corruption by tennis authorities or the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU).
The report was triggered back in 2016 following claims of widespread match-fixing in tennis, when a joint report by the BBC and Buzzfeed News alleged that there had been widespread corruption in the sport, an allegation disputed by both players and the governing bodies.
The International Governing Bodies are to be commended for the introduction of rules specifically aimed at dealing with the integrity problems faced by tennis. However, we also recognise that there are vulnerabilities, particularly at the lower levels of tennis. We are committed to seizing the opportunity to address these concerns through firm and decisive action. We support the IRP’s identification that the betting industry’s role is critical to ensure that betting operators play their part. Statement from the ATP, WTA, ITF and Grad Slams
In a statement on wimbledon.com, the governing bodies of professional tennis, the ATP, WTA, ITF and Grand Slam Board, announced their agreement with the findings of the IRP Interim Report.
“The International Governing Bodies are to be commended for the introduction of rules specifically aimed at dealing with the integrity problems faced by tennis.
“However, we also recognise that there are vulnerabilities, particularly at the lower levels of tennis.
“We are committed to seizing the opportunity to address these concerns through firm and decisive action.
“We support the IRP’s identification that the betting industry’s role is critical to ensure that betting operators play their part.
“Following an initial review of the Interim Report we confirm our agreement in principle with the package of measures and recommendations proposed by the IRP.
“These include the removal of opportunities and incentives for breaches in integrity, the establishment of a restructured, more independent TIU, enhanced education, expanded rules, and greater co-operation and collaboration with the betting industry and broader sports community.
“Each of these areas now needs detailed exploration and analysis.
“Our immediate priority is to provide the input requested by the IRP by carefully reviewing, considering and responding to the 12 recommendations put forward for consultation, ahead of publication of the Final Report.
“At the same time we will continue to implement existing initiatives to enhance and expand tennis’s governance of the sport in relation to betting-related integrity.”
The long-awaited report claims that there is a ‘tsunami’ of corruption at the lower levels of tennis after surveying more than 3,200 players and finding that 14.5 per cent indicated they had first-hand knowledge of match-fixing in the sport.
Interviews were also conducted with 200 key stakeholders, including governing bodies, betting operators and tournament officials.
The review points out that only 336 men and 253 women in world tennis break even in prize money terms before coaching costs are taken into account.
The report was compiled by a team of sports specialist lawyers, led by London QC, Adam Lewis, who held a press conference in London on Wednesday, and with written with guidance from Northridge Law LLP, a legal firm that has also represented the English Football Association (FA) and the IAAF.
“Pursuant to its Terms of Reference, the Panel, made up of Adam Lewis QC, Beth Wilkinson and Marc Henzelin, has conducted an Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis, addressing the nature and extent of the problem over time; the appropriateness and effectiveness of the sport’s historical and present approach to addressing it; and potential changes to improve how the sport tackles it in the future.”
Reacting to the report, Simon Briggs wrote in the Telegraph: “The problem is the underlying problems here are not sporting. They are criminal. And it is not within sport’s power to get on top of them.
“The governments of the world are collectively sitting on their hands.
“Gambling on sports is a $1.5 trillion (£1 .1 trillion) per year business, 80 per cent of which is either under-regulated or illegal.
“Tennis alone has a $50 billion (£36 billion) a year betting industry leaching off it, of which roughly 50 per cent is illegal. Basically, sports betting is vastly bigger economically than sport itself.
“It is also more globalised; an instantaneous money-exchange trade, algorithm to algorithm.
“You can regulate sport as much as you like, change your policies and set up your inquiries. But in no circumstance does more money on the table correlate to less corruption.
“You have to regulate the table. And regulation has to be independent.
“You cannot have these task forces set up by professional sports regulating their own sports. You do not have the pharmaceutical industry regulating itself or the banking system regulating itself.”
The report’s main concern is the lower level tournaments where prize money is low and the temptation to throw matches are far greater, with the season for match-fixing from October until the end of the year and ‘races of up to two or three fixed matches per day’ in ITF tournaments.
Between January-March the TIU received 38 alerts concerning suspicious matches, more than the same period in 2017 when there were 30, but less than 2016 with 48.
Last month the ITF announced an extension of its partnership with Sportradar, the company that collects and analyses data gathered from different sports and, although the intent is to use its services to combat fraud, one of the recommendations of the IRP is that the deal should be cancelled.
The five-year, $70 million agreement involves ITF events ranging from the Davis Cup to Futures tournaments, the lowest rung on the professional tennis ladder.
The expansion of live data rights to those lowest, most vulnerable levels of competition has incubated corruption, the report said, adding that the risks of the deal were not adequately considered.
Much of the problem is said to have derived from this deal because the company sells constantly updated live scores of tournaments to betting companies, which requires umpires to immediately update the scoreboard on the Sportradar system following each point scored.
Some umpires, however, have delayed putting the scores into the system, allowing gamblers to place bets on old markets knowing what was happening next.
The review has now recommended that this deal with Sportradar be scrapped at the lower levels of tennis and said that scoreboards, from which match data is sold, should be filmed at all times.
Mr Lewis, QC, cited a direct correlation between the swift growth in betting alerts and the introduction of this service by Sportradar in 2012, saying that should have been considered.
“The ITF did not appropriately assess the potential adverse effects of these agreements before entering into them,” he said.
The counter argument is that any vacuum will be filled by black market operators and ‘court-siders’, filing scores by phone.
Naturally, some within the betting industry have warned against banning regulated betting: “If they stopped gambling at this level, I am pretty sure the gamblers would find a black market to gamble on which would be much harder to control,” a source involved in tennis betting told insidethegames.
Alex Inglot, a spokesman for Sportradar, called the proposal to end the company’s agreement with the ITF for data rights at Futures events ‘unrealistic’, ‘potentially unlawful’ and ‘heavy-handed’.
“Prohibition simply doesn’t work,” Inglot said in a statement. “Prohibiting data partnerships will not stop betting, live or otherwise, on these matches nor will it remove corruption risk at this level.
“Pre-match betting will remain available; unofficial data will be collected; generally available match statistics can be used by betting operators anyway; the risk of data fraud and ghost matches will increase; and there will be no clear contractual basis by which operators will be bound to reporting and transparency requirements. This will almost certainly encourage black market activity.”
Other recommendations in the report are that the TIU should increase its staffing from 6 to 12 investigators and for its office to move out of the building it shares with the ITF in Roehampton. It should also be more geographically diverse, with broader linguistic skills.
The report states that players who regularly crop up in suspicious betting alerts should be subject to provisional suspensions and those who deliberately do not perform at their best should be more harshly treated.
The pathway for emerging players should be improved to prevent the development of a large body of demoralised individuals, who could fall prey to match fixers.
In particular, wider training for players, better security around players at tournaments and methods to prevent online abuse are recommended by the panel.
A new supervisory board to oversee the TIU is also among the recommendations, while betting companies should no longer sponsor tournaments and appearance fees should be made public or abolished entirely.
Some have been calling for an end to betting sponsorship for some time now, and Tennis Australia has already ended its relationship with William Hill, who sponsored the Australian Open up until last year.
The IRP concludes that tennis should engage more closely with other sports in its efforts to eradicate corruption.
As reported by the Guardian, the report states that: “The nature of the game lends itself to manipulation for betting purposes.
“The player incentive structure creates a fertile breeding ground for breaches of integrity. Today, tennis faces a serious integrity problem.
“Detection is difficult, not least because at many lower levels there are no spectators and inadequate facilities to protect players from potential corruptors.
“Moreover, under-performance is often attributed to ’tanking’ which is often tolerated.”
The IRP’s report runs to some 2,000 pages, no doubt in justification of its extraordinary cost to tennis authorities, but it may well be worth it so tennis can no longer be accused of taking corruption too lightly.
“The panel has not discovered any evidence demonstrating a ‘cover up’ in relation to these issues, by the international governing bodies, the TIU or anyone else,’ the report concluded, but there were criticisms along with recommendations.
The TIU was described as under-resourced and accused of being ‘overly conservative’ in some investigations, taking a year to get round to do some interviews related to suspicious matches, while the Tennis Integrity Board, made up of governing body representatives, was said not to have been assertive enough in its overseeing role.
A statement released on behalf of those governing bodies said: “We confirm our agreement in principle with the package of measures and recommendations.”
Many of the recommendations announced, however, were similar to those proposed by Richard Ings in a 2005 report on corruption and match-fixing allegations produced for the ATP Tour.
In fact, many of the proposed changes have already been carried out in some form over the past two years.
Tennis has pulled back from several major betting sponsorships, with the Australian Open ending its deal with William Hill and the ITF ending a partnership with Betway.
The integrity unit has increased its staff and its budget, and has begun regularly releasing information about its activities in an effort to be more transparent.
The ITF has also announced reforms at the lowest levels of the sport, instituting a ‘transition tour’ for the 2019 season in the hopes of culling the number of professional players.
The question remains, was it all worth it?