US betting deregulation one of several threats to sport’s integrity

Photo: ESSA conference 'Integrity in sports betting: What's at stake?' Photo: ESSA

13.10.2017

By Steve Menary
Discussions of how to maintain sport’s integrity in an ever-more complicated sporting world were at the centre at European sports betting integrity body ESSA’s conference this week.

Potential deregulation of betting in the United States of America (USA) and a growing shift offshore by bookmakers are the biggest future threats to sports’ integrity.

That was the warning issued by panels of experts at a conference in London hosted by European sports integrity body ESSA.

Gambling is illegal in most states in the USA but betting companies are pushing for a repeal and many believe that change is coming, which poses threats for sports’ integrity.

Henrik Tjärnström, chief executive officer of Swedish bookmakers Kindred, said: “I will be surprised if in 10 years’ time there is not sports betting in the US and more in the three states where there is already betting.”

Matthew Gerard, online director of risk, payments and fraud at UK bookmakers William Hill, agreed but said: “There has been a sea-change at American sports bodies but we need to prove integrity [is there].”

Repeal could cause chaos
Simply repealing the ban would unleash chaos as states could draft different rules as a replacement, while some sports bodies are woefully unprepared.

Rick Parry, whose report on gambling formed the basis of the UK’s 2005 Gambling Act, said: “You can’t repeal the act as there will be complete chaos as there will be 50 different states with different rules.

“Match-fixing is not a big problem at the big four sports in the USA but [college sports body] the NCAA are not paying much attention. There is a big problem in college sport, where athletes are unpaid.”

Making sports’ gambling legal in the USA as bookmakers continue to shift to states where there is looser regulation or none at all would be a double whammy for sports integrity.

Chris Watts, head of integrity assurance at the British Horseracing Board, said: “Betting operators that are locating offshore and offering markets in our jurisdiction are not licensed to the extent we expect here [in the UK]. If there are operators who are lightly regulated or unlicensed, how do we see into those markets? How do we see the betting patterns and work out the threats and risk?”

Mr Parry, a former head of the Premier League, agreed about the dangers of the shift offshore and also cautioned over the growing relationship between these bookmakers and professional clubs.

“When the Premier League started [in 1992], the sponsors were brewers but now nine out of the 20 clubs are sponsored by bookmakers who are in lightly regulated markets and that exacerbates the problem,” said Mr Parry.

Integrity requires investment
All the panellists at the conference agreed that exchange of information and education were key to maintaining integrity, but greater investment was required to make this work.

“A lot of people in football who fell foul of the regulations did so because they didn’t know the rules,” said Brenda Batson, a former professional footballer with West Bromwich Albion, who is now executive chairman of the umbrella Professional Players Association.

He added: “We want to get the message out that there is nothing wrong with having a flutter. Too many resources are going on catching and sanctioning and not enough on preventing.

“It’s not just the top end, it’s the bottom end, where lives are being ruined. We need to resource the area of education with some serious finances. Those people who become vulnerable don’t suddenly become vulnerable overnight. Often it’s been there from a young age.”

Fixers ‘groom’ young football players
Although Sportsradar claimed that less than 1% of the 160,000 matches across a range of sports that the group monitors are fixed, football players union FIFPro warned that 6.6% of 14,000 male players have admitted to being approached by fixers.

FIFPro board member Frans van Steenis said that education of players from a young age must include information on the tactics used by fixers to profile players who could potentially be corrupted.

“We need to educate the players in the tactics of the fixers, who are using social media to target younger players before they reach their potential,” said Mr van Steenis. “The fixers are going on to social media to find out about them, where they drink and what they do.”

Mr Batson agreed, adding: “We have the term grooming and it’s got a sexual connotation but that’s what’s going on in sport, particularly with younger players. We don’t have the resources to go into academies, but the criminals do have the resources.”

‘Sport can no longer govern itself’
The event, ‘Integrity in sports betting: what’s at stake?’, was launched by Damian Collins, a British member of Parliament for the ruling Conservative Party and chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Sport.

Mr Collins defended the independence of sports’ bodies but speaking from the floor later he warned: “I am increasingly persuaded about a law change for the governance of doping in sport. I question whether we would where we are now with Russian doping were it not for French prosecutors.”

Later Gerry Sutcliffe, a sports minister from 2007-10 in the previous Labour government, said that sport could no longer govern itself and called for independent sporting integrity units with links to the United Nations.

The view of the two politicians on sporting independence differed from most other contributors, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Friedrich Martens, head of the IOC’s Olympic Movement on the Prevention of Competitions, claimed that, with the exceptions of football and tennis, match-fixing can be combated through education.

“In the other 39 Olympic sports, I think that the fight can be won with education,” said Mr Martens. “In five years’ time, I might be saying that intelligence is more important but right now we are just six people and this is what we are working on.”

Like most sports integrity bodies, the IOC’s units face a battle to warn athletes of the importance of maintaining integrity in an ever-more complicated sporting world.

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