PtG Article 09.06.2009

A level playing field? Don’t bet on it.

The old adage that it “takes a crook to catch a crook” became a reality when a former New York crime chief provided a fascinating insight into how match fixing takes place in the USA.

The old adage that it “takes a crook to catch a crook” became a reality when a former New York crime chief provided a fascinating insight into how match fixing takes place in the USA. Michael Franzese, a reformed mafia boss who has spent almost a decade in US prisons, delivered his first-ever overseas speech to the 2009 Play the Game conference in Coventry.

“I can tell you this. There’s a major problem in sport. If you think there isn’t, you’re kidding yourself”, he said. “Are they doing it? You better believe they are”.

The practice of fixing US sports events, he said, is much more common today than it was in the past, partly due to the increased legitimacy of gambling. Bookmakers linked to organised crime routinely encourage sports players to get into debt, he said, and high rates of interest are charged when credit is extended. And athletes rarely decline the opportunity to clear their spiralling debts, which can sometimes total millions of dollars.

“These guys have a propensity to gamble, he revealed. “It is bigger with sports stars than anyone else”

Athletes are often simply asked to cover a spread bet, as opposed to throw a match, he said. While a key player in a US football or basketball game may not be able to change a result, he is usually able to ensure that a winning or losing margin is less than ten points.

“NFL referees are also very susceptible”, Franzese confirmed. “A referee understands the spread, and can get away with giving certain decisions”.

Boxing is another sport that is often fixed, he said. “We had fighters that we owned. [Don] King was someone we were able to deal with” he said.

Few, if any, sports are beyond from the reaches of organised crime, he said. “If you can make money on it, it is not immune. We would fix a game of chess if there was money to be made”.

Often, a large portion of a sport’s fan base only exists because people are gambling on the game, he pointed out, and national sports associations realise this. “I can’t see it slowing down. I can’t see why it should”, he concluded.

Tougher rules proposed

Emmanuel Macedo de Medeiros, Chief Executive Officer of the European Professional Football Leagues, said that more stringent rules should be considered to prevent match fixing. Officials could be changed before a game if any suspicion fell on their integrity, he said, and video evidence could be scrutinized more closely in match fixing investigations.

Bookmakers could be asked to provide more information related to suspicious betting patterns, he added, even if this entails exceptions being made to data protection rules. “The legal betting industry should be on the side of sport,” he said.


His organisation is also considering giving its support to a French proposal to ban certain types of bets in certain sports, he added.

Legal bookies not the problem?

Mark Davies, Managing Director of Betfair, offered a different perspective. While agreeing that more money is involved in legal gambling today, he denied that this has led to more instances of match fixing. Much of this new money was around previously, he said, but was being spent in the illegal markets – which have been at the root of every major sports betting scandal.

While more people are gambling legally, he pointed out, the number of participations in sporting events – thus the number who could potentially be corrupted - has not changed.

Ultimately, he said, it is up to the sports regulators to ensure that sport is clean, but betting companies should offer tools and expertise to regulators, “There is an ability to track bets today like never before,” he pointed out.

Betfair’s decision to void bets on the 2007 tennis match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello due to illegal betting patterns, he said, demonstrates that his company is taking the problem seriously. 

If the demand exists for certain types of uncommon bets, Davies pointed out, it will continue to exist whether or not they are banned. In the event of a ban, those wishing to place such bets will just look to the illegal markets, he said.