Sports betting: What are the odds on a fix?
In the final session of Play the Game 2019, a powerful panel of experts warned that far greater efforts are needed to combat match-fixing.
Gambling on sport was outlawed in the U.S. until May 2018, when a long-time federal ban was lifted. Eleven states have already legalised the practice, and more are planning to do so. According to Canadian author and match-fixing expert Declan Hill, the end of prohibition could trigger a “tsunami of match-fixing.”
“Legalisation will change everything,” he told Play the Game 2019. ”To introduce such a massive change with hardly any debate is a massive problem. U.S. sport will be utterly transformed. I’m not suggesting that it will happen tomorrow or next year. But unless the U.S. acts now, it will experience the same match-fixing problems as other nations where sports betting is legal.”
“Which leagues are at the greatest risk?” Hill asked. “The clear winner is college sports. Students are thousands of times more vulnerable than most professional sportsmen. The minor leagues are where the issues will be felt most. Some players are earning less than the guy selling hot dogs.”
Hill added that he was not arguing against the legalisation of gambling. Rather, he believes that a portion of the vast revenues it generates should be used to fight back against the fixers.
Pressure should be put on professional sports bodies to finance anti-corruption measures, Hill said. “Sports associations have integrity units, but they’re all poorly funded,” he said. “What we need is an integrity levy on sports gambling. America, you can do it. The torch is in your hands.”
Richard H. McLaren, the Canadian lawyer who headed the game-changing WADA investigation into Russian doping, pointed out that major professional leagues had initially opposed sports betting. But one by one, he said, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL fell into line. “They became aware of the vast additional sponsorship revenues they will receive from betting companies,” he said.
“Match-fixing attacks the core of sport because it removes unpredictability,” he, said. “It is this that keeps everyone interested. It’s the unpredictability that ignites the crowd.”
The idea that all professional athletes earn high incomes is a myth, he said. In tennis, for example, less than four percent of male pro players break even. “Once they take that first step, once they accept that first business class plane ticket, they become vulnerable, they can be threatened,” he said. “The fixers can threaten to report them to their sports associations – and they can also make other threats.”
“These people are better organised and better funded than the sports integrity bodies” McLaren said. “These people are prepared to corrupt anyone. They are very sophisticated. They need sophisticated systems in place to avoid detection.”
For many years, journalist and integrity fighter Anas Aremeyaw Anas has battled against corruption in his native Ghana and beyond. Today, he has so many enemies that he conceals his face when appearing in public. Along with his team, Tiger Eye P.I, Anas recently steered a far-reaching covert investigation that ended the reign of former Ghana Football Association President Kwesi Nyantakyi.
Formerly the second most powerful man in African football, Nyantakyi was caught on camera taking a bribe and was handed a lifetime ban. Numerous other referees and officials have also been banned as a direct result of the activities of Anas and Tiger Eye. Success, however, was marred by tragedy in January 2019 when team member Ahmed Husein was shot dead in Accra.
Blame lies with FIFA
“Football is supposed to unite us,” Anas said. “But I knew that it was causing problems in society. When I took a closer look, I found that match-fixing was not a figment of anyone’s imagination. It was real. There are mafias out there. My team and I had to be very careful to ensure that the bad guys did not get to us. Unfortunately one of my guys was not so lucky.”
“The people we are dealing with are very powerful because of one reason,” Anas said. “That reason is FIFA. Why do I blame FIFA? Because when you hand out money, you have a responsibility to ensure that the right mechanisms are in place to distribute it. FIFA’s money was supposed to go to the villages, to the local sports clubs. But FIFA did nothing to check that this was happening. It was FIFA’s money that empowered the mafia.”
Conferences like Play the Game, Anas said, are highly significant. “To be able to get all these people, all this information together in one place, is very important,” he said. “There is maybe not enough awareness that this kind of work is being done.”
Michael Bahrs, Detective Chief Superintendent of Bochum Police, has spent eighteen years fighting organised crime, and ten fighting match-fixing. He has interviewed some of the biggest match-fixers on the planet. So what has he learned?
“Nothing is being done.” he said. “The main goal of today’s sports associations is to make money. They are creating more and more competitions. It’s all about profit. Making a profit isn’t immoral, but it creates a clear conflict of interest. The sports associations don’t want scandals.”
“I want to catch criminals,” Bahrs said. “But they want to earn money. The federations should do their utmost to protect their players. They should warn them that they are absolutely at risk. Instead, they are signing sponsorship contracts with the betting companies.”
Investigating authorities, he said, lack effective mechanisms to exchange match-fixing information across national borders. “If I receive information that affects multiple countries then my problems are just starting” he said. “I will depend on receiving information from other countries. If this is not provided, my investigation has a problem.”
Joint investigation teams, or partnerships between national crime fighting agencies, are rarely used in match-fixing investigations, Bahrs said. “I’m a lonely fighter,” he said. “We need teams of experts; we need an international prosecutor’s office. Government officials have a duty to bring this issue into politics. Journalists have responsibilities too. A good story is even better if the criminals are caught. It does not help to publish a match-fixing story before that happens.”
“Match-fixing in my eyes is definitely organised crime,” he said. “We shouldn’t just be talking about it. We need to take action.”
Paulina Tomczyk is General Secretary of EU Athletes, an organisation that offers a collective voice to around 25,000 sportsmen and women “We’re working to protect our members from match-fixing,” she told Play the Game 2019. “No sport or country should consider itself immune.”
Knowledge, Tomczyk said, is an essential tool in the fight against the fixers. Athletes, she said, need education both on criminal law and their sport’s integrity rules. “They need to recognise when an approach is made and know what to do when it happens,” she said
PROtect Integrity, a new campaign steered by EU Athletes, is attempting to educate athletes on key integrity principles, Tomczyk said. “Don’t bet on your own sport. Don’t give out inside information. Report anything suspicious” she said.
Unfortunately, she added, the project isn’t currently able to reach the places where it is likely most needed – namely, those nations where no athletes’ unions exist.