The Sportradar/match-fixing problem

Let’s be clear, the ITF signing a deal with Sportradar in order to become its “official data rights partner” is a highly contentious issue for many reasons. One of the things the deal did was to make live scoring data now available for the lowest level of tennis matches. This in turn is now used by the betting companies to offer in-play pricing on the matches, rather than just the pre-match option that used to exist.

It’s important to understand this because the idea this deal created match-fixing is a myth. Match-fixing in tennis existed before this deal and would exist even if the live scoring was removed. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. But what the live scoring has done is opened up a plethora of markets that means players can now choose to fix in all kinds of ways.

It’s also worth making it clear that betting/match-fixing existed before, because as social media use exploded players have become increasingly subjected to disgraceful abuse by gamblers who have lost money betting on them. But I would argue it’s not necessarily the Sportradar deal that has increased abuse, but the ease and access we now have to players over the many different social media platforms.

Now, let’s look at the gambling issue specifically. I’ll take a match that I will choose at complete random that is currently in-play as I write this (I stress this is no reflection at all on the players involved, it’s to make a few points).

Screenshot_20190228-101936~2

If I pick the above match, we can see it is an M25 tournament in Trento. The “70” in the bottom left hand corner indicates how many markets are available to bet on. That’s SEVENTY different markets. For a non-televised/streamed event.

I’ll post another screenshot to give you an indication of the type of markets available to bet on.

Screenshot_20190228-102541~2.png

Now, as you seem from the above screenshot, there is quite literally the opportunity to bet on every single point, every game, each set and the match winner (and plenty more besides).

The market I have opened up in order to show pricing is one in which you can decide on who wins the 5th game of the first set and you can either back the server or the receiver (obviously!). Now if you look at the pricing available to us, it shows the receiver as a considerable underdog to win the game, as you’d expect. In fact if you placed £100 on it, you’d win as much as £400 back in pure profit.

The point I’m trying to make is we’ve now got non-televised/streamed matches taking place around the world in which players could choose to fix a specific section of the match (not even necessarily the final result); for example by agreeing to lose a particular service game and all it takes is a couple of double faults and some unforced errors, they get broken the bet wins and who is there to notice what’s just occurred?

The money itself is not insignificant either. I’ll show an example from an account I have to prove the point. The screenshot below is from a qualifying match at a Futures event. Think about that level for a second before you see the sort of money that can be wagered.

Screenshot_20190204-160926~2

For those that don’t understand it, I entered £30,000 as the stake and the website came back and told me I can wager a maximum of £3,000 at evens, meaning I could win £3,000 if Bellucci won the match (plus my stake so I’d get £6,000 back in total). Therefore I can win more in a single match than the winner of the event at the end of the week. Is it any wonder people succumb?

Why is this all happening? Well for one the prize pools at the lowest levels are insufficient. You cannot play year on year at the $15/25k level without accruing losses. But equally in order to move up the ladder you need to be able to play regularly and often, so even those who are good enough will struggle (without outside help). Tennis is like being a university student. You’re being asked to invest in yourself and get into debt with the hope of climbing back out of it later on in your life. It’s an awful system.

But let’s not take away personal responsibility either. As it stands I’m yet to hear of a player fixing because he has a gun to his head. It’s a choice and once that choice is made if you’re caught there should be no way back.

I’d also add that one of the biggest problems I also have with all of this, however, is the ATP behaving like White Knights and acting as if they too do not have an issue. This has become such a problem that there are rumours they took away ATP points from $15k events because the ITF would not turn off the live scoring. This has been denied, however there’s plenty of confusion surrounding the whole thing and nobody quite knows the truth at this stage.

You would have to be naive in the extreme to think the problem is a) confined to the ITF tour and b) disappears if live scoring does. Take away Futures live scoring and one of the things I’d predict that you’ll see happen is an increase in fixing at the challenger level (and fixing DOES go on at that level), as players will be targeted at an increased level. What currently makes the Futures tour so attractive is a combination of low prize pools, far more tournaments on a weekly basis and the fact that the matches aren’t streamed (there are a few tournaments that do, but it’s a tiny % of the total played).

What should be done?

I’ll write a blog about the TIU (Tennis Integrity Unit) when I have a chance, but I fundamentally believe they’re unfit for purpose. In the short-term I believe the findings of the IRP report (tennisirp.com) need to be implemented and it needs to be done now.

The most important thing I’d do is turn off live-scoring for $15k events for now. I am saying this as someone who gambles on them. It would hurt me, but it’ll hurt the sport far more if this isn’t done. I cannot stress how badly widespread I believe this to be. I’m comfortable saying there is fixing going on nearly every single day of the year at that level (easily more than 250 days of the year); whether it be a specific section of the match, or the match result itself.

As I wrote above turning off live scoring at the Futures level doesn’t stop fixing (and the ATP deserves to have some serious questions asked of its own data selling), but for now it’s about stemming the bleeding because as of right now nothing is being done and that’s unacceptable.

Ultimately the ITF and tennis as a whole needs to stop burying its head in the sand on the issue of fixing. They’re letting down fans, the honest players and the sport by continuing to do nothing to address an issue that the IRP report confirms does exist in an extremely widespread manner.

Take action now, for the good of the sport.

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