When the Independent Review Panel (IRP) set up by the governing bodies of professional tennis Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Grand Slam Board released its interim report in April this year, it outlined a variety of measures to tackle the game’s 'serious integrity problem'. Concerns about integrity risk in tennis are nothing new of course.
The review itself sprang from a joint BBC/Buzzfeed investigation implicating over a dozen top 50 players back in 2016. And yet the IRP reserved its most swingeing recommendations for the sport’s lowest professional levels of ITF competitions.
Sportradar has been the official data partner for the ITF since 2012 so we have a vested interest in ensuring that the sport is clean and credible. We also know something about integrity, having developed the leading solutions for identifying and pursuing match-fixing in sport over the last decade, partnering with over 75 rights holders and law enforcement organisations around the world, from the National Basketball Association (NBA) to Fifa.
But as part of the ongoing consultation on the IRP interim report, we, along with a number of other stakeholders and independent experts, question whether the proposals have landed in the right place. And here’s why…
Is the lowest level of the sport the most at risk?
The simple answer is no. Whilst, in absolute terms, the lowest levels of the sport have given rise to the most integrity alerts (these alerts being one way of measuring integrity risk), this only reflects the fact that there is a much higher volume of matches played at this level, more than three times the number played in the rest of tennis put together in fact.
So, if instead we look at the likelihood of a match being fixed, ITF matches are actually less likely to be fixed than matches at all other levels of the sport including the Grand Slams. The IRP’s own data demonstrates this quite nicely:
The IRP recommends banning data sales on ITF tournaments…but is prohibition an effective regulatory strategy?
Again, the short answer is no. The IRP has not identified any regulatory regime for sports betting where prohibition has been an effective and successful strategy. That’s because it’s hard to find one. In fact, the more enlightened states, regulators and sports, recognise that the most effective strategy is to ensure betting markets are brought into the open, that they’re properly regulated and that the betting industry is engaged as a relevant stakeholder.
Thankfully this is the trend we see in many places, most notably of course in the United States where the previous prohibition on sports betting was recently overturned by the Supreme Court.
The simple fact is that the interests of betting operators, as well as data companies like Sportradar, are fully aligned with the sports here – everyone wants to ensure that competition is fair and clean and everyone stands to lose out if it isn’t. This combined interest should be embraced in a collaborative approach between the sport, the data companies and the betting operators rather than harmed by a unilateral ban that is unlikely to work in practice.
Why won’t a ban work?
To put this in context, we’re talking about a thriving and growing sports betting market where demand for live content has increased significantly in recent years driven largely by technology. Whatever the situation was six or seven years ago, the reality now is that there are over 200 bookmakers worldwide who want to offer betting on ITF matches using the official live data.
If the IRP’s interim recommendation to impose a ban on this sale of official data were implemented, would this demand simply disappear? Of course not. The market is established and it is inevitable that the demand will be met. The unfortunate reality is that it would have to be met by the supply of unofficial data, effectively pushing the betting market on this level of the sport into a grey area which would hinder transparency and compromise integrity.
Not to mention that such a ban on live data would have no impact on pre-match betting as it does not require a live data feed. So, betting would still be available one way or another, undermining the supposed integrity benefits of a ban.
But if a ban happens won’t it help get rid of the corrupt influences in the sport?
Nobody could suggest that the corrupt individuals involved in fixing across all levels of tennis are going to stop their activity due to a potential ban on live data at the lowest tier of the professional game. Even if such a prohibition were successfully implemented at this level (as stated above, very unlikely, but go with me for a second), the fixers would simply shift their focus elsewhere. In practice, that would mean turning their attention either to the pre-match betting markets (which would still be available), the unofficial live markets (available and more opaque, which would be good for the fixers) or to the other levels of professional tennis which are already the most at risk of corruption (see graph above).
Either way, there is no benefit to the sport and no resource saving from an integrity perspective. The net effect would be to push part of the problem out of view, rather than address it head on, which is surely not the solution that tennis needs.
So is there a better way?
The reason tennis is vulnerable to these risks in the first place is due to a number of factors – the individual nature of the sport, the lack of sustainability for many professional players, the structure of competitions and the inadequacy of the historic enforcement regime. These are fundamental issues that need to be addressed if the sport is to demonstrate that it’s serious about tackling integrity issues. The IRP makes some very sound recommendations in these areas that I hope will be implemented.
But I also hope the IRP will have the courage and humility to reassess its position on an arbitrary prohibition which is bound to fail and may end up doing more harm than good.
There are alternative solutions available, in particular harnessing available technology to target risk areas across the sport, monitoring and identifying problems through detailed analysis, actively disrupting corrupt activity, and supporting targeted investigations. Far better to focus our collective efforts on hitting the fixers hard, rather than closing our eyes at a certain point and hoping the problems will go away.
David Lampitt is managing director at Sportradar, the leading sports data and content provider to the media and betting industries. He previously worked as the FA's head of integrity.