Review wants ban on betting sponsorship of tennis, as Sportradar defends data deals
By Simon Ward
Bans on betting sponsorship in tennis and the sale of live scoring data from certain tournaments are among the recommendations of a report into match-fixing in the sport, which has identified a “tsunami” of corruption at lower levels.
The Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis concludes, in its interim report published today, that the sport provides a “fertile breeding ground” for corruption, and that the authorities and betting companies need to do more to address it.
However, the investigators found no evidence of a cover-up by the sport’s governing bodies - the men’s ATP, the women’s WTA and the International Tennis Federation – nor the Tennis Integrity Unit, the operation which monitors the sport for instances of match-fixing and other wrongdoing, nor any involvement by top-level players in such activity.
Some of the actions taken by the ITF and the ATP were nonetheless deemed to be “inappropriate or ineffective, resulting in missed opportunities."
The governing bodies have taken note of the findings, and vowed to consider the 12 recommendations put forward ahead of the publication of the final report later this year, while continuing to take initiatives to deal with betting-related integrity issues.
However, Sportradar, the Switzerland-based international digital content and betting integrity company, which provides live data from minor ITF tournaments, and whose role was referenced in the report, has described a proposed ban on lower-tier live data sales as “unrealistic” and “potentially unlawful.”
The International Review Panel went to work in early 2016 after the BBC, the UK’s public-service broadcaster, and website BuzzFeed News claimed that 16 unnamed players who had been ranked in the top 50 had been repeatedly flagged to the TIU over suspicions that they had thrown matches in the past decade.
They alleged that all of the players, including winners of grand slam titles, were allowed to continue competing, and that eight of them were playing at that year’s Australian Open.
The independent review, which was led by Adam Lewis QC and based on more than 1,000 interviews with players and officials, has taken two years and cost close to £20 million ($28 million), according to the BBC.
The report said: "The nature of the game lends itself to manipulation for betting purposes. The player incentive structure creates a fertile breeding ground for breaches of integrity. Today, tennis faces a serious integrity problem."
The situation is seen as being most critical at the lower levels of the sport where players earn little money and are therefore more susceptible to corruption than the leading stars, albeit there was "some evidence of some issues" at grand slams and events on the major tours.
A survey of 3,200 tennis players had found that 14.5 per cent had first-hand knowledge of match-fixing, and 16.4 per cent had first-hand knowledge of a player betting on tennis.
The report also highlighted the impact of the ITF’s deal with Sportradar, valued at $70 million over five years, to distribute live data from minor tournaments worldwide, which had provided a new platform for gambling, and offered opportunities for corrupt bookmakers, and, by association, players and umpires, to make money dishonestly.
It said there was “little empirical evidence” that betting was widespread on tours such as the ITF Pro Circuit prior to the initial deal coming into effect in 2012, but that by 2016 some 60,000 matches had been opened up to the market.
The panel’s recommendations include eliminating remaining betting sponsorships from tennis, with the comment: “Players are precluded from having such sponsorship. The same should apply to tournaments.”
In January 2017, the ITF did end a controversial sponsorship tie-up with Betway, the online betting firm, just one year into a three-year deal covering the Davis Cup and Fed Cup competitions.
At the time, the ITF told Sportcal that it “took the decision to end the Betway sponsorship early as part of a policy decision to cease having betting sponsors.”
The new report also calls for: an end to the sale of official live scoring data on small tournaments; banning betting markets at the lowest levels of tennis; better funding and a new supervisory body for the TIU; improved integrity training for players and officials and better security at lower levels to deter parallel betting and efforts to improperly influence players; and live streaming and recorded video of all matches for which official data is sold, with the electronic scoreboard in the camera frame.
Data companies and governing bodies react Sportradar has defended its partnership with the ITF, and hit out at the proposed ban on live data sales for the federation's $15,000 and $25,000 Pro Circuit events, saying in a statement: “On face value, this looks to be unrealistic, potentially unlawful and we would have serious reservations about the credibility of such a recommendation. Prohibition simply doesn’t work. Prohibiting data partnerships will not stop betting, live or otherwise, on these matches nor will it remove corruption risk at this level.
“Pre-match betting will remain available; unofficial data will be collected; generally available match statistics can be used by betting operators anyway; the risk of data fraud and ghost matches will increase; and there will be no clear contractual basis by which operators will be bound to reporting and transparency requirements. This will almost certainly encourage black market activity.
“The aim of reducing or removing integrity risk in the sport is fully supported but there are clearly alternative ways of achieving those aims that are less draconian and more practicable and that plainly warrant proper impact assessment and evaluation. For example, we have this year entered into an integrity monitoring partnership with the ITF, and we are actively working with them and the TIU.”
Sportradar has also questioned some of the findings of the report, saying: “There appears to be significant inconsistency in the recommended approaches to data sales, given that the risk of corruption in ITF competitions is identified as lower than the risk associated with other tours and events. This inconsistency is particularly stark when looking at the data on women’s ITF competitions.
“Needless to say we will be actively engaging in the upcoming consultation process to ensure that the final outcome on these issues better reflects a proportionate and targeted regulatory regime rather than a heavy-handed approach that potentially creates further risks to the sport.”
Sportradar is the worldwide distributor of official data for ITF events, including the Davis Cup, Fed Cup and ITF Pro Circuit tournaments, in a deal that runs until 2021. It is also the preferred streaming partner for a range of ITF Pro Circuit events.
Perform, the digital sports content and media group that has a long-term media rights and production deal with the WTA and shows numerous prominent tennis tournaments on its Watch & Bet service distributed to online and retail bookmakers, has also responded to the report.
In a statement to Sportcal, it said: "The work of the IRP in providing an independent review of betting-related integrity in the sport is to be welcomed. As a multi-faceted sports business, Perform supports the efforts of rights-holders and governing bodies to improve the governance of their competitions.
"Much has been done to improve the governance and integrity of tennis since the IRP was launched, not least in relation to collaboration between the sport and the betting industry. However, there are clearly still issues to be addressed, particularly at the lower levels of the sport.
"Integrity risks can be mitigated by controls not only in relation to on-court events but also data quality. Investment in robust data collection, distribution and quality controls by data providers can greatly enhance the integrity of competitions and provide assurance for rights holders and governing bodies.
On ensuring safeguards in betting, Perform said: "Professional sport can be safely bet on if the parameters of operation around betting content creation are appropriate and follow best practice. As a premium content provider and responsible operator, Perform invests heavily in its data operations infrastructure in order to protect those receiving the data, the betting operators, and the sports themselves. Our risk management approach to data sees controls at every stage of the process from recruitment and training through to technical and security solutions.
"The IRP’s identification that the betting industry has a critical role to play should be seen as an opportunity for all stakeholders to increase their collaboration on integrity and to continue the great work of the last two years. Recent cases have clearly shown that it is not one source of analysis that has contributed to successful sports disciplinary and legal proceedings but that a range of evidence is required to challenge and corroborate hypotheses.
"The Perform Integrity team work throughout the year with tennis stakeholders to identify potential irregularities and protect the sport. We look forward to the results of the consultation process and, through our betting monitoring and intelligence capabilities, to supporting tennis implement the final recommendations and help the governance of the sport in relation to betting-related integrity."
In a joint statement, the ATP, WTA, ITF and Grand Slam Board, which oversees the four biggest events in tennis, said: “We are pleased with the Panel’s findings that they have seen no evidence of any institutional corruption or cover-up by the tennis authorities or the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU).
"We are also pleased that the IRP has recognised the positive actions taken by the sport to address the integrity issues it faces: “The International Governing Bodies are to be commended for the introduction of rules specifically aimed at dealing with the integrity problems faced by tennis.”
"However, we also recognise that there are vulnerabilities, particularly at the lower levels of tennis. We are committed to seizing the opportunity to address these concerns through firm and decisive action. We support the IRP’s identification that the betting industry’s role is critical to ensure that betting operators play their part.
“Following an initial review of the Interim Report we confirm our agreement in principle with the package of measures and recommendations proposed by the IRP. These include the removal of opportunities and incentives for breaches in integrity, the establishment of a restructured, more independent TIU, enhanced education, expanded rules, and greater co-operation and collaboration with the betting industry and broader sports community.
“Each of these areas now needs detailed exploration and analysis. Our immediate priority is to provide the input requested by the IRP by carefully reviewing, considering and responding to the 12 recommendations put forward for consultation, ahead of publication of the Final Report. At the same time we will continue to implement existing initiatives to enhance and expand tennis’s governance of the sport in relation to betting-related integrity.”
In its statement, the TIU said: “The Tennis Integrity Unit fully supports proposals for an expanded and restructured tennis integrity organisation. We look forward to working with the governing bodies of tennis to achieve timely and effective implementation of the Independent Review Panel’s final recommendations.”