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Data ban a ‘blunt instrument’ to tackle tennis integrity

| By Joanne Christie | Reading Time: 5 minutes
The Independent Review Panel’s suggestion that restricting live data will help stamp out suspicious betting is fundamentally flawed, providers tell Scott Longley

The Independent Review Panel’s suggestion that restricting live data will help stamp out suspicious betting is fundamentally flawed, providers tell Scott Longley

The arrests of five Armenians in Belgium suspected of organising a match-fixing ring around Challenger and Futures tennis tournaments has once again seen the spotlight fall on how tennis and the sports data providers interact with the betting world.

This latest incident follows hot on the heels of a recent report on integrity in tennis undertaken by the Independent Review Panel (IRP) which demonstrated the extent to which the relationship between the world’s sports bodies and the industry that has grown up around data collection and distribution is still developing.

Top of the list is the proposal to attempt to reduce integrity breaches by restricting the sale of official live data, particularly for lower-level ITF (International Tennis Federation) tournaments.

It is Sportradar which has had the data contract with the ITF since 2012 and the company, along with others in the data business, has expressed concerns about whether the proposals are the best way of addressing integrity risks for the sport.

David Lampitt, managing director of group operations, points out that there is a significant demand for this data and that any prohibition would run counter to the very aims of instigating such a ban in the first place.

“If we weren’t providing that data, the demand wouldn’t go away,” he warns. “Others would step in and the danger is that they wouldn’t have the same rigorous controls and contractual conditions that we impose, nor the same commitment to protecting the integrity of sport.

“Ultimately if people want to bet on a sport, they will bet on it and they won’t necessarily need data from a secure provider to do so. Let’s not forget, bettors will still also be able to bet pre-match without live data and fixers will be able to just focus on those markets.”

Jake Marsh, head of integrity operations at Perform Group (which owns the betting data provider Running Ball), similarly suggests that tennis should beware throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Integrity risks can be mitigated by controls not only in relation to on-court events but also data quality,” he says.

“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.”

Direct from the chair
In the case of the ITF deal, Sportradar collects the data direct from the umpire’s chair, just as its competitors do for the other tennis bodies.  This enables umpire performance to be very closely monitored, including an audio monitoring system to ensure the speed and integrity of the data feed. 

The IRP report specifies at one point that betting on ITF matches obviously preceded the original 2012 data deal and that a number of tournaments in Turkey, Italy, Germany, France and Sweden had individual data deals. Sportradar also pointed out to the panel that it offered coverage on more than 7,000 ITF Pro Circuit matches in 2011 and that it was not alone in the market.

“Prior to our official deal there was significant betting on these levels of tennis,” says Lampitt. “There was no official set-up and a return to that situation looks like a backward step. Finding an approach which works for the sport but also has buy-in from the data companies and the betting operators is far more likely to succeed in protecting the sport in the long term.”

Ultimately, official data deals provide a mechanism which enables sports to place reporting obligations on providers and operators and create a level of cooperation between the sport and the betting industry, as well as providing a financial return to enable investment in, for example, grass roots sport or more targeted integrity measures.

The alternative will only push betting underground, hidden from view, not to mention the proposed outcome for tennis, which would divert significant tennis integrity resources into policing a ‘data black-out’ rather than identifying and removing the real perpetrators of corrupt activity.

Others would appear to share this view. Marc Thomas, a partner at sports and betting consultancy Propus Partners, notes that a slow evolution in understanding has taken place across a wide spectrum of sports bodies.

Price point pinch
“Sports bodies are largely now realising that betting on their events will happen regardless, so working with (most importantly) a body that can collate and communicate suspicious betting patterns, and (secondarily) monetise the data, is sensible.”

Yet, the IRP report seems somewhat blind to the reality of the data picture and its relationship to betting. To assert that, in the words of the report, there is “insufficient evidence” to conclude that if official live data were not available, the same betting markets as available today could be “effectively deterred” is to wholly misunderstand the modern in-play betting universe.

It also misses a wider point regarding integrity, data, the sports bodies and the betting operators that isn’t just about a financial relationship. Steve Burton, managing director at Genius Sports says the interests of regulated betting operators and sports bodies are aligned.

“Neither benefits from match-fixing,” he points out. “In fact, the existence of sensible and mutually beneficial relationships between operators and sports is key to exposing, isolating and defeating betting related corruption.”

Not just a volume play
Since the 2012 deal, there has, as the report states, been significant growth in the coverage at ITF level, with the total of men’s and women’s matches covered rising to 60,000 in 2016 from 40,000 three years’ earlier.

In terms of pure volume, this has meant more matches being flagged for integrity concerns at this level than in other parts of tennis, but of course this reflects the fact that there are many more matches at ITF level than in the rest of professional tennis combined.

If you scratch below the surface, you will find that this level of tennis is not actually the most prone to integrity risk – in 2017 matches at ITF level were less likely to be flagged for integrity risk than any other level of the sport, including the grand slams; and over the last five years it’s only the grand slams that have had a lower propensity for flagged matches overall.  

This certainly seems to undermine the report’s claim that there is a causal link between the sale of official data and integrity risk in the sport. That is further supported by the fact that there are many other official data deals across similar sports such as table tennis or badminton (also popular betting sports), but where the integrity risks appear to be lower than in tennis. So what is the real driver here and how can the challenges be overcome? 

According to Lampitt, the answer is multi-faceted. “Integrity risk is driven by a number of factors, which include player incentives, cultural environment – for example, we see significant variances between countries and nationalities in our own integrity monitoring work – not to mention the effectiveness of the enforcement regime.”

A prohibition-based approach is unproven and a blunt instrument. “The evidence from other sports and other industries shows that the more effective route is to tackle the problem in a targeted way. This means focusing on the areas of highest risk to weed out corrupt influences systematically.”

Maybe this doesn’t carry the headline-grabbing attraction of a blanket prohibition, but it might just provide the opportunity for tennis to create a new model of stakeholder cooperation that could act as a template for others.

Related articles: ‘Tsunami’ of match-fixing in lower-level tennis, says report
International Tennis Federation expands with Sportradar
Tennis suspicious betting alerts increase in Q1
 

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