One of the first concerns expressed by lawmakers whenever the discussion of legalizing sports betting comes up is the possibility of match fixing and the corruption of professional sports (and even amateur sports for that mater).
Past experience shows these concerns are real. Heck, we can just point to the 2007 NBA betting scandal for just one of many examples in which betting-related corruption penetrated the highest levels of athletic competition in the United States. And before you get to feeling too smug, English football is not immune to betting scandals of its own.
On the other hand, the simple fact is there will always be significant sums of money involved in sports betting whether or not it is legal in any particular jurisdiction. Online sports betting is prohibited in the United States, for example, but UK bookmakers offer American football betting in full compliance with UK law.
If an NFL player or ref really wanted to make a little something-something on the side, it wouldn’t be all that hard to arrange in this day and age. And to be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I’m just making the point that it is impossible to completely remove all risk of match fixing in sports no matter where those competitions take place.
It is also impossible to remove the incentives that exist in relation to sports and sports gambling. The only thing we can do is try our best to detect match fixing and impose severe penalties on those caught engaging in unethical or illegal behaviour in order to dissuade others who would follow the same path.
Today, we we will briefly discuss what match fixing is and how various authorities around the world attempt to detect it. Real world examples will be used throughout to further illustrate how this all works today.
Match Fixing, Point Shaving and Spot Fixing
Match fixing is the most basic type of corruption in sports betting. Players, referees or other people involved in a sports organization purposely play the match to some kind of predetermined result in order to give gamblers who have bets on the game a guaranteed win.
What happens is the gamblers place their bets, the players/referees then do what they need to make sure those bets win and then the gamblers share some of the profits with those who helped throw the match.
The classic example of a match fixing operation would be the case of a dominant team purposely losing to an outclassed team. The sports punters would have big bets riding on the underdogs and then the favoured team would purposely lose the match. The punters would win big after the underdog team comes through with the unlikely victory, and then everyone divides the profits.
The problem with match fixing is it’s just a little obvious. Bookmakers are going to notice if a bunch of money suddenly comes in on an underdog team and then the favourites go on to play so poorly that they lose the match. Experienced bookmakers are well aware of the potential for match fixing and will start asking questions if they see anything suspicious.
Professional snooker player Stephen Lee was once ranked as high as no. 5 in the world but received a 12-year ban in 2013 after authorities found him guilty of purposely losing entire matches and individual frames against multiple opponents between 2008 and 2009.
Lee’s attempts to fix matches were so clumsy that even TV commentators noticed his sudden inability to make simple shots during a first-round match at the 2009 World Championship. You can see a replay of that match here.
Point shaving is a less-obvious variation of max fixing. In a point shaving fix, the favoured team does not have to lose the match outright. Instead, they simply need to ensure they fail to cover the point spread in order to help some outside party win his or her point spread bet on the match.
In a point spread wager, the favoured team must win by a certain number of points for any bets on that team to be considered winners. Likewise, bets on the underdog team can still win if the underdog manages to stay within range of the published spread.
For example, Team A might be favoured by 12.5 points. If you bet on Team A to win that match, they would need to finish the match ahead by at least 13 points for your bet to win. Anyone backing the underdog would win if the underdog wins the game outright or loses by fewer than 13 points.
Basketball is a particularly attractive target for point shaving due to the fast-paced and high-scoring nature of the game. Letting the other team rush for a few extra points or just barely missing a few key shots is all that’s needed to influence the outcome just enough to prevent the favoured team from covering the spread. All it takes is one or two players (or maybe even just a referee) in on the scheme.
Researchers have also conducted some interesting studies that seem to indicate point-shaving is a serious problem at both the amateur and professional level. Justin Wolfers, professor of business and public policy at Wharton, conducted a study in 2006 that looked at the point spreads and actual outcomes of more than 44,000 college basketball games dating back over 16 years.
He found that favourites of 12-points or more failed to cover the spread a significantly lower portion of the time when compared to smaller favourites. This would make sense if point-shaving is indeed an institutional problem as games that feature large favourites are more attractive for people looking to run a point-shaving scheme.
A student at Stanford conducted a similar study for NBA games and also found anomalies in the data that suggest point-shaving is an issue in the NBA.
The Boston College point shaving scandal of 1978-1979 is perhaps the most well-known example of point-shaving of all time. Even today, nobody really knows who all was in on the fix or how exactly it went down.
What we do know is the story broke in 1980 after former Lucchese mob associate Henry Hill was indicted by authorities for charges related to drug trafficking and the Lufthansa heist. In return for immunity, Hill became a police informant and revealed that he, other mob associates and several Boston College players had corroborated in a plan for Boston College to shave points in nine separate games.
After a federal trial, one player and several mob associates received lengthy prison sentences for their part in the scandal.
Spot fixing is an attempt to manipulate matches in an even subtler manner in order to fly under the radar. As you may know, not all sports bets are related to who will win the match. Bookmakers also offer all kinds of prop bets during matches such as who will score the first goal, whether the final score will be even or odd and so on.
Rather than change the outcome of a match, players or other officials can work to manipulate some other, smaller aspect of the match in order to help gamblers in on the fix win their prop bets. Spot fixing is much more difficult to detect as it does not require an entire team to collude to lose the game outright. Just one player or one official can alter the game in a subtle way to assist those on the outside with bets on that one aspect of the game.
The Pakistan spot-fixing scandal of 2010 serves as one of the most high-profile examples of spot fixing in modern times. Pakistani players Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt were accused of participating in a scheme in which Amir and Asif would throw a total of three no balls at specific points against England.
All three were banned from the sport for five years and served jail sentences of varying lengths.
Detecting Fixed Matches
In the modern day, data is the key to the detection of corruption in sports. Both offline and online betting operations now have the power of the computer and the internet to quickly identify suspicious betting patterns and bring them to the attention of humans.
The detection of corruption is perhaps the one area in which bookmakers, sports leagues and sports data companies all have a shared interest in preventing corruption. Bookmakers want to protect themselves, sports leagues obviously need to prevent corruption for the sake of public interest and data companies can earn serious money in putting their data to good use for these stakeholders.
When all three stakeholders are working in alignment, they can cast a wide net for identifying and preventing match fixing of all types. Betting operators and sports data companies can spot betting patterns that stand out while sports leagues can alert the police or impose their own penalties on players and officials.
With that being said, things don’t always work as smoothly as one would hope. Sports Radar told Vice Sports that its clients do not go to the police about 60% of the time when corruption is detected. Sports leagues want to prevent corruption, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are keen on letting the public in on it once something unsavoury has already happened. They have an image of integrity to protect, after all.
That Vice Sports article is a great read by the way. It goes into great detail about how Sportradar plays what may be the most instrumental role of any organization on the planet in detecting match fixing.
Sportradar is perfectly situated to detect corruption as the world’s leader in sports data. In short, their business model is to provide stats and betting services to sports leagues, media companies and bookmakers around the world. This company is incredibly advanced. For just one example, Sportradar is the company that provides the instant XY coordinates of every pass, shot and score in the NBA.
Their offshoot company, Betradar, uses this data to assist both online and real world bookmakers in setting the odds and providing data. Their client list includes more than 450 bookmakers and state lotteries around the world.
Sportradar also uses this data to power its Fraud Detection System. They monitor betting activity, take note of sudden shifts in betting handle and send automated alerts to security analysts who can then take a closer look to determine if action needs to be taken.
The security people at Sportradar even go so far as to keep portfolios of suspicious people involved in sports, monitor online discussion forums and maintain contacts who can keep them in the loop as to the latest happenings in the often-murky sports betting world.
Data is a powerful tool, but old-fashioned human intel has also broken open some of the world’s most egregious betting scandals. The Pakistani spot fixing scandal was uncovered by News of the World reporters while the Boston College scandal was revealed by a mafia informant. Match fixing requires at least two people by default, and people tend to be bad at keeping secrets.
In some cases, match-fixing schemes were uncovered by a combination of suspicious activity on the field and good police work behind the scenes. Speculation of bout-fixing in Japanese sumo wrestling had circulated for years on the back of strange win percentages noted by multiple studies. In 2011, police working on a baseball gambling case accidentally found incriminating text messages that showed sumo wrestlers agreeing to throw matches.
Legalization is Probably the Best Way to Protect the Integrity of Sports
I’ve always found it a little ironic when policymakers express fears of corruption during discussions of sports betting legalization. They worry that legalization could lead to match fixing, when legalization would probably in fact be the single most effective step they could take to combat corruption.
I say “probably” because this is a debatable point. Hard data is difficult to come by in countries where the vast majority of sports betting takes place underground with street bookies and unregulated offshore betting sites. It’s funny to note that the difficulty in coming up with data is precisely the reason I believe prohibition only serves to provide cover for corruption in sports.
Illegal offshore betting sites have little incentive to share data with authorities in countries that prohibit sports betting. If authorities have no access to betting data, they have almost zero ability to even spot suspicious betting patterns in the first place.
Offshore bookmakers do have an incentive to protect themselves from financial loss, but they have little incentive to report to authorities in countries where they run the risk of arrest for merely stepping foot.
To be fair, there is no way we will ever completely eliminate corruption in sports. It doesn’t matter if we go full-out on prohibition or try our best to legalize and regulate sports betting. There is just too much money involved in both activities, and there will always be just enough greedy people out there to cause problems for the rest of us. I do believe legalization is the best option, but can admit there is no perfect solution.