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What should sport do about match-fixing?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about match-fixing this week.

But of all the conversations I have had about it, the one that most developed my thinking on this perennial topic came on Monday evening at the Colossus Christmas Party, where I fell into conversation with a proper punter. By “proper”, I mean someone who told me that he bets on 800 tennis matches a year.

I learned a great deal in the ten minutes that we chatted, but what struck me most was a comment that  got me thinking about a possible solution for sport: he said he hasn’t seen a bent tennis match in the last three years, and that the alleged ‘sting’ in the Football League would probably do a lot to reduce match-fixing in that sport in the coming months.

So how about this for an idea? Why doesn’t football, and sport as a whole, adopt the following blueprint:

  • Tell people under their licence (i.e. footballers for the FA, tennis players for the ATP, anyone competing at an Olympic Games for the IOC, etc) that anyone found not following precise rules on match-fixing issues gets immediate suspension of a stated period (not to say banned for good)
  • Make clear what the precise rules are: something like, “you must respond to any approach with the words, ‘I am not interested, and I will be reporting this approach’, and then you must do exactly that (i.e., report it) within 48 hours of being asked, by adopting the following clear procedure [outline clear procedure accordingly, with a hotline number or something]”.
  • Tell them that as part of the job of policing the sport, the governing body may conduct its own sting operations to ensure that the rules are being upheld.
  • Perform said stings, approaching players with an incentive to fix a match, and ensuring that they respond in the accepted and prescribed way.

Is this mad? If it is, I would like to know why… Perhaps two good reasons why it’s not are that it isn’t expensive: you need a handful of people to execute it. And it isn’t that it presumes guilt of innocent people, any more than testing for drugs does: it merely confirms that innocent people are innocent.

Equally, it seems to me to be no different from the Gambling Commission’s “Mystery Shopper” exercise whereby they try to open accounts for people under 18 with licencees who have no right to offer such accounts. And it strikes me as identical to the Metropolitan Police approach of putting signs up in the street (as they do around where I work) which say, “is the car you are targeting, the decoy car?” – dissuading car break-ins by parking vehicles with items on display which are somehow coded, or watched, or otherwise primed for catching crooks. To quote a tweet in response to this posting, it is “the sporting equivalent of speed cameras” – only without the cameras being visible.

As I said many times yesterday when asked by various broadcasters about the allegations, the issue is one of risk and reward; and the risk must be made as high as possible, particularly if it is hard to control the reward that is offered (particularly in terms relative to other compensation, such as how much a player is paid in lower leagues). Making every approach likely to be a sting approach would put the fear of God into anyone vaguely considering accepting. Why would anyone take the chance?

The concept would surely need some tightening up, and clearly, legal niceties would have to be observed to ensure that no Governing Body fell foul to allegations of entrapment. But they have contracts with people who sit under their jurisdiction, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to write this kind of requirement in, in just the same way as attendance at drug tests and the provision of samples have become standard across the world. And the great difference with drugs testing is that in this instance, there would be no opportunity for corruptors to get into an arms race, as happens between the dopers and the enforcers.

Please could someone explain to me why this proposal wouldn’t go a long way towards eradicating the problem of match-fixing overnight?

Posted in Betting industry, Gambling, Sport.

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2 Responses

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  1. ed says

    Mark, do you really think that the FA are serious about targeting the issues relating to betting in football and match fixing?

    In recent months the FA have imposed sanctions on easy targets such as Andros Townsend and Robert Heys, but do they apply their rules to all? The FA rules state that:
    • You are not allowed to place any bet on a game involving your club;
    • You are not allowed to place any bet on a game in a competition (such as cup competitions or the league itself) in which your club plays.
    • All Employees of a Club are deemed to participate in every Match played by that Club while they are so employed.

    Peter Coates is owner of Stoke City and Chairman of Bet365. When Tony Pulis left Stoke City this summer Bet365 tacitly acknowledged this relationship, as rather than opening a book on who would be the next Stoke City manager they instead decided to close the books they were running on the Chelsea and Everton vacancies.

    Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford are both owned by professional gamblers in Tony Bloom & Matthew Benham respectively. There is no suggestion here that either of these individuals or their companies transgress the FA rules, however what measures do the FA take to ensure this? Do you think the FA have complete access to their accounts?

    I think it is a fair argument to state that in recent years these clubs have overachieved thanks to the largesse of their owners. As I previously stated I have no knowledge if any FA rules have been broken in the above cases, however surely the FA owe it to the fans of all other clubs to conduct a thorough and open investigation into these relationships?

  2. MD says

    Hi Ed

    You make some very interesting points…

    The answer to the specific question you pose is that I am sure that the FA believes itself to be very serious on the issue and I do not doubt their sincerity. But, frankly, I think they understand very little about it and I think they desperately need some betting knowledge inside the organisation – as do other sports.

    I think that were there not the on-going battle in the background relating to sports rights and whether there should be a payment to sport by the betting industry (which I have written about before at some length), they would have got that knowledge in-house already: it is not unusual in all sorts of areas for poachers to turn gamekeeper, in the way that computer security companies will naturally hire a hacker almost before they hire anyone else.

    Sadly, there IS that on-going battle, and I am of the view that it significantly clouds this debate and seriously retards the quest for a solution. A concrete example of the impact of the battle is that I have never once heard anyone suggesting solutions such as the one outlined above which would cost pennies relative to the overall budget; instead, the question always asked before any other is ‘who will pay for the problem?’.

    I think the very first thing that needs to happen is that the debate about payments is parked while a solution to the match-fixing issue is found and implemented. That solution is only likely to be effective if it is created in conjunction with people who understand how punters work – which means people who make and track prices themselves every day: big punters, and old-fashioned bookmakers.

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