SBJ/Dec. 6-12, 2010/This Week's Issue

ESPN seeks to unseal ATP gambling info

"Most business partners have
realized that while some stories are
uncomfortable, time moves on."

Vince Doria, ESPN

ESPN has asked a federal court to unseal documents potentially damaging to the ATP World Tour, pitting men’s tennis against its most significant U.S. broadcaster.

The documents in question allegedly prove that elite ATP players gambled on professional tennis matches, a charge leveled by four journeymen Italian players suing the ATP for fining and suspending them for betting.

“We have no idea if the allegations are true,” said Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news. “We’re basically throwing a hook in the water to see if anything’s there.”

The motion underscores ESPN’s role as both a business partner and a news gatherer, a situation that frequently has irritated sports leagues.

At the 2007 All-Star Game, MLB banned ESPN sets from the ballpark because ESPN’s news division broke an embargo announcing the All-Star teams. Earlier this year, NFL executives complained when ESPN ran a news series on concussions during the Super Bowl. The NFL also battled ESPN in 2003 over the network’s entertainment series “Playmakers,” which the NFL complained cast the league in a bad light. ESPN dropped the series after one season.

“We had a number of issues with ESPN over the years where our perception of what is good for the game and what they needed for editorial freedom diverged,” said Frank Hawkins, a former NFL executive who now co-owns Scalar Media Partners.

Neal Pilson said he ran into similar problems as head of CBS Sports in the 1980s and early 1990s. He recalled worrying when CBS News ran a story on Augusta National during Masters weekend. He never heard from the Masters.

“The sports leagues completely understood that our news division was separate,” Pilson said. “That may be a little more difficult for ESPN, which has both departments under one roof.”

Doria said issues with leagues occur regularly.

“Virtually everyone we cover is a business partner these days,” he said. “Most business partners have realized that while some stories are uncomfortable, time moves on. After the story comes out, we’re still going to have a relationship with these entities.”

ESPN2 is a major broadcaster of professional tennis, with 570 hours committed in 2011, though some of that includes Grand Slam and WTA play. ESPN2 last month struck a deal with the ATP to broadcast the Miami and Indian Wells events, the tour’s top two tournaments.

Following the creation of the Tennis Integrity Unit to police gambling in tennis, the ATP sanctioned the low-ranked Italian players in late 2007 and early 2008 for betting on the sport. The sport’s governing bodies, including the ATP, formed the Tennis Integrity Unit in response to suspicious betting patterns in a 2007 match featuring a top-ranked ATP player and the subsequent discovery of similar patterns in other players’ matches.

The NFL objected to ESPN's "Playmakers."
The series was canceled after one season.

In July 2009, the Italian players sued the ATP in Florida, arguing they were unaware the small bets violated ATP rules. The initial complaint stated that in 2008, the ATP became aware that many players wagered on the sport. But in a more explosive development, the four players, in an October motion opposed to the ATP’s move to dismiss the lawsuit, contended that men’s tennis was using them to distract from the real issue of top players gambling.

“[The] ATP completely ignored more serious violations of the anti-corruption program by high-ranked, more prominent professional tennis players in order to avoid negatively effecting its revenue and reputation,” the players charged.

The documents allegedly proving these charges were filed under seal.

“Gambling among professional tennis players has been an on-going public concern for some time, as this lawsuit demonstrates,” ESPN argued in its Nov. 24 motion to unseal. “Whether professional tennis players — who are public figures — are gambling on their own matches, or the matches of fellow players, is a matter of public concern. Accordingly, ESPN seeks access to the sealed judicial records in this case.

“It is ESPN’s understanding that the documents deal with third-parties’ gambling accounts or activities,” the motion continued.

In an e-mailed statement, the ATP’s outside counsel responded that the circuit opposed ESPN’s request.

“The ATP has a duty to protect the privacy interests of its players who were not involved in betting from the extortionate claims of these plaintiffs,” wrote Stephen Busey of the Florida law firm Smith Hulsey & Busey.

The case, which is scheduled to go to a jury trial on Feb. 7, is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Jacksonville. A hearing on ESPN’s motion, among other matters, occurred last Thursday. Doria said ESPN’s editorial department completes motions like this “probably 10 to 12 times per year.”

Its motion follows The New York Times’ successful bid to unseal the transcript of an in-chambers session that occurred during the Texas Rangers bankruptcy case. The Times filed the motion in September to unseal the July 9 transcript, and after winning approval in mid-November, wrote a story based on the newly public information.

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