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Volume 21 No. 23
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Tennis groups concerned over match-betting prospects in U.S.

A report commissioned by professional tennis relays fears that match betting in the U.S. could lead to corruption at the sport’s lower-level events.
Photo: Getty Images

As the U.S sports industry eagerly awaits word from the Supreme Court on whether it will lift a longtime ban on sports betting, something of a warning shot has come from the global tennis business, which in the last decade has been plagued by significantly more gambling scandals than any other sport.

 

A report commissioned by the top professional groups in the sport concluded that much of the gambling-related corruption in tennis is found at its lower levels, where players in under-the-radar tournaments can get paid more by bettors for under-performing than they are likely to earn by playing their best.

 

The findings, released late last month, sounded strikingly similar to concerns raised by Major League Baseball and the NBA during legislative hearings in states that might welcome sports betting if federal law allows it.

 

Both have argued that if states do allow sports betting, the leagues should have the option of preventing bookmakers from taking bets on games in their minor and developmental leagues. The gaming industry argues that doing so would only drive bettors to unregulated markets.

 

“The most impactful argument you can make comes from what you see in the report: That the thing you’re worried about is happening right now,” said Sara Slane, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Gaming Association. “You can look for suspicious activity in a legal and transparent betting system. The idea that we’ll just shut this down with the minor leagues or lower-level tennis — it’s like saying prohibition is going to get people to stop consuming alcohol. It didn’t.”

 

The problem was exacerbated, the report said, by the International Tennis Federation’s decision in 2011 to sell live scores from tens of thousands of far- flung, lower-level matches to data firm Sportradar, which then resold them to bookmakers so that they could resolve in-match bets. While some sites took those bets before the Sportradar deal — reported to be for $70 million paid across five years — the lack of live, official data made them far less appealing.

 

The report, called the Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis, recommended that tennis events and tours no longer sell streaming data from lower-tier matches. It also recommended that the sport no longer take sponsorship dollars from bookmakers, a suggestion that will bring gasps from those in the U.S. who expect that to be a fruitful new source of revenue.

 

What does all this mean for the U.S.? For all the talk of integrity from the big sports leagues here, perhaps the real danger is in the minor leagues and on lower-paying circuits.

 

In recent months, both the NBA and MLB have lobbied states to grant them control over which games bookmakers can offer, a request they say they made with the G League and Minor League Baseball in mind.

 

Those who have pointed to the minors as a high-risk area argue that because players there make less money and aren’t as tied to the fate of their teams, they are more susceptible to bribes, more likely to bet on their own games and less protective of inside information that might benefit bettors. That’s precisely the dynamic that led to the recommendation that tennis shut down betting on its lower-tier events. Presumably any sport in which pay is low and in-game scores are sold to gambling sites could be vulnerable.

 

The casino industry has opposed putting the final say in leagues’ hands, arguing that tight restrictions in the U.S. will simply lead bettors to continue placing their bets offshore. The dispute isn’t over whether to restrict betting on minor leagues, small college and some amateur sports, but over who would decide when to do it and at what level.

 

“Our interest and the leagues’ interest are precisely aligned on this,” said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill USA, the London-based bookmaker that accounts for about 30 percent of Nevada sports wagering. “It’s our money at stake. We don’t want to lose the money. So if a sporting body has a concern around any of this, we say bring it up to (state regulators). And then let them decide.”

 

The rigging of tennis matches has been well-documented. In the fourth quarter of 2017, tennis comprised 71 of the 114 suspicious bet alerts generated by the European Sports Security Association, an industry watchdog that monitors global betting markets for impropriety. The next highest sport was soccer at 18.

 

Match alerts skyrocketed after the Sportradar deal from 15 in 2013 to 240 in 2016 and 185 last year, according to the tennis report.

 

A Sportradar spokesperson said the proposal to end the data deal could be seen as “unlawfully” inducing the ITF to break a contract and to restrain trade.

 

The Supreme Court could rule on sports betting as soon as next week, and no later than June 25.