The tennis world has been rocked this week by allegations that a number of players appear to have fixed matches at the behest of gambling syndicates over nearly a decade.
Tennis authorities scoff at the suggestion that such practices are widespread or that they have ignored information provided to them. They also reject the notion that entering into sponsorship deals with bookmakers – such as William Hill, sponsor of the Australian Open – makes corruption more likely.
Rather, the argument goes, co-operation with the bookies facilitates access to gambling data.
The investigation that uncovered the match-fixing allegations utilised analysis of this data to identify the suspected players. In the absence of hard evidence such as surveillance material, bank records or telecommunications metadata, statistical analysis is the way to identify patterns of behaviour and identify likely cheats.
The bookies already do this. And if they are as public spirited as they claim, surely allowing access to data for purposes of scrutiny by sporting or regulatory authorities is a public duty? It doesn’t require a cosy sponsorship deal.
Unlike many businesses, wagering relies on the operations of unconnected entities to generate the markets that are its stock in trade. In this, it resembles the relentless “investment” in derivatives of the US housing market, which fuelled the global financial crisis.
In the end, the size of this market dwarfed the real activity it was focused on. When it collapsed, it brought that real world down with it. The danger for global sport is that the sports betting bubble will have the same effect.
Sports betting has enjoyed enormous growth in recent years. In Australia, its 16% annual growth has far outstripped other gambling modes.
The market in sports betting is also heavily driven by technology and relentless expansion into more sports. Anyone watching the Australian Open this year on Australian free-to-air TV will notice the proliferation of sports betting ads. So will spectators in the major arenas.
So, the current controversy over match-fixing has some ironic elements. World number two Andy Murray suggested there was a touch of hypocrisy about telling the players to have no connection with gambling interests (including accepting sponsorship from bookies) while blithely maintaining that gambling sponsorship generated no conflicts for the sport overall.
Gambling is big business; its money buys a lot of influence. One area where this plays out is the symbiotic relationship between governments and gambling businesses. The revenue governments derive from gambling makes them largely oblivious to the corrupting influence of gambling dollars on politics and policies.
Saving sport from itself
Sporting organisations are no different to political institutions. Gambling has spread its sponsorship wings and provided a new stream of revenue to popular sporting codes.
Beyond the codes themselves, broadcasters and other commercial media also find the stream of revenue from gambling ads lucrative. That in turn pumps up what they can offer for broadcast rights for popular leagues. And the cycle continues.
It’s hardly surprising that individual players – particularly those at the start of their careers who are often struggling to meet the costs of staying on the tour – would somehow fall victim to the temptations of all that money. Sadly, once corrupt gamblers or their agents have their hooks into you, they never let go.
And, in this debate, the factor that is usually forgotten is the cost to ordinary people. With rampant promotion of gambling on a seemingly never-ending exponential trajectory, more people are likely to gamble. Many will be young people who have never known sports free of the influence of gambling. And, it seems, they now view all sporting contests through the lens of the odds and the “value” available from different bookies.
For many of these people, gambling harms will ruin (or in too many cases end) their lives and greatly damage those of their family, friends and in some cases employers and others.
More broadly, the inestimable value of the untrammelled enjoyment of sport is lost. If you love a specific sport and see it degraded by scandal after scandal, some part of the enjoyment is gone forever. Tennis provides an excellent example of a sport of global significance being tainted by the commercial interests of a relatively small but increasingly lucrative and powerful business.
It is not feasible to clean up sport tournament by tournament, or country by country. An anti-corruption agency with the ability to look at these matters with an unjaundiced eye is probably necessary, and sooner rather than later.
It wouldn’t hurt to see the ever-closer associations between sports and gambling businesses wound back dramatically. Tobacco provided more than one-quarter of Australian sports sponsorship in the 1980s. At one point it sustained some sports’ financial viability. But when it ended, no sport went to the wall.
Gambling is a corrupter of institutions, as well as a dangerous product for many of those who consume it as intended. It must be seen as such. It needs to be properly and carefully regulated, and it needs to be treated with the considerable care that any dangerous product deserves.
If the price of clean sport and corruption-free political and social processes is a modest reduction in global gambling revenues or growth, I suspect most sports fans would be happy with the deal. Surely, right now, tennis lovers would be.