The BBC and BuzzFeed News say they have access to secret files exposing evidence of widespread suspected match-fixing in world tennis, including by eight players who are participating at the Australian Open, which opened in Melbourne today. Both declined to name the players.
The Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) – supported by the Grand Slams, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), but operating independent from all of these – upholds a zero-tolerance stance towards gambling-related corruption in the sport.
The news about allegations of match-fixing in tennis follows a turbulent week in the AFL where 34 players have been banned from playing or even participating in Australian football by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
And let’s not forget the ongoing sagas about FIFA and the World Cup, and cycling’s trials and tribulations through Lance Armstrong coming clean on the Oprah Winfrey show about his systematic use of performance-enhancing substances.
Fanatic Essendon fans have expressed widespread sympathy for the ordeal that their players have to go through, and continue to support their team.
Ultimately, the objective of Essendon’s supplements program was to influence the outcome of the performance contest, to produce athletes who were more likely to outperform their opponents and win on the field.
The CAS ruling was an expression of the illegality of these efforts. Essendon cheated and the players should have known better. They lose, the fans lose, the AFL lose and ironically, some other AFL teams may win.
Disgruntled fans may switch allegiance, sponsors may invest their dollars in other clubs and players may choose not to go to Essendon.
The excitement of a sporting contest is ultimately underpinned by the unpredictability of the outcome. We watch because there is a chance that either team or athlete can win and the closer the contest, the more exciting the match.
That, in turn, sparks a human desire to engage in secondary play, to have a competition about who might win. This can be a competition between friends, or with an official or unofficial third party, willing and able to engage in a bet on the outcome of sport.
We like a fair game
But what happens when the outcome of the sporting contest has been manipulated, unknown to the general public, and in some instances even without the legal betting agencies knowing?
On the first day of one of the biggest tennis tournaments on the globe, fans and commentators are faced with this very predicament. The BBC and Buzzfeed reports say the supposed unpredictable outcome of some high-profile tennis matches have been manipulated, fixed, in order to create unfair advantage for corrupt punters.
Because the BBC and Buzzfeed are not naming the eight players, all high-profile players are now implicated, and they may feel the pressure of public and media scrutiny.
Part of the context for this scandal is the news that betting agency William Hill will be widely exposed (through advertising) as the official gambling partner of the Australian Open. Tennis Australia has negotiated a commercial deal that involves a small portion of betting revenues to flow into their coffers.
William Hill, of course, has nothing to do with the match-fixing allegations, but if fans feel they can’t trust some of the players, will they stop gambling on their matches?
William Hill and Tennis Australia may see their revenues diminish and join the ranks of losers. The implied link by sport gambling antagonists between match-fixing allegations and the business and sponsorship deals of legal betting companies is in that regard unfortunate and opportunistic.
But as a result of the implied link, there are winners and losers among the advocates and adversaries as well. Tennis Australia officials argue that a sponsored relationship with official betting companies allows them to support legal betting activity and assist them in eradicating illegal pursuits.
Tennis Australia further commits to this by supporting research that independently and rationally calculates the chances of various tennis superstars to be crowned the winner at the Australian Open. To that end, it has been predicted that Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams have more than 50% chance of winning in 2016.
On the other hand, there are those who argue that any association between sport and gambling sends the wrong message – a message that gambling is perfectly fine – and that such advertising hides the likelihood of addictive or destructive behaviour.
Like the Tennis Integrity Unit, I believe that Tennis Australia at the Australian Open is fully committed to investigating, preventing and ultimately exterminating activities that contribute to illegal gambling.
I also get the perspective of revenue maximisation, and that the value that Tennis Australia creates with events such as the Australian Open needs to be mined. Surely the multimillion dollar revenue that the betting agencies reap, resulting from performances of tennis stars on display at the Australian Open, needs to be shared with the organisation producing that value?
How that is best done remains a question not only for tennis but for all sport organisations associating themselves (commercially) with betting. A fundamental dilemma of any sporting organisation is how to maximise the resources that are available to the sport, and how to do this without violating the integrity of that sport. That is, to play by the rules and strive with all that is within the athletes and their support staff (and nothing more!), to win the contest.
Only then can fans, members, supporters, sponsors, and those who work in sport – the professionals and the volunteers – be guaranteed that they are not cheated out of a good fair dinkum competition. It might even lead to a bit of punt on the predicted result.