The first day of the Australian Open was marred by revelations alleging widespread match-fixing and cover-ups in men’s tennis stretching back more than a decade. World number one Novak Djokovic confirmed he was approached with a reported offer of US$200,000 in 2006 to throw a match.
Hyper-commercialised sport in the 21st century has resulted in a number of benefits for athletes and spectators. Athletes are able to make significant amounts of money; spectators can enjoy excitement of the highest order without having to leave their lounge rooms. But it is naïve to think that all changes have been beneficial.
In recent decades doping has consistently been the most-visible negative consequence of commercialised sport. So much pressure is now exerted on athletes that they are tempted, for whatever reason, to take performance-enhancing substances.
While the Australian public demands a level playing field, Australian athletes and sports have been caught up in doping. For the most part, though, Australian sports are heavily regulated and proactive in addressing doping. But the same cannot be said about gambling.
Gambling and sport are entwined
Online and live sports betting has become much more prevalent in recent years.
All major sports in Australia now have some kind of a relationship with sports betting agencies. Online bookmaker William Hill is the “official betting partner” of the Australian Open and – in a first for a Grand Slam tournament – it has been allowed to advertise inside stadiums.
For television and pay-per-view providers, sports betting agencies provide significant advertising dollars. Betting agencies, alongside junk food and alcohol, form an unholy trinity of sports advertising in Australia.
Gambling, particularly on poker machines, can be destructive. So too has sports betting been responsible for creating a new breed of problem gamblers. Sports gambling is accepted as a rite of passage for many Australian males.
However, sporting authorities are cautious about upsetting their sponsors. Tennis officials largely dismissed the revelations of match-fixing as old news.
Tennis is a sport very suitable for corruption in this hyper-commercialised era. Here’s why we shouldn’t surprised that match-fixers have targeted the sport:
Tennis is a one-on-one sport. If you wanted to manipulate an outcome, you would avoid team sports such as rugby league or netball. Too much can go wrong. Individual sports are different; corruption is easier to organise.
It is very difficult to prove a tennis match has been fixed: a player withdraws in the second set “injured”; a player double-faults on crucial points; a player makes a number of unforced errors.
Tennis players are taught and coached from an early age that they are professional and that they have only a limited time in the game. Money is a considerable concern for players and a great motivator. Those outside the top-ranked players would make more money by match-fixing than by playing on the tour.
Betting markets on tennis matches provide gamblers with an opportunity to wager on a host of “exotic” markets, not just head-to-head betting. This includes markets such as whether there will be a tiebreak set, who will win the next game, or the total number of games played.
It would seem that the authorities are keen not to address the issue. Sporting bodies, for publicity issues, are always keen to deny – just look at the recent FIFA scandal and allegations of widespread doping in Russian athletics.
The lifestyle of professional tennis athletes brings with it lots of down time and boring periods in hotel rooms in foreign countries.
In the commercialised world of tennis, sport has a different meaning. Kids are told about sport’s educational benefits, but they notice in the real world that it is really about making money.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, sport is a commodity. People’s involvement largely revolves around financial remuneration.