The recent rise and prevalence of corruption in sport has drawn the attention of the international community. As Transparency International highlights in their 2016 report, professional sports not only engage billions of people worldwide, but also involve significant amounts of money. Such corruption thus creates tremendous societal and economic burdens. Match fixing is one form of corruption that has impacted a wide range of sports, including tennis, cricket, soccer, boxing, basketball, and baseball all within the last year. This problem not only permeates low-level games, but also impacts high-profile events such as World Cup qualifiers, European Championship qualifiers, and even Champions League Games.
On the surface, it may seem as though match fixing is a victimless crime, or at least one that’s not sufficiently serious to attract the attention of anticorruption advocates. Yet because match fixing scandals have implications that stretch far beyond the playing field, the anticorruption community should care about this problem for at least two reasons. First, as previously discussed on this blog, corruption scandals in sports are highly visible, and corruption in sports can attract public attention in ways that other corrupt activities cannot. Second, match fixing facilitates organized crime and other corrupt activities. Organized criminals engage in match fixing because it is a low-risk enterprise with the potential for large rewards from unregulated betting markets.
A recent report by the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime investigated match fixing and tried to understand some of its underlying causes. The report cites a number of factors that have allowed this threat to grow, including “personal greed, weak governance structures of sport as a sector, easily accessible global betting markets that are open to exploitation, low prioritization of match fixing as a threat by law enforcement agencies and the use of sport by organized criminals to advance their own interests.” In attempting to address these causes, 28 countries have proposed, adopted, or enacted specific legislation criminalizing match fixing. Yet even in those jurisdictions where such sanctions exist, regulations have been ineffective. Unfortunately, the complicated transnational nature of sports betting makes it difficult for regulations to prevent match fixing in an effective way. Proving that match fixing occurred requires collection and analysis of a substantial amount of betting evidence, which is particularly difficult to obtain in unregulated betting markets. Furthermore, despite the presence of regulations, significant financial incentives continue to pressure athletes to participate in match fixing.
Therefore, given the inherent difficulties with controlling such behavior, there are two things that can be done to more effectively deter match fixing.
- First, legalize sports betting and make gambling information widely available. According to estimates provided by the International Center for Sport Security (ICSS), the global sports betting market is worth $1.5-2 trillion, but only 15 percent of this market is legal and visible to regulators. The remaining 85 percent of the market comes out of underregulated areas that spawn the majority of match fixing and betting fraud. In countries where betting is legal and the markets are regulated, including Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, prosecuting match fixing has been successful, in large part due to easier access to betting evidence. With available betting evidence, investigators are able to track price movements of bets, observe disproportionately high amounts of money placed on a certain game, and even track unusually high payments by frequent gamblers. The data provides prospective and retrospective benefits by allowing authorities to flag potential corrupt actors through monitoring and providing evidence to prosecute actors based on previous bets. These tracking techniques and information are simply not feasible in countries where betting markets are illegal and unregulated.
- Second, activists should focus resources on market forces. Where systems have failed, market pressures provide strong deterrent effects for players and leagues to not engage in match fixing. These forces, specifically fans and corporate entities, can force leagues to institute better internal controls more quickly by hitting the leagues where it hurts the most: their bottom lines. The Taiwanese boycott of baseball is perhaps the most well-known instance of fans shutting down a corrupt sports league. In 2008, the Taiwan Criminal Investigation Bureau investigated 102 illegal betting cases involving 222 people. Following the publicity of the betting scandals, attendance in Taiwan fell by over 80%. The number of teams in the professional league fell to only four, as the other teams were forced to shut down because the ticket sales were their main source of revenue. Corporate sponsors and other commercial partners can similarly use their power and influence over leagues to bring about change faster. When corporate sponsors are affiliated with a league that experiences corrupt match fixing, such activities can have serious impacts on the goodwill of that company. ING, for example, terminated its sponsorship of the Renault Formula One team after a race-fixing incident was exposed at a 2009 grand prix. A similar boycott occurred following allegations that international friendly matches held in the South Africa were fixed prior to the FIFA World Cup in 2010. The South Africa national team’s sponsor Puma ended its financial relationship with the country’s football association. Revenues for the association dropped from $80 million in 2010 to $20 million in 2013 following the scandal. Of course, not all boycotts will be this effective. In popular leagues such as those in the United States, it is unlikely that a boycott by fans will be large enough to shut down teams. However, these market forces can at least encourage leagues to implement stronger institutional controls more quickly than otherwise by affecting the leagues’ bottom line.
While corruption in sports has become increasingly important to the anticorruption community, incidents of match fixing continue to rise. Until changes are made that reflect a sufficient understanding of the motivations for participants, match fixing scandals and the questions regarding the integrity of sport will continue to persist.