Corruption in Tennis, Part 2: Independent Review Panel’s Recommendations Are a Step in the Right Direction, But Prioritization Is Essential

As I explained in my last post, the game of tennis—because of its one-on-one format and unusual scoring system—is especially vulnerable to match fixing. This risk has become ever more significant with the explosion in the global sports betting market, particularly online betting. Professional tennis’s Governing Bodies (which include the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the Grand Slam Board, and the International Tennis Federation (ITF)), have demonstrated their concern about this sort of corruption for over a decade, publishing reviews on integrity in tennis in 2005 and 2008, establishing the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) to govern anticorruption matters in 2009, and adopting a mandatory anticorruption educational program for players and officials (the Tennis Integrity Protection Programme (TIPP)) in 2011. Yet, despite these efforts, match fixing and spot fixing continue to be a major problem. In January 2016, Buzzfeed and BBC published a bombshell report alleging not only that match fixing in tennis was pervasive, but also that the TIU and the Governing Bodies had suppressed evidence on the extent of the problem. The Governing Bodies quickly released a statement “absolutely reject[ing]” the suggestion that they had suppressed evidence of match-fixing, but they nonetheless immediately commissioned an Independent Review Panel to evaluate integrity in tennis.

Almost three years later, in December 2018, the Panel published its conclusions and recommendations in a 113-page Report, which the Governing Bodies endorsed. While the Panel found no evidence suggesting that the TIU or the Governing Bodies had covered up any wrongdoing, the Panel did conclude that the sport’s current anticorruption efforts are “inadequate to deal with the nature and extent of the problem,” and recommended changes to the sport’s governance policies and institutions.

The Report’s greatest strength—its no-stone-unturned thoroughness—is also its greatest flaw: More academic than pragmatic, the Report neither prioritizes its proposals nor sufficiently considers their financial feasibility. Given that the Panel attributes economic challenges—such as the under-compensation of lower-ranked players and the lack of resources allocated toward the TIU—as major reasons for widespread corruption in tennis, it seems unrealistic to think that the Governing Bodies could afford an across-the-board implementation of the Panel’s proposals. Thus, the Governing Bodies’ implementation plan should prioritize the Panel’s various recommendations, with an eye toward financial feasibility. Specifically, the Governing Bodies should:

  • Prioritize modifying the ranking system to decrease incentives for match fixing and spot fixing. In general, a tennis player has two tangible incentives to win a professional match: (1) earning prize money, and (2) earning points toward his or her ranking, which is the primary determinant of whether a player qualifies for the most lucrative tournaments. The ITF, WTA, and ATP calculate their rankings using players’ best 14, 16, and 18 tournament results, respectively, over the prior 52 weeks. Thus, because players often compete in more tournaments than can count toward their ranking, they often play matches that won’t affect their ranking, meaning that prize money is the only tangible incentive to win. In these settings, a player may be more tempted to fix a match in exchange for a bribe. The Panel recommends that the Governing Bodies (especially the ITF) modify their ranking systems to “place a greater emphasis on making every match count, particularly at the lower and middle levels of the game” where the risk of match-fixing is greatest. The Governing Bodies should not only fully endorse this proposal, but also make it a top priority. Indeed, the Governing Bodies should go even further by considering ranking systems that count every game within a given match to discourage not only match fixing but also spot fixing. A model here might be the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) system, widely used in the junior and college ranks. UTR is an algorithm that awards ranking points based not on the tournament or the round but on the percentage of games the player won in each match, considering the rating of the player’s opponent. Hence, UTR provides better incentives for players to put forth their best effort at all times, reducing their susceptibility to bribery.
  • Prioritize establishing the TIU’s independence. Though the Panel found no evidence to support allegations that the TIU had suppressed evidence of corruption in tennis, the Panel nonetheless noted the problematic conflict of interest between the TIU and the Governing Bodies: The sole authority to commence disciplinary proceedings rests not with the TIU, but with four Professional Tennis Integrity Officers, each of whom also maintains an officer role with one of the four Governing Bodies. Until the TIU has the autonomy to bring disciplinary proceedings without permission from officers of the Governing Bodies, the integrity of tennis—and the public’s confidence in the integrity of tennis—could suffer. The Governing Bodies should therefore prioritize granting the TIU autonomy over investigations and sanctions.
  • Deprioritize limiting data sales. The Report recommends that because lower-level ITF tournaments feature poorly compensated players (who thus have stronger incentives to accept bribes), the ITF should discontinue the sale of these tournaments’ live-scoring data, in order to disable data-driven live-odds betting markets. This recommendation, however, should be treated as a last-resort option, not only because discontinuing these data sales would deprive the ITF of much of the $12.5 million it receives annually from such data sales (18% of its operating budget), but also because this proposal risks unintentionally growing parallel markets based on unofficial data. As the Panel admits, a shift to unofficial and unregulated data in live-odds betting markets would cause “the protection of integrity [in tennis to] be harmed.”
  • Deprioritize eliminating gambling sponsorships. Though the Panel recommends prohibiting the Governing Bodies and all professional tournaments from maintaining sponsorship agreements with betting operators, the Governing Bodies should deprioritize this recommendation, for three reasons. First, there isn’t much empirical evidence that suggests eliminating gambling sponsorships would mitigate corruption. Second, the Governing Bodies could use the money earned from gambling sponsorships to subsidize many of the Panel’s other resource-intensive proposals. Third, betting operators’ expertise in sports gambling and shared interest in maintaining the integrity of the game could be an invaluable resource to tennis’s anticorruption efforts. Indeed, Major League Baseball (MLB) recently made a similar determination by introducing MGM as MLB’s first-ever “Official Gaming Partner.” MLB Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. stated that the “partnership with MGM will help [MLB] navigate this evolving space responsibly,” and, according to the press release, the entities “will work together . . . to protect the integrity of the game both on and off the field.” Both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have also entered into similar gambling-sponsorship deals.

Together, the prioritization of both modifying the ranking system and ensuring the independence of the TIU would address a cause, rather than a symptom, of corruption in tennis, while also protecting against the risks posed by conflicts of interest (both real and perceived) in anticorruption enforcement. Eschewing, at least for now, proposals to limit data sales and to prohibit gambling sponsorships would maximize the resources that the Governing Bodies can allocate toward the Panel’s other proposals. By implementing a sensible, practical package of reforms, the Governing Bodies have a good chance of restoring tennis’s reputation as an honorable sport.

4 thoughts on “Corruption in Tennis, Part 2: Independent Review Panel’s Recommendations Are a Step in the Right Direction, But Prioritization Is Essential

  1. Very interesting post. As a former class member and a huge tennis fan (and mediocre player), I felt compelled to comment. I agree that incentives seem to be the primary determinant of corruption in sport (as expected), where guys like Federer, Djokovic, Nadal are making millions off of tournaments. However, your first point does lead to the philosophical thought of wondering whether tweaking the incentive structure really eliminates the root cause of corruption. That said, I like the idea of every match counting (even speaking just as a sports fan, which is why I enjoy relegation-based leagues, which lends context to almost every game). However, I’m not sure I like the idea of using a game-rating system at the top level, as it is fundamentally a change to the sport, which seems like a drastic step. There’s a lot to be said about saving energy on receiving games, trying new things on a lost-set, etc. that have led to strategization as part of the sport, and added to the viewer experience in some cases.

  2. I enjoyed getting insight into a game I’ve played my entire life from a perspective I hadn’t considered much in the past.

    It would seem that changing the ranking system to account for every match (if not every game or point) would produce more accurate rankings since they would be based on more data. And I imagine more accurate rankings are an end the leagues would be interested in pursuing. So why do the leagues calculate rankings based only on a selection of past tournament results? I take Craig’s point that factoring in every point might fundamentally change the game, but that would be less of a problem if matches or even sets were considered. What are the leagues worried would happen if they adopted a system closer to UTR?

  3. Fantastic read! I have some experience on working on policy issues related to match-fixing, but I have never thought about tennis in such terms.

    I will only add that a lack of prioritization is a problem that far too many compliance / anti-corruption programs have in sports – and way outside this specific field. Everybody seems to approach the problem of corruption as this extremely complex, complicated issue and everybody seems a bit scared to say which reforms matter most and should be implemented immediately, as their is always a chorus of critics shouting “But what about A, B and C – do you think they are not important??”. In my opinion, this is matter of professional courage and your argument that this report should have prioritized its recommendations hits right to the core of this problem.

  4. Great read! It was interesting to get more insight into how prevalent the corruption problem is. The economic challenges you mentioned for lower ranked players made me wonder how much of a problem this is for the average tennis fan who tunes in to the Grand Slams and perhaps not much else. I’m also curious what the impact of changing the ranking system would be. Part of the excitement of tennis is that every set is a chance to start afresh, and that comes with a certain psychological mindset. Would changing the system to make every game count fundamentally alter the rankings in a way that we would see a big disparity between the winning players and the top ranked players? Curious if there have been any studies on the outcome.

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