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.