Major League Soccer: A Prime Target for Organized Crime Groups?

Sports corruption, though not a new problem, has been an ever-increasing source of concern and attention in both the sporting world and the anticorruption community. In the United States, much of the attention regarding this issue has focused on corruption scandals in the most popular U.S. sports, such as college footballcollege basketball, and professional basketball. But other less high-profile sports may be even more at risk of corruption. Indeed, in surveying the landscape of sports in America, the league that stands out as very high-risk for corruption is Major League Soccer (MLS).

This may seem surprising. Although soccer is considered to be the most corrupt sport in the world, there have not, to my knowledge, been any reports of significant corruption in MLS to date. Indeed, back in 2015 MLS commissioner Don Garber declared that MLS is “one hundred thousand percent” clean. But just because corruption hasn’t (yet) been uncovered doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that it won’t arise in the future. My concerns for corruption in the MLS arises from my observation that MLS has several of the risk factors that investigations of sports corruption in other contexts have identified. Three such risk factors in particular stand out:

  • First, organized crime groups often target athletes who are paid relatively little, as they are more susceptible to bribery. MLS pays players relatively low wages when compared to other professional sports (the minimum salary for MLS players in 2019 was $56,250, while their median salary was $175,285).
  • Second, because corruption in high-profile sports get more press coverage, organized crime groups often prefer to target low profile sports that don’t receive as much attention. Despite soccer’s international popularity – and increasing popularity in the U.S. – MLS sporting events receive limited public interest and media coverage. 
  • Third, in addition to bribing individual players or officials to fix certain matches, more sophisticated organized crime groups sometimes engage in a more aggressive strategy to corrupt sports by getting a controlling ownership interest in a sports franchise. (By owning or indirectly controlling a club, organized crime groups have an easier time fixing matches by recruiting and transferring-in key players, such as goalkeepers and defenders, willing to help the crime syndicate fix matches.) The criminal groups that adopt this strategy typically target financially burdened teams. And most MLS teams are indeed financially burdened. (On the other hand, the MLS’s single entity structure—in which the league owns the contracts of all MLS players—does cut against this risk by making it more difficult for crime syndicates to acquire players for betting-related purposes.) 

These risk factors are compounded by the fact that an increasing number of U.S. states are making a push to legalize sports betting, and more widespread betting on MLS will substantially exacerbate the corruption risks. It is therefore important that MLS take and publicize proactive measures to protect the integrity of soccer in the U.S.

For one thing, the MLS should put in place a betting monitoring system to detect unusual betting patterns for MLS tournaments. (The MLS wouldn’t need to build such a system from scratch, as commercial monitoring systems already exist, and the MLS can also use its partnerships with sports betting companies to insist that those companies supply critical information regarding their customers’ betting activities.) Additionally, the MLS should create a detailed decision-making framework that specifies the appropriate course of action when a report on suspicious betting activity is received. The MLS should also enact a policy that prohibits MLS personnel from placing bets on MLS games, and also prohibits personnel from disclosing confidential information regarding any player or team to any third-party. This suggestion seems obvious, but the MLS has not made public whether its players and employees are subject to such rules. The MLS should also set create a framework to investigate the acquisition of key international players who are not covered by the league’s usual player acquisition rules, in order to identify potential red flags suggesting that a player may be involved in corrupt activities such as match-fixing. 

Given the substantial presence of organized crime groups in European and Asian soccer, it is only a matter of time before the United states experiences a similar phenomenon, especially in light of the risk factors highlighted above. The MLS must implement the appropriate regulations and procedures to address this risk, rather than allowing it to fester. And MLS must do a much better job in publicizing the policies and procedures that it has in place.

1 thought on “Major League Soccer: A Prime Target for Organized Crime Groups?

  1. Interesting post, but I have a number of questions/follow ups that I think would help further the conversation.

    1) By “corruption” are you referring only to match-fixing? Or are you referring to other forms of corruption. It seems to me to be the former, but am curious how else you think corruption may play a role in MLS.

    2) I’m not sure I am persuaded by the third bullet, that “more sophisticated organized crime groups sometimes engage in a more aggressive strategy to corrupt sports by getting a controlling ownership interest in a sports franchise.” How does this happen in Europe/elsewhere? I am not familiar with this type of strategy, and I don’t recall seeing this strategy play out in the U.S. market.

    3) Is there evidence that “more widespread betting on MLS will substantially exacerbate the corruption risks.” I wrote an blog-post a few years ago here on this topic, and argued that legalizing sports betting would actually decrease corruption risk, by bringing bets out of the black market, allowing for better oversight by professional leagues. I would be interested to see if you have evidence that supports that proposition. I still believe that the legalization of sports betting in the US has decreased the corruption risks, and know that professional leagues have in fact undertaken a number of monitoring measure to help detect these issues.

    Thanks,
    Jimmy

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