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: Continue reading

Corruption in Tennis, Part 1: Why the Sport Is Especially Vulnerable to Corruption

Although wagers on tennis make up only a relatively small fraction of the global sports gambling market (estimated at around 12% of that market in 2015, compared to 65% for soccer), tennis seems to account for a disproportionate share of gambling-related match fixing and other forms of corruption. For example, ESSA (a non-profit dedicated to integrity in sports betting) reported that of the 496 cases of “suspicious betting” that it flagged across all sports in 2015, 2016, and 2017, 336 (68%) stemmed from bets on tennis matches. Of course, a suspicious betting alert does not necessarily indicate that match fixing or other corrupt activity actually occurred (see, for example, here and here), but still, that a sport comprising just 12% of the global sports betting market could generate over two-thirds of suspicious sports betting activity is striking, and consistent with expert assessments on the prevalence of corruption in tennis. Indeed, in 2005, Richard Ings, then the Executive Vice President for Rules and Competition for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), wrote that “if a sport could have been invented with the possibility of corruption in mind, that sport would be tennis.”

Two factors in particular make tennis particularly susceptible to gambling-related corruption: Continue reading

Technical Foul: When Anticorruption Enforcement In Sports Goes Too Far

From the U.S. federal government prosecuting FIFA officials in New York City to Transparency International both announcing an organizational initiative on sports anticorruption and publishing a 398-page report on the topic, it seems clear that governments and NGOs alike have deemed sports corruption a high priority. One can debate whether sports corruption is sufficiently important to merit this level of attention, though there’s a case to be made (as Lauren Ross argued on this blog a few years back) that sports’ broad appeal, media coverage, and status as a symbol for fair competition together give anticorruption efforts in sports an importance that exceeds the direct social harm caused by, say, match fixing relative to other forms of corruption (like medicine theft). That said, just because there may be special value to sports-related anticorruption initiatives in general doesn’t mean that all legally viable sports-related anticorruption enforcement opportunities should be pursued. Indeed, over-emphasizing sports can lead to a dubious allocation of government resources, a problem illustrated by a recent US case (United States v. Gatto) in which several defendants were convicted for their roles in a college-basketball bribery scheme.

To understand the Gatto case, it’s important first to understand the underground economy for student-athletes. In the U.S., the non-profit National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) governs the $13-billion college sports industry, with most of the NCAA’s revenue coming from men’s college basketball. (If men’s college basketball programs could be bought and sold like professional sports franchises, the most valuable would be worth $342.6 million.) Critically, however, because of the NCAA’s amateurism rules, the student-athletes whose talent drives this industry can neither receive compensation from their universities (beyond cost-of-attendance athletic scholarships), nor earn money through endorsements, autographs, jersey sales, or any other monetization of their name or likeness. The value generated by the unpaid players is captured by others in this system, such as head coaches (who are the highest-paid public employees in 39 out of 50 states), NCAA executives, and university athletic directors. Given this system, it’s altogether unsurprising that top high-school basketball prospects often receive compensation for attending a given university via an underground economy. The corruption scheme at issue in Gatto was a particularly egregious example of this underground economy in action: Employees at an athletic-shoe company (Adidas), which sponsors a number of men’s college basketball programs, conspired with assistant coaches at those programs, and with an aspiring talent agent, to bribe elite high-school basketball prospects to attend the Adidas-affiliated universities. This deal looked to be win-win-win-win. The athletes benefited because they received compensation that better reflected their market value. Adidas benefited both from having elite college-basketball players wearing their brand on national television and from the increased probability that some of these players would sign an endorsement deal with Adidas if they turned professional. The universities profited from the economic windfall associated with enrolling an elite basketball prospect. And the aspiring talent agent boosted his odds of being formally retained when the player turned professional.

Nonetheless, this scheme was technically illegal, and so the jury was analytically correct in convicting the defendants at trial. But just because the defendants broke the law doesn’t mean that the prosecutors should have brought the case. Indeed, this case is one where, for three policy-related reasons, it would’ve been better if the U.S. Department of Justice hadn’t gotten involved: Continue reading