As the Australian Open rolls on, the biggest story in the tennis world this week continues to be the Buzzfeed/BBC investigation into match-fixing in the men’s game, and the players’ reaction to the scandal.
Declan Hill, a journalist and academic who’s something of an expert on the subject of match-fixing in sports, joined Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt on Sportsnet 590 The Fan on Tuesday to chat about the results of the investigation, which revealed that tennis authorities have been aware of players participating in match-fixing for years. Hill, the author of The Insider’s Guide to Match-Fixing in Football and The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, explained why tennis is “the easiest sport in the world to fix.”
Unlike soccer, where match-fixing requires the careful orchestration of an entire team, tennis is a far simpler game to manipulate. “It’s just two guys,” explained Hill. “It’s not even like boxing, where, as Stephen knows, boxing and fixing has got history going back centuries. But even when you’re taking a dive in boxing, somebody’s got to be hit—somebody’s actually got to take a punch. Here, all you do is play one set, and then suddenly you clutch your hamstring and say, ‘Umpire, sorry, I can’t go on,’ and bingo—you’ve got a fix.”
The Buzzfeed/BBC investigation looked at betting data for signs that players were throwing matches, including any unusual movement in a match’s betting odds, or instances when players tended to lose heavy-betting matches too often. The investigation also went beyond data-mining to include evidence such as text messages back and forth between players and suspected match-fixers.
For Hill, the results of the investigation are unsurprising. "I’d gone to the CBC investigative unit, I’d gone to the Toronto Star, I’d gone to the New York Times, because I was leaked those secret documents from inside ATP years ago, and I’ve been banging my drum inside the world of journalism for a number of years," said Hill.
What's more startling, perhaps, is the pro leagues' failure to implement any kind of system that would monitor potential fixing—especially as the sports-betting market continues to expand. "What we’re really dealing with here is the new challenge and the new opportunity, and that’s the globalization of the sports gambling market," said Hill, who noted that sports betting "has gone from a guy in the back room of a bar somewhere to an online industry that’s measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars." In Hill's view, pro leagues ought to employ companies to track odds movements across different bookmakers in order to look for any "worrying odds." But more than that, the leagues will need to redefine their relationship with gambling companies.
“It boggles my mind that major leagues around the world, including some here in North America, have not tapped into the sports gambling world and said, ‘Hey, guys, you’re gonna have to pay,'" said Hill. "You want to bet on our leagues, you want to bet on our sports, you want to do this stuff, you’re gonna have to pay us to make sure that this, our sport, remains clean. And sadly, the sports leagues have not had that adult conversation. They’re so blinded by cash flowing into sponsorship, they don’t realize that this is both an opportunity and a threat."