Match-fixing is nothing new. There’s always been big money to make on the outcome of sporting events. However, spot-fixing (i.e., the action or practice of dishonestly determining the outcome of a specific part of a match or game before it is played) is a more recent phenomenon. The situation escalated in December 2013 when six men (including Blackburn Rovers’ DJ Campbell) were arrested after an investigation into spot-fixing in football by the National Crime Agency. According to the British newspaper The Sun On Sunday, one of their undercover investigators reported that ex-Portsmouth footballer Sam Sodje could arrange for professional football league players to get themselves yellow cards in return for large amounts of money (i.e., tens of thousands of pounds). Consequently, the UK Government is believed to be considering whether match-fixing should be a criminal offence.
Over the past few years, allegations and convictions relating to spot-fixing have been made in many different sports including football, cricket, snooker and horse-racing. In all honesty, this doesn’t surprise me in the least – particularly because sport and gambling have always been inextricably linked. Matt Scott made a number of interesting observations on the issue in a December 2013 article for Inside World Football:
“Betting has a tradition of accompanying football in England in the same way custard goes with English puddings. It just adds a bit of flavour to the proceedings. It is a guilty pleasure, nothing more. No harm done…[However] now is the time to reappraise the complicated English relationship with the ‘harmless’ flutter. The ubiquity of the betting companies whose advertisements fill the half-time breaks of every match covered on television has been very lucrative for football. Figures from the website sportingintelligence.com suggest that in title sponsorships alone, Premier League clubs earn £13m a year from betting companies…Investigations by the ‘Sun on Sunday’ and the ‘Daily Telegraph’ have shown how professional footballers appear to be fixing events in matches…Whether they know it or not, players who fix matches or events within them are the foot soldiers of international match-fixing rings who, according to sports anticorruption experts, have links with serious organised crime. The fixers do not place the bulk of their bets with onshore UK bookmakers but in Asian markets where the liquidity is deeper and where the regulatory scrutiny is much lighter…As the National Crime Agency’s arrests have shown, it is high time for law makers and enforcers to act. For if not, it will be easier to deliver yellow cards to order on the football pitch than for miscreant bookmakers to be issued with cautions about their activities”.
Personally, I think the rise of match-fixing and spot-fixing has mirrored the rise in the use of betting exchanges like Betfair, and the rise of in-play betting. Back in 2005, I published an article on betting exchanges and argued that they had radically altered the shape of gambling particularly because – for the first time – gamblers could bet on individuals and/or teams losing (in contrast to traditional bookmakers that would only take bets on who was going to win). Betting shop operators got worried because their clientele could use betting exchanges to become bookmakers themselves. As a consequence, I argued that betting exchanges had potentially opened the door to fraud, corruption, and crime. As Matt Scott reported:
“In 2006 a whistleblower who had previously worked for the bookmaker Victor Chandler claimed to have data from accounts belonging to Premier League players and managers. The account holders had allegedly bet on matches in their own competitions, in breach of football’s regulations. But Victor Chandler International [VCI] obtained a high-court injunction preventing the release of information about the accounts…There is no way of knowing if the alleged breaches of regulations relating to the VCI accountholders amounted to anything more sinister. (And it is fair to say that Chandler would be unlikely to have exposed himself repeatedly to bets on matches involving account holders’ teams, given the substantial risk of manipulation)”.
More recently, in-play betting has become very popular among sports bettors and plays into the hands of the spot-fixers. As the CEO of OpenBet commented:
“The periodic ritual of predicting a daily or weekly series of events is no longer the mainstay. Today’s punter wants to be able to turn on their gadget of choice and instantly be offered an array of real-time betting opportunities with immediate results…Sports betting is growing in what is offered, how it is offered, when it is offered, where it is offered, and to whom it is offered…Like the financial markets, volatile events produce increased liquidity and increased liquidity produces greater revenue to the operator”.
We can now bet on dozens of ‘in-play’ markets while watching almost any sporting event. Should I wish to, during any football match I can bet on everything from who is going to score the first goal, what the score will be after 30 minutes of play, how many yellow cards will be given during them game, who will get a red card, and/or in what minute of the second half will the first free kick be awarded. Money talks – and there is big money to be made. Paying sports men and women relatively large amounts of money to lose a point (in tennis), get a yellow card (in football), go down in the ninth round (in boxing), or lose a frame (in snooker) can result in even more money for those paying the sports players in the first place.
But maybe technological advance will be the solution to the problem. Technology makes it easier to spot betting cheats and criminal activity. Betting exchange and in-play betting technology means that every bet made through their systems can be tracked and leave an audit trail. Unusual betting patterns can be identified and shared with the relevant sporting and criminal authorities. While prevention is better than detection, betting audit trails do at least give us the chance to crack down on the cheats – even if it’s after the fact. The more sports cheats that are caught, the bigger the deterrent. While we would never want to stop people having an enjoyable punt on their favourite team, we do need to make sure that gambling is as fraud-free as possible. In Matt Scott’s article, the English football Premier League’s general secretary, Nic Coward, summarized what is required of the UK government.
“It [is] true of any regulated sector that there need to be clear regulations in place so that the sector and stakeholders with an interest in the sector understand what they are…That they are monitored; that there is an effective compliance regime; and that there are real enforcement provisions behind it”.
Note: This blog is a much extended version of an article that first appeared in Nottingham Trent University’s Expert Opinion column
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Griffiths, M.D. (2006). All in the game. Inside Edge: The Gambling Magazine, July (Issue 28), p. 67.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction among footballers: causes and consequences. World Sports Law Report, 8(3), 14-16.
Scott, M. (2013). Time to overhaul football’s betting relationship. Inside World Football. December 12. Located at: http://www.insideworldfootball.com/matt-scott/13779-matt-scott-time-to-overhaul-football-s-betting-relationship