Strawberries, cream and … courtsiders; tennis and the challenge of tackling corruption

Tennis, in the UK at least, is a sport of strawberries, cream and luscious green lawns. It couldn’t be more middle-England. Elsewhere in the world they may not, Melbourne perhaps to one side, have the lawns, but tennis is still seen as a sport of grace, style and elegance. It’s not supposed to be about corruption, thrown points and betting syndicates.

Following a report by Buzzfeed and the BBC allegations of match fixing have none the less cast a dispiriting shadow over the game. Indeed, the allegations look set to tarnish a sport which prides itself on good, clean, family fun. According to the BBC the head of the Tennis Integrity Unit has revealed that there were 246 alerts of suspicious betting on matches in 2015. Furthermore, 16 players were repeatedly flagged as potentially being involved.

These are dangerous signals. Any sport that wants to uphold its reputation as being clean needs to show that it has processes in place to deal with allegations like these and, if needed, to punish any miscreants found guilty. The Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), formed in 2008, should be the tool through which tennis can sort this out. However, the tennis authorities have already tacitly admitted that they are not currently able to do this by announcing that there will be an independent anti-corruption review of the TIU,  The review will focus on transparency, independence and if the integrity education programme should be extended. But has not said how long the review will last.

What might tennis learn from the literature on anti-corruption organisations? The authorities could do worse than take a look at the work of Gabriel Kuris, an American academic. He highlights the potential problems of immediately enforcing stricter laws following scandals. Calls for integrity units ‘with more teeth’ are often made in the wake of a corruption scandal. More teeth means, for many, strong(er) law enforcement powers, but, as Kuris demonstrates, just granting these units these powers does not necessarily make them more effective. On the contrary, simply enacting stricter laws can in fact be counterproductive.

Kuris describes anti-corruption units as either guard dogs or watchdogs. The guard dogs are the units with strong investigative powers who seek, pursue and engage the threats. They have, in other words, real ‘teeth’ with which to go after alleged miscreants. Watchdog ACAs, on the other hand, rely on collecting witness testimony and issuing public reports. Watchdogs may not possess teeth that are as big and sharp, but they can on occasion be better able to combat corruption. Watchdog ACAs are, in other words, much more about the bark and much less about the bite – and for tennis that might be no bad thing.

Anti-corruption agencies that rely on well-developed sets of potential punishments that they themselves have a responsibility to administer require (lots of) resources and real in depth knowledge to make charges stick. These anti-corruption systems can be hard to maintain and require a level of expertise in the alleged misdemeanours that tennis does not readily have available. Until tennis as a sport is able to allocate enough resources to the TIU then pinning hopes on a guard dog institution is simply unrealistic.

Within the TIU there is a lack of resources and arguably a lack of political will and some within the Buzzfeed and BBC investigation even suggest it may have covered up previous issues of match fixing. The Tennis Integrity Unit may subsequently be better off following a watchdog model of anti-corruption.

Watchdog ACAs are able to act more like investigative journalists. Those involved are not forced to focus on producing evidence that would stand up in a court of law, rather they can concentrate on highlighting potential wrong-doing and bring it to the relevant authorities’ attention. This would also enable tennis to think more broadly about how to deal with the endemic of betting that now exists. A full-time betting analyst working with the TIU would certainly make a contribution to understanding rather more about how betting relationships work and pinpointing potential problems before they arise. The TIU has, according to the organisation’s head, Nigel Willerton recognised the need for this and within the review they will be looking into the potential for employing a betting analyst.  Tennis would also be able to quickly raise awareness of specific problems without having to wait for prosecutions to be handled.

The focus may still understandably be on prosecutions, but looking to the future is also key to the success of anti-corruption initiatives. The initial focus for cleaning up tennis, as with any body in sport, should be on developing internal procedures and ensuring an open and independent leadership. This would encourage the greater oversight that is so desperately needed. The TIU should encourage those both inside and outside (such as sponsors) the sport to inspire younger players to avoid corruption whilst at the same time highlighting where the potential pitfalls lie and how to avoid getting caught up in them. There is currently and Integrity Education Program in place but this will need to be extended to encompass more players. The importance for tennis is to bring back trust in the sport and trust in the players themselves.

Tennis would benefit from adopting a watchdog ACA approach as it enables the authorities to be proactive. Kuris suggests that ACAs that follow this model are better able to devote their resources to prevention as they do not have to use the(ir inevitably limited) resources for detailed investigations. Tennis would be able to highlight the corruption risks that the sport faces and create mechanisms to prevent them from flourishing further without being bogged down in trying to bring charges against previous suspects.

Tennis prides itself in ‘family fun’, and having investigations without risk of litigation may encourage more of an open and honest conversation about these issues. However, tennis would require support from other bodies if it adopted a watchdog system of anti-corruption. But corruption in sport remains high on the agenda of many governments and NGOs and if tennis shows it is willing to take the initiative in rooting it out then there is every reason to believe that it will receive considerable support.

Hope is certainly not lost for tennis. But those within the sport need to act on the allegations made and they need to be seen to be taking a pro-active stance in addressing the problem. Then, and only then, will tennis be able to regain some of the trust that has been lost and become the ‘clean, nice, family sport’ which it prides itself on being.

Tilly Prior

University of Sussex

Tennis, court-siders and the challenge of dealing with sports betting

Anyone who’s spent any time watching sport on British TV will be more than familiar with the dulcet tones of Ray Winstone.  Sport is, so the actor famous for his hardman persona will tell you, “all about the in-play” as he plugs the odds for the self-proclaimed world’s largest online gambling company.  According to one of their competitors “sport means more when you bet on it” whilst a third betting company ratchets up the excitement by claiming that “right now, anything could happen”.  If you believe the adverts, the sporting world is a fast-moving, emotionally-charged adrenalin rush where banter and pay outs dominate.

Glamorous though it may look (to some), there is plenty going on beneath the surface that the watching punter won’t be aware of.  Indeed, even investigative journalists who spend their lives looking in to how sport works know that things go on that even they can’t really get a handle on.   It is, for example, one thing having a five pound flutter on five correct results to keep yourself amused on a Saturday afternoon, it is quite another to be in regular contact with participants to try and get ahead of the game.  And, as we know, that happens far more frequently than sport purists have traditionally been prepared to admit.

Where once football and cricket led the way, tennis now seems to be the focus of attention.  Indeed, recent reports give the impression that tennis is a sport beset by betting problems.  As Sean Ingle revealed in the Guardian on Tuesday 9th February, there is an ever-growing body of evidence that shows tennis umpires, for example, in an increasingly worrying light.  In the lowest ranking tennis tournaments, umpires can be asked to use hand held devices to automatically update scores.  These scores naturally flash up in the stadium but, with data systems such as those developed by Sportradar, they can also instantly flash up in the betting shops and on to computer screens around the world.

In a world ever more obsessed with sport, this is great for someone who thinks they’ve spotted a diamond or can see a shock coming.  They can back their judgement and bet as the game continues (‘in play’).  Just like stock market traders, they are putting their money where their mouth is and, if their hunches are right, reaping handsome rewards.

The problem comes in that with ever-increased amounts of data comes the potential for (quick and skilful) manipulation of it.  As Sean Ingle notes, if an umpire takes 30 seconds or so to update the score in a tennis game, then that gives someone at the match the chance to place bets whilst the ‘old’ odds are still in place.  The ‘court-sider’ is either placing a bet on something that has already happened or is advising others to do the same.  In worlds of big revenues these time-lapses can make real differences to who wins and how much they win.  It’s also not surprising that some inside tennis (and tennis won’t be alone) look upon it as a chance to make a quick buck.

In corruption terms this is a classic principal/agent challenge.  The paying public provide the funds that help the sport remain viable.  They do this either by going to the events themselves, or prompting sponsors to underwrite them (the events) in the hope that the connection will help them in their business activities. They are the ‘principals’ who, in theory at least, have the power to decide whether tennis as a commercial entity ultimately has a future or not.  The agents – the players, the officials and those who are involved in getting the game played – do their best to provide a genuinely competitive product to appeal to the watching public.

There is, however, always the option of doing things that whilst often insignificant for the final result, undermine the very ethos around which sport is played; deliberately bowling a no ball in cricket, trying to ensure there are a set number of throw ins in a football game and so on.  The agents have, in other words, discretion as to how the game is actually played, and it is often the human touch – the inspirational moments and the mistakes – that make sport what it is.

The challenge for those interested in tackling the corruption that underpins some of the betting scandals is how best to regulate this discretion.  In a world where it is simply expected that people ‘do the right thing’, then there is no problem.  But that is not a world that we can take for granted. Rules, regulations and procedures, however, only ever get us so far in this regard – in the end, decisions are made, actions are taken, and they are, at least in some part, at the discretion of the participants involved.  If they weren’t, we’d be watching robots going through the motions.

What, in other words, do we do when an athlete has a breakdown and loses from a seemingly impregnable position?  Or what do we do when somehow a victory is pulled miraculously from the jaws of defeat?  In the true Corinthian spirit we should applaud all the actors involved and be pleased that sport is providing such great entertainment.

But in a world of dark corners, rapid data flows and lots of money, that Corinthian spirit simply cannot be taken for granted.  The sharp-eyed and unscrupulous will use the discretion that is inherent in all sporting contests to make their living.  Furthermore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they concentrate on (1) sport at slightly lower levels, (2) sports where individuals (as opposed to teams) have rather more leeway to shape outcomes and (3) where data is available in abundance.  An awful lot of sport falls in to those categories.

The world of anti-corruption analysis has long been warning that sport needs to up its game.  A world without corruption is impossible, but a world where sport is a multi-billion pound business needs to adopt the same standards of compliance and oversight as do other global businesses.  As things stands, sports such as tennis are illustrating more or less exactly how not to do that.

By Dan Hough