Sports Integrity Initiative: Match-fixing – the threat from the shadows

Match-fixing rarely makes the headlines, as those sportsmen involved are generally not high profile enough to rate media interest. The greatest danger lies, as it always has, in lower level, less well publicised and funded sports, where earning a living is a continuous struggle. This environment provides a constant battle for the authorities, but now the increased professionalism in women’s sport provides fertile new ground for corruption.

The marquee scalp

In January this year, newspaper headlines were awash with allegations of match-fixing at the Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Novak Djokovic was quizzed about illicit approaches, as were Andy Murray, Serena Williams and the other great and the good of the tennis world. This was a juicy story, and the powers that be struggled to suppress the media interest. Everyone, after all, loves a headline.

With time, the rumours and allegations subsided because the marquee names, the heads on a plate the public craved, never materialised. Last week the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) released its figure for ‘match alerts’ for ‘unusual or suspicious activity around a match’. Just one of the 48 alerts involved a Grand Slam tournament – the Australian Open – with ‘the great majority of alerts’ stemming from the lower levels of professional tennis. Nonetheless, the news outlets lead with ’48 alerts’ and ‘Australian Open’; the appetite for high level match-fixing scandal remains strong.

48alertstennis2
Only high-profile match-fixing allegations make the headlines. Image // Assorted press

Domestic threat the focus

For those involved in sports regulation, the focus for years has not in fact been on high profile sports but on the lower rungs, where it’s still a struggle for players to earn a living. In 2000, when the International Cricket Council (ICC) set up its Anti-Corruption and Security Unit, they concentrated on the international level. However with better media coverage and a widening gap in potential earnings between top-flight international players and those playing in the county circuit, the threat of corruption in cricket quickly shifted from the international to the domestic game. This in turn led to the creation of domestic anti-corruption units in the national boards. Domestic cricket is where the focus remains.

Now though, a new development in sport has materialised, which appears to contain all the factors that make it vulnerable to match-fixing.

Women’s sport – a new corruption frontier

In many sports, the women’s game is in the nascent stages of professionalism, but it’s evolving quickly. Women’s sport is being played by more people and, crucially, watched by more people than ever before.

The Women’s Boat Race was televised for the first time in 2015. Later that year in Australia the first women’s domestic cricket tournament was broadcast on national television with the advent of the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL). More than 750 million television viewers watched the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada last year.

For most, this is a progression that couldn’t come a moment too soon; after decades of subordination, women are finally getting the exposure they deserve. But therein lies the problem; for this population of players have all the characteristics needed for the ‘perfect fix’.

Ticking the boxes
The reasons are highlighted in a recent discussion with the England & Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) Anti-Corruption Unit. There are certain factors that raise the risk profile of particular matches and women’s cricket, which is starting to receive widespread national coverage, bears many of these factors:

Money
In most women’s sports, it remains a struggle for the elite to earn a living. Even in those sports where the top internationals do, there is often a huge contrast between the stars and the next level down. In team sports in particular these sportswomen, despite the lack of income, still compete with the paid athletes on increasingly more public platforms. Inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is stark, and growing, and in all walks of life can create huge problems. A quick £10,000 might not mean much to Kevin Pietersen, but it’s more than many female cricketers will ever have earned.

Exposure
Women’s cricket, football, netball and rugby, among other sports, are increasingly being broadcast, both on the radio and television. They therefore have the potential to be followed, bet on and manipulated by more and more people and further afield – including in regions with unregulated betting markets. In more matches than ever before anyone, anywhere, can tune in.

The first edition of the WBBL, which took place over the winter in Australia, a record peak audience of 439,000 viewers watched one match – the Melbourne derby – live on television. Last year’s Women’s FA Cup Final attracted a peak audience of 1.99 million viewers, up from 1.32 million the year before. These numbers are not insignificant.

Education
Many of the sportswomen gaining this new level of exposure are also very young, until recently will have been unaware of the possibility of being targeted and may have received little or no anti-corruption education.

Seasoned male professionals on the county circuit may find the education workshops, with their anti-corruption role-plays and scenarios, increasingly tiresome and repetitive. For a 16 year old female debuting in a newly broadcast tournament, it’s a different matter.

Ease of manipulation
Cricket specifically has the added problem of being an easy fix; like snooker, tennis or goalkeepers in football, cricket needs minimal players in order to fix a game, or a moment (with a spot-fix as in the 2010 Pakistan case), and therefore presents an easy target.

Negligible present threat, huge potential threat

For the moment the safeguard for many women’s sports developing across the globe is that large sums of money being irregularly bet on a match, or a key moment, will be easily detected because even lawful bets will be few and far between. Twenty-four separate betting operators offer odds on the men’s Barclay Premier League. Trying to find odds for the FA Women’s Super League is a lot more difficult. The interest simply isn’t there – yet.

Oddscheckerfootball
A wealth of betting options for men’s football, but not for women’s. Image // oddschecker.com

Already however, the warning signs have started. As far back as 2011, the bookmaker William Hill revealed that for the first time over £5 million had been bet on that year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. In September 2014 the Chairman of Interpol’s FIFA Initiative Steering Group, John Abbott, named women’s football as an area of concern for match-fixing. Earlier that year Federbet, an anti-corruption agency based in Belgium, identified in its Annual Fixed Matches Report that a Women’s Super League match had been fixed. Nothing was confirmed, but the possibility remained.

Public, and betting, interest in women’s football is rapidly increasing. Infographic // Isabelle Westbury

The interest, the spectator numbers and the betting volumes will grow quickly. The popularity of the WBBL, for example, took everyone by surprise, with some matches attracting crowds of more than 10,000. The question then is whether the authorities, and the players, will be ready.

Protecting and policing: a fine balance

The transition from amateur to professional throws up many challenges, with sufficient anti-corruption education perhaps the main concern. The WBBL is a high profile women’s cricket league in its infancy and while the real-time threat of match-fixing in this year’s first edition was low, some players suffered unanticipated repercussions due to their new professional status.

Two contracted players, the Sydney Sixers’ Angela Reakes and the Perth Scorchers’ Piepa Cleary, were charged with breaches of Cricket Australia’s Anti-Corruption Code after betting on men’s international cricket. Betting on any cricket is forbidden by any cricketer playing at state level or above (Article 2.2).

There was no suggestion of match-fixing, just ill-advised betting. Cricket Australia however, with its robust framework of strict liability anti-corruption regulations, trapped the very party it was trying to protect.

The cases highlight the obstacles that face women’s sport as it continues to evolve at a rapid pace. These women were treated as professionals and were bound by anti-corruption regulations – but were apparently unaware of the associated responsibilities.

The ECB says that the education of players and participants is a particularly important element of their preventative strategy, so that players know what to do and who to turn to for help if they need it. They want to be seen to be protecting the players, not policing them, but the balance is a fine one.

An unlikely parallel

Mohammad Amir, just 18 when he was caught up in the 2010 Pakistan spot-fixing scandal, was in a position not dissimilar to that which many female sportswomen now find themselves in – relatively poorly paid, sudden public exposure and little previous education.

Unfortunately for him, he played at a level where there was an established betting market. Amir intentionally fixed and suffered the consequences. The ICC, for the integrity of the game and the precedent it sets, take a zero tolerance approach to match-fixing, and Amir was banned for five years despite the mitigating circumstances.

An untapped market?

Women’s sport is a market so far largely untapped by match-fixers, but it has the potential to cause havoc. Up until now match-fixing has almost exclusively involved men, but there is no reason to think that women will not take to it as well as their male counterparts.

“There is still the belief, that some people think, that women are just not as bad as men,” suggested Jane Garvey, the BBC Radio 4 Presenter for Woman’s Hour on an episode discussing women in prison last week. “So when women are as bad as men, there’s a sort of horror expressed.”

Public perceptions aside, there is in fact little empirical evidence to show that women as a sex are more virtuous and less inclined towards corruption. Women may seem unlikely targets, but that assumption just makes them more vulnerable.

It is a tough task to fight the hypothetical. What is important however, is recognising that here is a threat that is more likely to materialise at lower profile and developing sports, with many women’s sports fitting these criteria.

We are in an unprecedented and exciting age for women’s sport, but there are pitfalls as well as glory, and the more that those involved are aware of these, the easier it is to combat them. Prevention and education, we are told, is key. Let’s make sure this is the case in practice.

• This article was originally published in the Sports Integrity Initiative internet journal on 27 April 2016. To access the original, please click here.

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