How is technology used to combat sports corruption?
Match fixing and its direct links to illegal betting and organised crime have fast become the scourge of many global sports – even more so arguably than the use of performance enhancing drugs.
The sums of money at stake are simply staggering. Criminal gangs launder more than £80 billion a year from illegal sports betting – and according to the International Centre for Sport Security, 80 percent of gambling in the world is carried out illegally.
Given the number of sporting tournaments running concurrently throughout the year and the huge explosion in online gambling, not to mention the Supreme Court’s announcement they’re lifting the federal ban on sports betting in the US, there’s one key question running through the heads of thought leaders and policy makers. How can investigating authorities and law enforcement agencies keep on top of the problem?
Bets are off
Anomalous betting patterns, detected by sophisticated computer algorithms, are increasingly the first warning sign of potential corruption in sport. Given that the ‘fixing’ may not be focused on the outcome of an entire contest but on a single point, goal or refereeing decision, investigators often find themselves hunting for needles in the proverbial haystack – so they start by looking for the thread.
Simply concentrating on the bigger, high profile tournaments is not really an option either, as a recent corruption report into tennis has highlighted. On 25 April, the Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis (which took 27 months to complete and cost £20 million) concluded that tennis needed to reinvent itself to shut down a ‘tsunami of corruption’ at the lower levels.
The report even identified a ‘match fixing season’ that runs from October until the end of the year. During this period one betting operator quoted in the report said it detected traces of up to two or three fixed matches a day in International Tennis Federation tournaments.
As part of a 33-page list of recommendations, the independent panel lead by Adam Lewis QC, admitted that there was “no single solution or simple panacea. Rather, what is required is a package of improvements across a number of areas.” This includes potentially cancelling data deals with online betting companies that allow gamblers to bet on so-called ‘low-level events’ – a term which accounts for three-quarters of all the tournaments in the professional game.
While the Independent Review Panel has been quick to point out that serious organised crime gangs aren’t at the heart of the corrupt betting practices that have infested the sport, the report illustrates the breadth and depth of the issue in sports.
It highlights the challenge facing sports administrators is the variety of ways in which the criminal threat can manifest itself. We shouldn’t think exclusively of large, well-organised criminal gangs – although they have a role in some corruption in some sports – the criminal element comes in many guises.
Investigators are up against the top level of organised crime groups (OCGs) in trying to weed out corruption in some sports, however. According to the European policing agency Europol, match-fixing in the EU primarily affects football games. However, match-fixers are also targeting tennis, snooker and dart competitions.
In some cases OCGs have attempted to infiltrate sports teams and the support staff that work with them, in order to orchestrate corruption schemes. This trend is borne out by several recent match fixing scandals.
During the last 2017/18 Ashes series in Australia, for example, undercover reporters from The Sun newspaper uncovered a plot to fix the Third Test in Perth. Two bookmakers offered to sell details of rigged periods of play which could be bet on to win millions of pounds. They asked undercover reporters for up to £140,000 for spot-fix information on a specified minimum number of runs scored in a period of overs.
Progress being made
Despite the explosion in match fixing allegations, anti-corruption units – notably in tennis and cricket – have had some success in protecting the integrity of sports that attract a global audience.
For example, 13 players were sanctioned in 2017 after investigations by the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU). Five were banned over match-fixing claims, while other cases involved low-ranked players betting on tennis. The number of match alerts for suspicious betting patterns also fell last year to 241 (from 292 in 2016). The alerts do not necessarily indicate wrongdoing, but are seen as an indication that corrupt activity may have occurred.
As a consequence, the budget for the TIU (set up in 2008 and funded by the sport’s governing bodies and the four Grand Slams) has been increased, with £2.75m being set aside for 2018.
Meanwhile in cricket, the Indian Premier League (IPL) – the sport’s biggest and most lucrative tournament – has taken strong action following a spot-fixing scandal that broke in 2013.
“The technology used in race fixing and illegal betting was starting to take over where we are”
Two teams (the Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals) are making their IPL return this year after serving two-year bans for spot-fixing matches.
The Indian cricket board has renewed its tie-up with the International Cricket Council anti-corruption unit for this year’s season and Ajit Singh, a former top police officer, has been called in to head the board’s anti-corruption unit.
So there have been some high profile successes. Nevertheless, investigators are combatting a problem that is complex, sophisticated and constantly evolving. Exposing organised fixing scams can take a long time, and quickly soak up scarce resources.
Two years ago, the head of the British Horseracing Authority in the UK, for example, admitted that the technology used in race fixing and illegal betting was “starting to take over where we are.” Investigators were still looking at phone records and text messages, he said, but those involved in the criminal fixing of races were moving on to undetectable communications such as WhatsApp.
“We were getting bogged down in more complex defences and to see high-profile cases taking three years was not where we wanted to be,” he added. In the two years since that interview, investigations into sports corruption have only become more complex. Increasingly, investigators realise they need to use best-of-breed technology (which can be put in the hands of expert analysts) to detect and disrupt the criminal gangs involved in organised corruption.
The ability to monitor global betting markets is not, in itself, a new capability, but the data-driven reports generated are now so sophisticated that they have an increasingly important role to play.
UEFA’s use of these techniques to detect suspect match fixing in football is a prime example of what can be achieved. Its ban on Albanian side KF Skënderbeu Korçë from European competition for the 2016/17 season followed the use of a betting fraud detection system (BFDS), which analysed more than 50 matches involving Skenderbeu since 2010 – all of which had signs of being manipulated for betting purposes.
The report, according to the Guardian, concludes Skenderbeu ‘has been fixing football matches like nobody has ever done before in the history of the game’, and suggests the club have essentially operated as a vehicle for organised crime.
The investigation has involved players, managers, club presidents, even the former Albanian finance minister Ridvan Bode – illustrating the scope and complexity of these kinds of investigation.
The BFDS flagged suspicious in-game betting activity in multiple games, but flagging suspicious activity and seeing that activity through into a criminal investigation are two different things.
The suspicious activity itself becomes one more data point, another set of evidence, that needs managing and investigating as part of the wider investigation. For that reason, investigators need tools and technology that can handle huge sets of evidence, and order it accordingly.
We’re now in the midst of a technology arms race between increasingly sophisticated criminal gangs and the investigators trying to keep up. Without improved analytical capabilities, investigators cannot hope to keep pace with the resourceful and dynamic organised crime groups that operate in sport. The sheer scale of the problem and the complexity of investigations mean that investigations have to integrate data from multiple intelligence sources.
Investigation teams that rest on their laurels are already losing the battle – and it’s not just money on the line. It’s the integrity of sport itself.
Watch: Combatting fraud with data and intelligence
Clue gathered experts from SFO, NCA (NECC), City of London Police, RUSI, and US Homeland Security to tackle practical fraud prevention strategies.Learn more
Clue’s Head of Policing & Gov joins techUK National Security Committee
Clue Software’s Head of Policing & Government, Matt Horne, has been elected to techUK’s National Security Committee.Learn more
Straightening the curved lines from law enforcement to sports integrity
Our Head of Sport reflects on a career investigating serious crime and sports corruption - and why the sporting world has a hefty challenge in keeping pace w...Learn more