This week’s allegations surrounding instances of corruption in tennis, including during prestige tournaments such as Wimbledon, are damning if true but, says Scott Longley, they need to be placed in context.
While it is clearly somewhat disingenuous to argue that offences that pre-date the introduction of the new code on corruption that came into force in 2009 can’t be investigated, it should be noted that these allegations are almost a decade old. As the dating of the new code suggests, both the betting and the sports industries have taken great strides in better addressing the relationship between the two since the alleged instances took place.
Indeed, late last year there was a flurry of further announcements on sports integrity from among others the Olympic movement and the UK’s Sports Betting Integrity Forum which highlighted how sports administration bodies no longer believe betting to be the biggest existential threat that they faced.
Instead, we now see the IOC introducing a new code (the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of the manipulation of Competitions to give it its full title) which attempts to harmonise regulations across all the IOC member ahead of the 2016 edition of the games in Brazil this coming summer.
Meanwhile, back in Britain the Gambling Commission also announced the launch of its new Sports Betting Integrity Forum website which is designed to provide support and best-practice guidelines along with progress reports on the UK Gambling Commission’s Sports and Integrity Action Plan launched last year.
The SBIF website and forum itself have been widely welcomed both by the politicians and regulators, sport governing bodies and by the betting companies. Nick Tofiluk, director of regulation at the Gambling Commission, said the UK was leading the way in showing how to “address the risks to the integrity of sport and sports betting”.
SBIF co-chair and director of football regulation and administration at the FA Darren Bailey said the forum “exemplifies (the) collaborative and co-ordinated approach” while sports minister Tracey Crouch said the various bodies and companies were “well aligned on this effective collaboration vital in the fight against match-fixing”.
On the betting side, Bill South, director of security and community affairs at William Hill, said the company was giving the forum its “full support”.
“Integrity in sports betting is core,” he says. “The perception is that whatever the outcome, the bookies don’t care. But this is far from the case. In fact, we’re the first line of defence for the sports and our customers, and we’ve put a huge effort into identifying the irregular and unusual and then sharing it with others, for example the sports betting integrity body: ESSA. Everyone who is involved when there is corruption has been cheated – the sports, the fans, the bookies and the punters.”
Pointing to this week’s tennis allegations, South points out that collaboration between sports and the betting industry is “part of the solution, not part of the problem”. He added that the company was proud of its association with Tennis Australia, which includes sponsorship of the current Australian Open.
It is the central premise that everyone loses when there is corruption surrounding the result which is now finally being accepted in wider sports circles. A story just last week about recent NFL lobbying made the point that administrators in the US were beginning to see the efficacy of regulated gambling in helping with issues of integrity.
Pointing to the betting opportunities available at Wembley when the NFL stages regular season games at the stadium, Cynthia Hogan, billed as the NFL’s top lobbyist, told ESPN that “regulators in the UK believe legalising and regulating gambling serves the integrity of the sport better… that’s something frankly we should take a look at, if we can be convinced that’s a better way to support the integrity of the game”.
Comments such as this mark a sea-change. Too often, says David Zeffman, partner at Olswang and the head of the firm’s betting and gambling practice, betting has “served as a scapegoat” for sceptical sports bodies. This is partly an anachronism, harking back to betting’s relationship with horseracing. “Part of the appeal for many who bet on the sport is that people like, to think they are playing the system,” he says.
South agrees. “In racing, the public sees the bookie as the adversary,” he says. “It’s the Barney Curley syndrome; they like the idea of someone getting one over the bookies.”
But as South goes on to say, increasingly the public is taking a zero tolerance attitude towards corruption. “The public don’t mind losing, and I think most of them enjoy the battle of wills with the bookie, but what they don’t accept is when they believe they have no chance whatsoever because the participants in the sport have been corrupted. They simply won’t go. This isn’t just about betting.”
Wider issues in world sport – the Russian doping scandal in athletics and what appears to be endemic corruption at the higher levels within FIFA – are yet to have an impact on the perception of the betting public. As Zeffman says: “I don’t know when it comes to athletics that many people bet on the sport outside of perhaps the World Championships and the Olympics”.
But as South suggests, if the problems extend down to the actual results on the pitch then it becomes a different issue. “The problem we would face is if people don’t trust the results,” he says. “We aren’t there yet, but it is a danger. Again it is the integrity issue; we all have a responsibility. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have difficult questions to answer. The common interest is the integrity of the sport.”