News 24 February 2016

CMS Committee hearing: escalation in suspicious tennis alerts

A hearing held by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee (CMS) at the UK Parliament today revealed a staggering increase in the number of suspicious alerts that have been reported to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), the body responsible for policing the sport against corruption. Nigel Willerton, Director of Integrity at the TIU, said that the number of suspicious betting alerts received by the TIU had risen from 14 in 2012 to 246 in 2015.

Willerton said that none of these related to Wimbledon, but three related to other Grand Slam tournaments. Argentina, Chile, South America and Russia are areas where the most alerts are received, often in relation to the lower-ranking Futures and Challenger tournaments, which typically involve younger players. A suspicious alert is just that – it does not mean that corruption has taken place, only that indications from bookmakers are that something strange may be occurring. The TIU will investigate an alert and report to the tennis authorities, who will then decide if there is a case to answer.

The alerts are provided through memorandums of understanding that the TIU has with bookmakers. Earlier this month, ESSA reported that 73 of the 100 suspicious events that it had reported to sporting authorities during 2015 involved tennis. However as ESSA’s membership includes 18 mainly European bookmakers, it is understood that the majority of the remaining 173 alerts came through Asian bookmakers and whistleblowers. Interestingly, Willerton revealed that Curacao-licensed bookmaker Pinnacle Sports has refused to share betting data with the TIU.

The TIU and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which had also been summoned to the hearing, were keen to emphasise that although 246 appears to be a high number, it is only 0.2% of the 120,000 tennis matches played each year. The TIU has a budget of US$2 million per year and just six staff to deal with investigating and policing such a high number of games against corruption.

It emerged each of the four Grand Slams contribute 10% of the TIU’s funding, with the ATP, International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) contributing 20% each. Chris Kermode, Chairman of the ATP, conceded that the ATP spends just 0.4% of its US$1 million budget on integrity.

“We are a not for profit organisation”, said Kermode. “The ATP is an unusual  governing body in that it is 50% owned by the players and the tournament promoters. That money filters down and goes to the players and the organisers in a supposedly 50/50 split.” However, Kermode conceded that whatever amount is recommended to be spent by an independent review into tennis’ integrity procedures, tennis will implement. The review will also examine how much of the $14 million the ITF made through a deal with Sportradar to sell Futures Tournaments betting data to an intermediary is spent on integrity.

Kermode revealed that Adam Lewis QC has told him that the review will take a year to complete. When asked how much the review was expected to cost and if tennis had written Lewis a blank cheque, Kermode replied: “Alarmingly, yes”.

John Nicolson MP attacked the ATP over a complete failure to demonstrate how it would protect a player coming forward with information about being threatened in order to fix a match. “How do you help the young tennis players who live in countries which are corrupt?” asked Nicholson. “So you’re a young player, you’re playing in Russia. You’re told by your coach that you have to throw matches. You’re scared not to throw matches, in case you get beaten up by some goon.”

“We have never had a case where a player has suffered physical harm as a result of corruption”, said ATP Vice President Mark Young (pictured). “I wonder why that is”, countered Nicolson. The ATP said that it would go to “some protection agency”, but appeared unclear about how it would handle the situation. “This is cloud cuckoo land”, replied Nicolson. “You’re saying goodbye, effectively aren’t you, to any hope of cleaning up sport in countries like Russia, which we know are marinated in corruption and where politics and sport are closely intertwined”.

The CMS Committee also made much of the fact that tennis organisations are permitted to receive sponsorship money from licensed betting operators, but players are not. Although it is often argued that the lion’s share of match-fixing arises in the unregulated and illegal Asian market, the truth may be more complicated.

In 2014, the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) and Paris Sorbonne University published the 700-page ‘Protecting the Integrity of Sport Competition’ report. “Betting operators are always explaining that it doesn’t benefit them to have a conflict of interest; however, the truth is more complex than that,” explains Professor Vidal, who authored the report. “For example, some betting operators are sometimes aware that money laundering is taking place. A betting operator told me that he has some clients who are placing large bets every day. They believe that these people are laundering money, but they want to keep their client. They turn a blind eye.”

This year, it has been alleged that tennis authorities have been ‘repeatedly warned‘ about a core group of 16 players involved in match-fixing; that match-fixing has been systemic in tennis for a decade; and that tennis authorities sought to cover up sanctions issued to umpires for involvement with match-fixing. Willerton, Kermode and Young denied any suggestion that sanctions were covered up or not dealt with. They explained that sanctions against the umpires had not been announced because tennis’ rules at that point only allowed sanctions against players to be reported, not those levied against umpires. The question of why such rules were in place was not examined.

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