16th May 2018

Data scramble reignites as Supreme Court overturns PASPA

On 14 May, the US Supreme Court ruled (PDF below) that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which prohibited all but four States from regulating sports betting, is unconstitutional. As any gambling operator seeking to offer odds on US sports in the future will need accurate match data and statistics, the decision has reignited a scramble to control such data. And the scope and reach of such data collection into the lower levels of US sport could create an integrity concern.

‘Since the start of the 2016/17 season, Sportradar has been distributing data and industry standard audio-visual game feeds from the National Basketball Association to gaming operators outside of the US’, reads Sportradar’s website.  A similar deal was agreed with both the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) in 2015. The company also has a real time data deal with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).

“All key stakeholders, including leagues, operators, regulators and law enforcement, need to work together and partner with the most reputable service providers to establish best-in-class systems and safeguards overseeing integrity in US sports”, said Laila Mintas, Deputy President of Sportradar US, in a statement. “The public will need to see that in place, and working well, because the reality is that integrity protection will be non-negotiable in the new normal that is sports betting in the U.S.”

In October 2016, United Soccer League (USL) agreed a data partnership with Opta, which is owned by Perform Group. USL is the largest North American professional soccer league under Major League Soccer (MLS), which is understood to have a partnership with Sportradar.

On 14 May, Genius Sports announced a data deal with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). ‘This initiative, conducted in partnership with Genius Sports, a global leader in official sports data and technology services, will benefit the NCAA’s more than 1,100 member institutions across all three divisions and will be used in select NCAA championships, starting with men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in 2019’, read a Genius Sports statement. ‘The cutting-edge software will revolutionize how real-time data and statistics are captured, managed and distributed. The technology will subsequently be rolled out to schools for other NCAA sports, including volleyball, football, soccer, baseball and softball […] In addition to providing development, promotional, and technical support for the data software, Genius Sports will serve as the NCAA’s exclusive agent in licensing real-time official data from championship events, including NCAA March Madness, to media platforms and other companies.’

The companies that agree data partnerships are correct to argue that accurate collection and monitoring of data helps protect the integrity of sport through the identification of suspicious betting patterns. “The actual, factually proven benefits to legalised, regulated betting on sports far outweigh the misperceived fears and unfounded concerns many have on this topic”, says Carsten Koerl, the Founder and CEO of Sportradar, in the company’s statement on the repeal of PASPA. “In addition to the obvious benefit, which is taking a significant amount of this activity, estimated by some to be in the range of $190 billion annually, out of the shadows and into the light where it can be administered and regulated appropriately, there is also the obvious benefits of tax revenue, job creation, consumer protection and broader overall economic impact to consider.”

However, as last month’s Tennis Integrity Review Panel (TIRP) Report revealed, the commercialisation of live match data at the lower reaches of sport can create an integrity issue. In simple terms, in order to offer live – or ‘in-play’ – bets on any sport, gambling operators need accurate data on what takes place in a match. If there is no live data from a match, operators are reluctant to offer ‘in-play’ bets, due to obvious integrity concerns. 

Under most of the partnerships outlined above, the partner company will send data scouts to matches to record data, such as service breaks in tennis, wides in cricket or offsides in football. While the recording of this data helps in being able to track and monitor any integrity threats, it is also often also sold to gambling operators so that they can offer ‘in-play’ odds on those matches as part of such partnerships.

When such live data involves players at the lower levels of sport, where salaries are lower and audiences are smaller, it is easier and cheaper for criminals to convince an athlete to fix part of a game. ‘Only the top 250 to 350 players earn enough money to break even’, reads the TIRP Report. ‘Yet there are nominally 15,000 or so ‘professional’ players. The imbalance between prize money and the cost of competing places players in an invidious position by tempting them to contrive matches for financial reward.’ 

To pick a USL team at random, Swope Park Rangers had an average attendance of just above 1,000 last season. College sport is huge in the US, but participants are (arguably) unpaid. In such circumstances, it is not hard to see how criminals might be able to convince a player to get booked during a game, for example. Such an eventuality recently resulted in a six year ban issued to a professional English footballer.

It remains to be seen how the US States and sporting leagues will seek to regulate sports betting. However as illustrated above, control of data is likely to be key. The TIRP Report recommended restricting the sale of live data from lower level matches, despite the huge financial benefits that such sales bring in (US$70 million over four years). Perhaps the US States and sporting organisations ought to consider similar measures.

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