SII Focus 2nd November 2020

FIFPro questions over life bans risks igniting debate over control of sports data

International football players’ union FIFPro has questioned life bans issued by the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA), alleging they were issued solely using betting data and without offering the accused a chance to be heard. ‘We are concerned that players are being sanctioned on the basis of reports of so called sports data providers, without any substantial evidence’, read a statement. ‘We cannot accept that national football associations sanction players without due process, on the basis of reports by sports data providers’.

FIFPro alleges that:

• The players were not informed of any procedure in front of the FFA’s disciplinary committee (DEC);
• The players were sanctioned without being heard;
• The players had to pay a sum of money to the FFA to receive the decisions as well as the material on which basis the judgement was made;
• The decision was based only on reports of sports data providers;
• To appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), players were required to pay advance costs of CHF20,000 (€19,000), which was elevated because the FFA refused to pay is share of the costs.

On 2 July, the FFA’s DEC sanctioned 58 people, 45 of whom were banned for life and 25 of whom were Ukrainian. A statement outlined that the clubs involved were Aragats, Torpedo, Masis, Lokomotiv, and Yerevan. All the clubs were issued with two year bans following an investigation which the FFA said was conduced in association with Armenian law enforcement, Interpol, UEFA, Sportradar and bookmaker Starlizard. 

Regulation of sports data

FIFPro’s statement is more concerned with an apparent lack of due process afforded to the players sanctioned in Armenia. But it could ignite a debate that has been bubbling away for many years – regulation of how sporting data is collected and used. 

Data is key to the modern gambling industry. Without somebody noting the number of service breaks in tennis, wides in cricket, or offsides in football, ‘in play’ bets cannot be taken. With the opening of the US sports betting market and new forms of tracking athlete performance, more sports data is being collected than ever before. It is often sold to media and gambling companies, and there is a danger that unless it is handled responsibly, it could be utilised for match-fixing.

Currently, sports data collection is unregulated. In 2014, the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) looked into reports of a friendly match ‘played’ in Armenia between Ulisses Yerevan FC and FC Gandzasar on 29 January 2014 which ended 0-2. Sources who spoke to the two clubs confirmed that both teams held training camps that day but in different locations, 300km from each other, and that they did not play the friendly match that had been reported. In the lead up to the match, the fixture was listed on a website that purported to be an official website of one of the clubs involved – in fact the website was a fake that was set up by an individual who used to be employed as a data scout.

Also in 2014, data scouts helped to create a fake match between Portuguese clubs Freamunde and Ponferradina using fake players. This prompted Stats Perform to set up a vetting system for its data scouts. In a recent alternative approach, Sweden’s gambling authority banned operators from taking bets on rules violations during matches, also limiting football betting to Sweden’s top four divisions. The aim is to remove elements of a match that could be easily fixed, and also matches that are more susceptible to fixing.

Standards

The International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) has recently published a set of standards designed to ensure that sporting data is collated and offered in a manner that is accurate, reliable and transparent; responsibly sourced and minimises risk; and protects against criminality and misconduct. Sports data collection companies will be able to apply for a Kitemark indicating that they have collected and managed sporting data responsibly.

Under some partnerships with sporting federations, a sports integrity partner organisation will send data scouts to matches to track and monitor integrity threats. However, the data collected is also often sold on to gambling operators and other companies. The promise of financial returns from the ‘commercialisation’ of such data can often pull sporting bodies into signing integrity agreements.

As such, a sport that doesn’t specify how its data can be collected, used, and sold can find itself confronted with match-fixing. This is because sporting data that wasn’t previously being collected from lower levels of the sport may be being sold to gambling operators. The data companies and gambling operators often aren’t to blame – it is just easier to fix an amateur game where nobody is watching than a professional game with (pre-COVID) crowds of over 40,000.

In May 2012, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) selected Sportradar as its worldwide distributor for ITF official data. In 2018, after a spike in match-fixing incidents, the Tennis Integrity Review Panel (TIRP) Report revealed that the December 2015 contract extension from 2017 to 2021 was worth US$70 million to tennis. The TIRP Report recommended restricting the sale of match data.

‘The ITF and Sportradar will begin to cooperate in 2012 to assure the supply of live data from selected ITF tournaments to media outlets, the betting industry and any other interested parties’, read a 2012 statement outlining the original deal. The reason that the deal was worth so much money is that it enabled Sportradar to sell live tennis data from over 50,000 matches per year (2014 figures) to gambling operators and media companies. The company’s subsidiary, Betradar, states that the partnership enabled the ‘Monetisation of ITF live data to Sportradar’s media and betting business’.

It has been alleged that Sportradar used University Students to collect data from low level basketball and football games in Australia through Real Time Sportscast (RTS), a Betradar brand. Players in Tasmania’s Southern Basketball League were, perhaps fortunately, unaware that live betting odds were being offered on matches they were competing in. Students in Scotland have also been targeted by RTS job offers to collect data from football games in Scotland. It could be argued that using students as data scouts compounds the integrity risk created in collecting data from lower league matches.

In February this year, the Ukrainian football association (UAF) wrote to a number of sports data companies including Sportradar, Betgenius and Stats Perform, warning them to stop collecting data from their matches, reported iGaming Business. It later emerged that bookmakers offered odds on four lower league Ukrainian matches in March later discovered to be ‘ghost’ games, after Betgenius supplied bookmakers with the data for the fake games, reported InsideWorldFooball.

However, the alleged unauthorised data collection didn’t end in March. Two more warning emails were sent after the UAF signed a deal with FeedConstruct, reports LegalSportsReport.

New sports data frontiers

In August this year, the Professional Squash Association (PSA) announced that over US$100,000 had been paid out to players through a deal with Sports Data Labs, which began commercialising ‘physiological data’ to increase revenue for the PSA’s athletes at the start of the 2018/19 season. ‘We have established ourselves as the first provider of real-time health data for consumption across business and consumer applications related to sports betting, broadcast and human performance’, reads an advertisement for job openings at the company. This is a slightly different approach involving monetising heart rate data capture and tracking technology, which is made available to ‘betting partners to establish new revenue streams for PSA and its athletes’.

Last week, Genius Sports and Sportradar extended an agreement to distribute official National Basketball Association (NBA) betting data to authorised gambling operators in the US. Under the agreement, the two companies have been providing official sports betting data to the NBA for the past two seasons. It is understood that bookmakers are only legally required to use official league data in two States – Illinois and Tennessee. However, the major US sporting leagues will only authorise gambling operators that use official league data to offer bets on their competitions.

The stakes are high. New forms of sporting data could potentially mean new forms of match-fixing, as could the amount of money on offer through the US gambling market. There is, of course, no problem as long as such data is collected and used responsibly.

There is nothing to suggest that any of the sports data companies mentioned in this article are collecting data irresponsibly. It would also be unreasonable to hold them to account for what gambling companies do with that data once it is sold to them, but sporting bodies should question to whom the collected data is sold. As such, some form of industry standard appears sensible, otherwise legislators may be encouraged to intervene.

Stats Perform has announced that it supports IBIA’s standards and will immediately apply for its Kitemark. FeedConsruct, Genius Sports, IMG Arena, Sportradar, and TXODDS have yet to comment.

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