Features 10 June 2022

SportsModule – a vanishing act*

A company collecting and selling live data from low level sports to betting companies has vanished. SportsModule, which was only founded in 2020, disappeared after the Bulgarian-based company’s investors pulled out. SportsModule claimed to have a network of 1,500 data scouts attending sports in over 100 countries to collect and sell data to gambling operators. 

The data game

Betting companies need fast and reliable data from companies such as SportsModule in order to offer live odds on sporting events. In short, they need to know what has happened on the field before the punter. And the easiest way to do that is to send scouts to games.

Collecting and selling in-play data, for example corners and bookings, allows betting companies to offer live, in-play odds. However, offering these types of bets from low level events makes manipulating games easier as players are frequently amateur and there is less protection and education over match-fixing. Players are often approached on social media by match-fixers.

In a 2020 Report, Europol concluded that organised crime groups had adapted to the disruption to sport caused by Covid-19 by targeting ‘lower tier games, youth games and friendly matches’. 

Crucially, if data companies don’t collect in-play information from low level sporting events, then betting companies can’t offer live odds on those events. It therefore becomes pointless for match-fixers to pay such players to get booked, give away a corner or a goal, as no bookmakers would offer live odds on those events without the fast and accurate information that the data scouts provide.

Adverts

SportsModule advert for a data scout in the Democratic Republic of the Congo…

SportModule placed adverts on social media for scouts to transmit live data from football, cricket, basketball and rugby games. Research for this article identified adverts for scouts in 49 countries, including those where these sports were amateur or semi-professional. Once taken on, scouts were paid via PayPal, Skrill, and TransferWise and were allowed to claim up to €60 in travel expenses to cover games up to 150km away from their home location. 

The scouts were encouraged to buy a match ticket, and inputted data through an Online Collection Tool (OCT) on their mobile phone following completion of training. By purchasing a ticket, scouts avoided detection by game organisers, many of whom had no idea that the amateur sports they were organising were being commercialised for sale on international betting markets.

SportsModule’s Online Collection Tool (OCT)…

Research for this article found that SportsModule had been advertising for data scouts to cover Chilean cricket and football in the Solomon Islands. The organisers of both had no idea that their games were being targeted for sale onto international betting markets. 

Other football leagues that SportsModule was trying to recruit data scouts for include the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, French Guiana, Luxembourg and Martinique. The company was also looking to collect data from basketball in places as far apart as Botswana and Mexico, but the sport that was targeted the most by SportsModule was low-level cricket, which has had a number of integrity problems.

Other places where SportsModule was looking for scouts to cover cricket included Bahrain, Botswana, Brazil, Finland, Kuwait, Malawi, Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In most of these places, cricket is at a low level and amateur. The game is more developed in the UAE, where there has been a plethora of corruption scandals with five players and officials banned for fixing by the International Cricket Council (ICC) in the last year alone. 

SportsModule was advertising for cricket scouts in India, where betting is technically illegal…

Despite these problems, SportsModule was advertising on Gulf Jobseek for data scouts in Dubai. The largest market for cricket betting is India, where betting is technically illegal. SportsModule was seeking cricket scouts in Indore, a city in India.

Data strategy

In many countries where sporting leagues are professional, games are often covered via rights deals with larger data companies, which are usually exclusive. Football is the golden goose of sports data. As recognised by the Asian Racing Federation’s State of Illegal Betting Report, most wagers are placed on football, globally.

SportsModule’s strategy appeared to target games were outside of these official agreements but were livestreamed for free by their organisers. For example, some matches from the Metro Cup club cricket competition in Chile were streamed live, while the entire Solomon Islands S-League was available live on Facebook. SportsModule also formed a subsidiary, 247Leagues, to organise eSports tournaments.

Once matches are streamed live, betting companies are more likely to offer these games, particularly if there is also a live data feed offering match updates to enable in-play betting. Some data companies take match data off the livestream and sell the feed to betting operators, which is known in the industry as ‘off-tubing’ and is widely disliked by betting companies. Livestreams are typically a number of seconds behind actual events.

If the data is taken from the livestream, punters can exploit this delay to beat the betting operators. They can literally be ahead of the bookmakers. So, betting companies buy the live data from companies such as SportsModule to stay ahead of the livestream.

SportsModule’s guidance to scouts on reporting speeds (click to open)…

SportsModule placed events within a match into three categories. Level 1 events such as goals, kick-off, penalty kicks, red cards, and a referral to the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), were required to be reported within three seconds. For Level 2 events such as yellow cards, free kicks, corners, or additional time, a seven second delay was acceptable. Level 3 events simply had to be reported and not missed. Pay deductions were applicable if these targets were not met.

One integrity expert said: “What [SportsModule] appear to be doing is trying to get scouts at these events and offering live data. Once data is available that is actually from the event, this makes all the other feeds that are just taken off the livestreams worth less.”

Companies that sell live data are not regulated. Some sell this data to betting operators licensed in jurisdictions such as Curaçao and the Philippines, where regulation is considered weak and fixed matches are rarely – if ever – reported to governing authorities.

Sports betting operators rely on a constant supply of sports and data to keep punters engaged. When that becomes disrupted, their profit margins can be affected.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a major disruption. While sport in many countries was curtailed, data companies were sending scouts to low level amateur friendlies in Sweden, for example. Swedish betting operators were subsequently banned from offering these games, but this ban did not affect poorly regulated offshore betting companies. SportsModule’s operation was enabling more low level, vulnerable sports to be offered on betting markets. 

Shutdown

The SportsModule email sent to data scouts (click to open)…

In February, SportsModule suddenly ceased operations and sent scouts an email saying that no more matches would be approved for data coverage. Hundreds of scouts who had been covering sports were affected. Most are now seeking similar work with other data companies.

“I’ve not been paid at all”, one scout told The Sports Integrity Initiative (The SII)*. “I’m not even sure if it’s a real company!” 

Another scout wrote to company executives asking for a more detailed explanation regarding the shutdown. They never received a reply. “I also reached out to them to get some kind of certificate for my work with them, but they’ve gone totally missing in action”, explained another.

Until February SportsModule was, indeed, a real company. It was owned by Krill Invest*.

SportsModule email sent to corporate contacts (click to open)…

“SportsModule went into insolvency as the company couldn’t come to new agreement with its investors”, the Danish company’s owner, Kristoffer Johansen, told The SII. Company employees did receive a slightly more detailed explanation than the scouts (see right). We also asked a number of questions about SportsModule’s ongoing business strategy but, like the scouts, we did not receive a reply.

A cautionary tale

In October 2020, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) published a set of Data Standards. They did this because of the aforementioned lack of regulations concerning the companies that collect data to sell to bookmakers, allowing them to offer odds on sporting events. The collapse of SportsModule perhaps illustrates why initiatives such as this are so important.

We may never know exactly what data was supplied to which bookmakers by SportsModule, or how it was used. SportsModule may have disappeared but the gap in the market that the company spotted is unlikely to have been missed by other data companies looking to exploit these events.

* This article was amended on 25 June after a Krill Invest Executive clarified that it had never been an owner of SportsModule, which was founded by 1stp Holding, which is owned by Krill Invest. The Krill Invest Executive said that all SportsModule scouts had been paid in full, before the company went formally insolvent.

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