Despite lockdown, cancellations, and fans kept out of stadiums, sport's integrity bodies were faced with the prospect of a sharp increase in betting trends across sporting events not usually considered within the mainstream.
Sportradar's Director of Global Operations, Tom Mace - who oversees the sports data provider's Integrity Services team - takes a look at the challenges that lie ahead for sports integrity in 2021.
Match-fixing has always been an evolving phenomenon but last year proved to be more unpredictable than ever. The widespread cancellation of live mainstream sport in March thrust sports and events that are usually on the fringes into the spotlight.
Having reported more than 5,300 highly suspicious matches through our Fraud Detection System (FDS) in the last 15 years, contributing to over 400 sports disciplinary sanctions and over 35 criminal sanctions – more than any other bet monitoring system worldwide – our integrity measures are robust and rigorously tested. Heading into 2020, while we had the preeminent monitoring system in place, we evolved our existing processes in order to meet the changing landscape and demands that emerged last year.
Today, we have over 100 dedicated expert integrity staff in six global locations (including London and Las Vegas), backed up by significant investment in technology and tools to tackle modern day match-fixing, including the day-to-day use of AI, both within and alongside the FDS, which alone processes over 7.5 billion data sets per day.
New sports in ‘the new normal’
In March – during the first lockdown – bookmakers were crying out for live content. Competitive matches taking place in countries such as Sweden, Nicaragua, Belarus and Burundi experienced a sharp increase in betting activity. In some cases, we saw betting volumes rise tenfold, which required deeper scrutiny as the risk dynamic changed.
That elevation in risk level continued as bookmakers offered whatever content was available to them – friendly matches, exhibition tournaments and amateur sports were popping up with increased frequency.
This flood of new competitions, from the first COVID-19-secure tennis exhibitions to ‘at home’ darts events, as well as a significant increase in esports and e-soccer, meant we monitored twice as many matches in 2020 via our FDS compared to the previous year. From all monitored competitions, 71% of the suspicious matches we detected in 2020 were in soccer, with 9% in basketball and 7.5% in esports.
In overall terms in 2020 we monitored more than 600,000 matches, over 1,000 competitions (up 25%) and escalated 521 suspicious matches (down 21%) to the relevant sporting bodies and authorities. Furthermore, Sportradar-supported sporting sanctions increased by 82%, with assistance provided in the prosecuting and sanctioning of 102 cases in areas including the Armenian Premier and First leagues, Brazilian and Portuguese lower leagues, and Uruguayan basketball.
Going the extra mile
With more than 80 sporting partners and law enforcement agencies around the world relying on our services and expertise during one of the most challenging periods on record, we at the same time had to provide increased integrity coverage to meet changing challenges and requirements. For example, we monitored any new sports events for which the company offered data for to the betting market, and we introduced an athlete code of conduct for these events, as well as offering educational support and integrity training to event organisers.
These measures were vital for both the short and long-term future of sports. If we look at snooker over recent years for example, a combination of comprehensive monitoring, investigation and robust disciplinary action has seen the sport go from having several match-fixing issues to this now being a rarity. Sportradar is proud to have played a part in the WPBSA achieving this through our strong integrity partnership. With any sport we know this scenario might not last forever so sports need a consistent strategy around education to minimise the risk of it returning, something we continuously and tirelessly strive to help our partners implement.
The way corruptors approach match-fixing is already changing, and we are constantly adapting our approach and technology to remain ahead. Based on our intelligence, large syndicates are still operating but 2020 has seen a rise in ‘opportunistic’ match-fixing – lone individuals unconnected to syndicates who are taking a more blatant and direct approach. This is not a new phenomenon, but we have seen an increase in reports of players receiving cold approaches from objectively random people via Twitter and Instagram offering them money to manipulate matches.
This was highlighted in a recent case in darts in which Sportradar contributed to an investigation in conjunction with the Darts Regulation Authority (DRA) that led to a combined 13-year playing ban for two players. Social media connections were identified by our Intelligence & Investigation Services team, with one of the players approached to fix matches on an instant messaging app. Such findings help to connect the dots and provide sporting bodies with the evidence they need to help prove suspicious behaviour and punish those involved.
The impact of COVID-19 on integrity in 2021
We fully expect this year to be more challenging than the last with integrity an even greater focus for sport.
In our experience within sporting bodies, integrity can often be an area that faces budget cuts ahead of others. The longer COVID-19 restrictions remain, and sporting revenues decrease, the more organisations will struggle financially. However, they will still be expected to maintain the same high standards but with fewer resources.
Some have already started to face problems. Fortunately, despite the hardships of the last year, most sporting bodies remain steadfast in their motivation to combat fraudulent activity and we will be there by their side more than ever to support them.
We continually invest in all areas of our integrity services to further assist our partners to uphold the integrity of their events. Indeed, the FDS has been utilising a supervised machine-learning algorithm since 2018 to support the detection of anomalous activity, and classification of alerts. The model was initially trained on historical data (approximately 100,000 alerts) and is periodically retrained by data scientists to retain accuracy. Another model was developed in 2020 that incorporated bet-ticket and turnover data, as well as alert data from the previous model, to detect anomalous activity at match level. These styles of advanced, smart monitoring provide our integrity analysts with proven support in the detection and classification process, enabling them to focus their efforts on suspicious odds movements, with AI helping to filter out regular betting market activity.
We also pledge to boost our coverage of new sports, sporting formats, leagues and competitions, whilst also extending our efforts to work with the organisers of such competitions. This is to ensure that they have sufficient codes of conduct for athletes to know the rules in place, as well as provide education around these events, and reporting any suspect cases through official bodies.
The financial hardship caused by COVID-19 means that anyone involved in competitive sport is susceptible to manipulation. However, just as we pledged to safeguard and uphold the highest integrity standards 15 years ago, we are more committed than ever to preserving the future of sport.