Published: June 18, 2021

The spectre of match-fixing hovers over a changing sports betting landscape

Yana Sizikova lost her first-round match at the French Open with partner Ekaterina Alexandrova. It turns out that was the least of her problems.

The Russian player, ranked 101st in doubles on the WTA Tour, was arrested at Roland Garros shortly after her match earlier this month over allegations of match fixing. Sizikova is being investigated for her loss at the 2020 French Open, when the 26-year-old and her partner lost to a Romanian pair. Red flags were raised within a French police unit specializing in betting fraud and fixing by the amount of money bet on the Romanians to win a particular game in the second set, when Sizikova served two double-faults.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said Sizikova was arrested for “sports bribery and organized fraud for acts likely to have been committed.” She hasn’t been charged, but remains under investigation.

The attempted manipulation of sporting events to benefit bettors isn’t new, especially in lower-tier and non-mainstream sports where athletes, coaches and officials aren’t making massive salaries and are vulnerable to accepting money to influence a result. In the COVID-19 world, the sports industry — like so many others — has taken an economic beating for more than a year now.

In February, the Guardian reported that match-fixers were “diversifying into new areas and targeting especially vulnerable teams and players.” The suspicious activity includes betting on soccer friendlies, volleyball, table tennis and esports.

“With the amount of sport collapsed in 2020 as a consequence of COVID-19, we discovered a massive spread in the cancer of match-fixing,” Andreas Krannich, managing director of Sportradar’s Integrity Services, told the U.K.-based publication. “In the past, match-fixers have targeted those sports and leagues where the profit and turnover are biggest, such as football, tennis and basketball. But now they have diversified.

“What the fixers quickly understood is that a lot of sports are now suffering financially as a consequence of COVID-19. And where there is far less money, players, referees, coaches, presidents are increasingly vulnerable.”

Sports betting has been around since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, but wagering has reached new heights thanks to established legal betting operations internationally, greater access to offshore sportsbooks and technology that has opened the door to betting during games.

“We have seen a massive evolution in sports betting,” Friedrich Martens, head of the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Movement Unit on the Prevention of the Manipulation of Competitions, said last month during an online panel discussion with Krannich on integrity in sport. The IOC created the unit in 2017 after working with law enforcement and Sportradar during the 2012 London Games, and then instituting its own internal monitoring program for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

“The fight against doping and match-fixing is on the same level today,” Martens said. “We work on the regulatory side, helping national Olympic organizations to have rules in place. On the intelligence side, we co-operate with many partners (including) law enforcement, lotteries, sports betting operators and others.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ban on single-event betting in 2018, leagues such as the NHL, MLB and NBA that once fought against the legalization of betting have done an about-face and are exploiting opportunities to generate revenue by selling data (statistics) and creating sponsorship deals with sportsbooks.

“We’re simply adapting to the evolving legal landscape,” NHL executive Keith Wachtel said in March, in front of a House of Commons committee studying an amendment to the Criminal Code that would allow single-event sports betting in Canada. “The marketplace is changing dramatically, and as such we’ve been working collaboratively with all the stakeholders.

“There’s been extensive technological innovation, increased partner sophistication and, perhaps more importantly, I think a true understanding of how a regulated, legal sports market can better promote responsibility and integrity versus a non-regulated market.”

Witnesses at committee hearings have pointed to existing language in the Criminal Code that they say deals with fixing and has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. On Thursday, Sen. Brent Cotter referred to recent legal opinions he’d received from criminal lawyers.

“The Criminal Code, including the fraud provisions and cheating at play, (is) more than adequate to handle the range of match-fixing strategies that might occur,” said Cotter.

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