Don’t bet on soccer staying clean without proper gambling protections in place

What should US soccer do to protect itself against match-fixing, as sports gambling starts rolling out US-wide?

Match-fixing in football is having its time in the news.

Belgium’s recent football scandal, involving officials, referees, agents, accountants and individuals from 7 countries included allegations of “classic” match-fixing — dodgy behaviour to help teams win or lose games so that lucrative positions in a league were retained or lost. Other forms of match-fixing seek to rig the final result or a particular element of a game (“spot-fixing”) to reap huge financial pay-outs from placing bets with insider knowledge.

It is this second type of match-fixing — linked with sports betting, that is keeping US sports bodies awake at night. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) which had previously limited sports gambling to just four states (Nevada, Montana, Delaware, and Oregon). All states are now allowed to choose whether and how to permit gambling. Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia have already since legalized betting on professional and amateur sports and more will follow suit.

How individual states will monitor and protect against match-fixing is currently under debate. States such as Nevada that permitted betting previously already had protections in place. But there is a risk that in a rush to reap the commercial benefits of sports betting as quickly as possible, other states won’t prioritise those protections. And as more and more states decide to permit sports betting, there is an additional risk of creating a patchwork of regulations and frameworks, allowing crooks and criminals to shop around to find the state with the weakest provisions.

Some have criticised the relaxing of the law for fear of the social impact of betting or the potential consequence of increased incentive to engage in match-fixing. However, just because sports betting wasn’t legal, doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. Estimates vary, but a huge amount of illegal gambling is said to have been taking place in the US each year regardless of PASPA. Bringing sports betting out the shadows is a good thing as it allows for proper regulation, oversight and monitoring. It is impossible for data analysis companies who monitor bets to identify spikes in betting patterns when the information is underground.

Is soccer at risk?

At the moment, much conversation in the US is about the big four: the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. The threats, risks and opportunities relating to soccer has been on a backburner. On the one hand, overall risks for soccer are lower since the sport will likely remain a smaller betting slice of the market. Also, players in the US are more likely to be university-educated and may be less likely to take part in risky behaviour such as match-fixing for fear of jeopardising their soccer and post-soccer careers.

But experience from Europe and beyond still suggests soccer will be vulnerable for a few reasons. First, unlike other US sports, soccer is low scoring, meaning that a single incident or a single goal can have a huge impact on the overall game. That means somebody seeking to rig a game for a major betting pay-out only need pressurise, blackmail or pay off one or two key individuals, such as a referee or goalkeeper, not an entire team.

Second, US soccer player salaries are lower than in other US sports. Most match-fixing in Europe takes place in the second and third divisions, divisions where pay is far from the astronomical figures received by English Premiership or Spanish La Liga players. FIFPro, the world players’ union has identified match-fixing, linked to lower salaries, as a growing risk factor in women’s soccer too, which is well established in the US.

Third, US teams take part in regional competitions and tournaments organised by CONCACAF and match-fixing allegations have hit CONCACAF matches in recent years. Even if US soccer does all it can to keep match-fixing at bay domestically, it will need to be aware of regional risks as well.

What should US soccer do?

Major League Soccer (MLS) is not blind to the risks. For more than 5 years they have hired the services of betting data analysis company Sportradar to provide early warning detection of suspicious matches. They banned the use of cellphones in locker rooms an hour before the game, when key information such as team-sheets, line-ups and injuries might be discussed — key information that people betting on sport want to have.

But US soccer will probably want to consider what more they can do to contribute to shoring up their defences on a bigger scale in a post PASPA era.

First, US Soccer will probably want to support a minimum level of consistency and coherence across all states that permit betting. Even if the US will not adopt an overarching federal regulatory structure, there must be commonalities. US Soccer will want to promote robust collaboration across the sector and support the establishment of data and information exchange mechanisms across the sport and between the relative authorities including state and federal law enforcement, the competition organizer and the sports betting operators.

Second, they will want to invest further in protecting the integrity of the game and in education of players and clubs. Where this investment comes from is currently a hot debate. Some say the betting operators should be required to pay a 0.25% “integrity tax” to the leagues to help fund this protection. Others argue that the tax is just a royalty received without taking on the risks that betting companies shoulder. But this “fair financial return” is something that already exists, for example in France and Australia and deserves proper consideration. If the leagues become bogged down in match-fixing scandals, there will be no games to bet on in the future.

Finally, stringent sanctions and bans need to be enforced for those found to have been involved in match-fixing, and a strong message should be sent that it will not be tolerated. MLS has not been faced with major problems to date, but the sport needs to be ready to enforce the rules once betting becomes much more prevalent.

The Sport Integrity Global Alliance has a set of Universal Standards specifically on sports betting integrity that can act as a framework for action. These standards outline the kinds of protections and measures that should be in place, from creating independent betting monitoring platforms to channel, analyse and act on sport integrity intelligence, to enhancing national legislation so that various improper activities are criminalised and sanctions enforced, to running training and awareness programmes for different stakeholders, and ensuring investigations teams are well resourced and whistle-blowers enjoy proper protection.

Crucially, sports betting and match-fixing is not just about a goal here and a dollar there. Europe’s match-fixing problems have been connected to extremely serious and violent organised crime syndicates. This is not a path the US wants to go down.

Prevention is preferable to patching-up and punishing afterwards.