The shocking shock of tennis match fixing

I am shocked by the revelations that have rocked the tennis world on the first day of the Australian Open. I am shocked that highly paid tennis players should be accused of taking extra payments to throw matches, and shocked by the sheer extent of the corruption that has been alleged.

And most of all, I’m shocked that such a dramatic exposé, reflecting months of intensive, data-driven, investigative journalism, has been broken by Buzzfeed.

No, no; Buzzfeed does proper journalism alongside the deluge of cute pet listicles.

Early in his campaign, they published one of the most fascinating long-form articles on Donald Drumpf I’ve ever read, and only last year, former ABC journo Mark di Stefano uncovered the origins of the finest meme in Australian political history (link contains strong language and even stronger research).

But still, today’s “Tennis Racket” piece is probably a high watermark for the website, just as these allegations seem to be a low watermark for a sport which used to consist of gentlemen gently popping the ball over the net with tiny wooden racquets until one of them yielded so both players could stop for restorative gin and tonics.

The investigative effort has demonstrated a level of determination that’s positively Hewitt-esque – just getting your head around the number-crunching involved is exhausting. And this kind of intensive analysis surely provides the best path forward for tennis, which, to guard against future allegations of this nature, clearly needs to employ its own team of data watchdogs looking for sudden betting surges which could indicate a fix.

Big data analysis works well to detect dodginess – your bank employs a similar system of constant data analysis to figure out whether your credit card details have been stolen. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the scandal is the apparent refusal of the sport to put a thorough detection process in place for years after the alarm bells first sounded.

Buzzfeed credits Betfair, one of the world’s leading sports gambling agencies, with detecting an irregularity in a notorious 2007 match in Poland. Some might view this sophisticated detection system as a guarantee that most sports remain clean. While this may be true, I would cynically point out that the same mathematical geniuses who designed the alert system presumably tweak the odds to ensure that the house is almost always ahead.

But if we learn anything from the tennis allegations, which follow major match-fixing claims in cricket, soccer, basketball and a number of other sports over the years, it should be that gambling on anything involving human beings is fraught with problems. Wherever there are humans, there will also be human frailty, and therefore greed and corruption. Wherever there’s big money to be made on the side, there will be what can perhaps be termed Cronje capitalism.

Sports betting has been around for millennia – the Romans used to enjoy a flutter on chariot racing; and for millennia, betting on the outcomes of contests that can be manipulated has been about as foolish as voluntarily becoming a gladiator.

For there to be superstar champions in sport, there has to be a raft of less successful, more poorly compensated players, eking out a living by getting defeated in the first or second round. At some point, these athletes, who train just as hard as the big names, realise that they’ll never win lucrative sponsorships or access the major prize pool. Little wonder then that they’re apparently susceptible to throwing the odd set here or there to make as much money as they can before they retire. It’s heinous, obviously, but it’s an inevitable result of how lopsided the financial rewards in sport have become.

And one of the main sources of the deluge of money for successful players has been the gradual legalisation of sports betting. Nowadays, you can’t watch overseas soccer matches without being bombarded with animated ads for betting sites along the sidelines, and their logos even feature on the chests of the players themselves. In the decades ahead, presumably, huge global gambling agencies will buy up entire sports and stream them via the internet with feeds that are constantly interrupted by the latest live odds.

Even in relatively regulated Australia, we are moving closer to ubiquitous sports betting ads. This is the first Australian Open where gambling promotions are being allowed on the arena itself, the timing of which now seems ironic to say the least. Tennis regulators are surely as unlikely to be able to halt the enormous growth of online betting in their sport as any other sports administrators. Surely it’s only a matter of time until even the Olympics adopts a new logo that turns the five rings into zeroes next to a dollar sign.

The truly sad thing about the obnoxious growth of legal, regulated gambling, though, is that as this scandal reminds us, it’s vastly preferable to the kind of unregulated, illegal gambling that seeks to fix matches. As irritating as I find them, huge multinational gambling corporations which constantly monitor sports for irregularities are probably the best guarantee we have that the match itself will be a genuine contest, albeit one that’s constantly interrupted by annoying betting ads.

In one sense, these embarrassing accusations come at an excellent time for the 2016 Australian Open. Given the scrutiny that will follow these allegations, surely nobody would dare to throw so much as a point at Melbourne Park over the next fortnight.

The ongoing challenge for tennis will be to ensure that it closely monitors all future matches, especially those away from the grand slam spotlight, to guard against results that are only unexpected to those who aren’t in on the scam.

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