Match-fixers have been having a field day since the pandemic broke out, posing a threat to sporting organisations around the world. However, the good guys are fighting back with technology. They are employing a combination of advanced algorithms and data gathering tools to help identify suspicious activity, allowing the sports industry to better police the games and prevent, or at least reduce, the incidence of match-fixing.
Sportradar Integrity Services, a global sports integrity solutions provider, has detected more than 1,100 suspicious matches since April 2020; 655 of those occurring in the first nine months of 2021. Football remains the sport most susceptible to match-fixing, a fact that has been consistent over the 15 years of tracking. It made up more than 500 of the suspicious matches observed last year.
According to Sportradar’s director of global partnerships in integrity services Andy Cunningham, not only is there a spike in the number of cases, but the types of sports affected have also diversified.
“During the initial months of the pandemic when sporting activities were shut down, match-fixers started targeting sports, or levels of sports, that had not been targeted previously. For example, we saw an uptick in suspicious e-sports matches since the pandemic started, and we have escalated over 70 matches across five different game titles as suspicious,” he says.
“In football, we’ve seen fixers targeting divisions below the second-tier, third-tier, and even the youth leagues. We saw an uptick of over 60% in football friendlies being targeted in the betting markets,” he adds.
How match-fixing works
Although there are some differences, Cunningham explains that most match-fixing activities follow the same overarching modus operandi. Match-fixers can range from large organised crime groups to lone wolves, but most make their money primarily through the betting market.
Match-fixers operate in a similar way to a business — they require funds to finance gang operations and bribe sports players. It is not uncommon for them to corrupt players through threats and bribery, sometimes recruiting former team members or the player’s friends to help.
More worryingly, match-fixing is now an increasingly global phenomenon. It is possible for a match-fixing syndicate to be based in Southeast Asia, corrupting players in Europe, while placing bets with bookmakers in South America.
“The victims are often the players, referees and match officials. They are put in very dangerous situations where they themselves, or their families, are threatened. Of course, the overall sport itself is a victim, and ultimately also the fans of the teams and leagues themselves who can see the team and the sport they love tarnished forever,” says Cunningham.
“This also potentially has a knock-on effect on the revenue streams for the sport. There have been examples over the years where match-fixers took hold of certain competitions or leagues, turning away large commercial sponsors,” he adds.
How match-fixing can be resolved
To keep track of the suspicious sports matches around the world, Sportradar relies on its Universal Fraud Detection System (UFDS), which has been operating for over 15 years. It serves as the company’s bet monitoring service and has been available free of charge to all sports federations or leagues globally since last October.
Cunningham explains that the system is built on top of massive amounts of betting and sporting data, with an estimated 20 billion datasets being fed through the system per year. In very simple terms, the system monitors the worldwide betting market using algorithms and alerting techniques not too dissimilar to how stock exchanges monitor suspicious trades for insider trading.
The system tracks and analyses betting odds and patterns on the basis of probability, while also considering sporting factors such as the team’s strength and form, player injuries and other parameters. In a football match, for instance, if a team is two goals up early on, the chances of it winning the game increases substantially, and the system plots this data along with bookmaker odds using algorithms that predict how the odds should flow.
However, if the betting patterns deviate from expectations, the system generates an alert that something unusual has occurred. The case is then funnelled to a team of expert analysts, who go through the results and ultimately decide if the case should be deemed suspicious and reported to the sporting body.
To stay ahead of the latest tech trends, click here for DigitalEdge Section
“99 times out of 100, there’s no reason for concern. Betting patterns and alerts happen all the time for completely legitimate reasons, and it is [up to] the analysts’ expertise to determine if they should dig a bit deeper and report the case to our partners,” Cunningham adds.
“Over the past 18 months, we have been looking to incorporate machine learning and artificial intelligence to help automate some of these analyses and processes, and it is something that we are improving all the time. Machines can do a lot of work, but we still need a human element to help interpret the results,” he says.
The work does not end once the case is handed over to the sports federation. Some of these federations have robust integrity units comprising ex-law enforcement and sports intelligence professionals.
Sportradar has teams of investigative professionals who assist these units in carrying out their investigations, while also playing an advisory role. It also offers investigative services to smaller sports federations with limited resources that are looking to outsource such investigations. It provides reports and recommends the next step in pursuing a case and sometimes even helps carry out interviews with players under investigation.
Once a sporting body’s case is built up, it will then undertake disciplinary procedures and processes. Sportradar has supported cases where over 500 individuals have been banned either through disciplinary procedures, or sanctioned under a court of law, with the company providing evidence used in the proceedings.
A challenge beyond technology
Despite Sportradar having detected thousands of suspicious matches in its 15 years of integrity operations, Cunningham says these figures may not give a full picture of the global sports match-fixing scene. There are some limitations to the UFDS system, such as its reliance on data de- rived from online betting platforms and not covering all the competitions available. While Sportradar has partnered over 100 sports governing bodies, there are still many more out there, he says.
“In Europe and some countries in Asia, there are still betting shops or operations where people can place their bets physically in cash. However, these bets sometimes eventually end up being fed into a larger betting operator that is online, where the larger operator helps the smaller operator manage their risk,” he says.
He adds: “We do not pretend that we monitor 100% of all bets being made. But we believe that we have captured a significant proportion of it, and we are always looking for any new data sources that we can add to our monitoring list to give us more coverage.”
Claiming that a party is potentially involved in match-fixing is a serious allegation, and Sportradar only reports cases that it is confident are suspicious. However, there are also plenty of potential alerts that do not trigger UFDS’s detection threshold as suspicious and are classified as borderline cases.
Still, Cunningham wishes to drill home the point that the vast majority of sports is still clean, and fixed matches represent a tiny percentage of sports as a whole, even when factoring in borderline cases.
While UFDS plays a key role in detecting match-fixing cases, a lot of attention needs to be paid to prevention as well. Cunningham explains that players and athletes need to be educated on the rules and regulations, and taught to recognise, resist and report any signs of match-fixing.
Sportradar has helped federations establish whistle-blowing mechanisms as a way for players to report cases anonymously and safely, even developing mobile applications and software that incorporate such features. He says that these matters need to be handled professionally to instil confidence in the entire sports ecosystem.
The move to offer UFDS for free to sporting organisations was not unusual. Cunningham says Sportradar has a larger commercial business segment, including the provision of data technology and services to media companies and bookmakers. However, the sports integrity arm does not make a profit, intending to only cover the cost of operations.
It is the right thing to do, he explains, given its position in the sports ecosystem and the fact that the company has the means to do so. He hopes to bring the service to as many types of sports as possible, reaching out to sports bodies that the company was not able to help previously.
“No one can completely eradicate match-fixing. As long as there is sport, there will be sports betting. Since the Olympics in ancient Greece, there have been people trying to fix sporting events. We are just one stakeholder in this fight, and we can only try to stay ahead of the game and evolve our methods by working together with other stakeholders to try to keep the numbers as low as possible,” he adds.
This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia.