Protecting integrity in sports and betting means educating all parties

Image: SBC

Behind the scenes, attempts to ensure integrity in sports and sports betting are constantly ongoing. But with the issue under the microscope due to a number of high-profile incidents, more people are asking what can be done.

Monitoring for suspicious betting activity or potential match-fixing isn’t easy. It requires high-volume, high-commitment efforts from a range of stakeholders. Bodies such as Integrity Compliance 360 and the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) play a leading role in attempting to identify these instances, naturally. But leagues, athletes and the general public are important pieces of the puzzle.

“Collaboration and engagement have certainly increased over the last couple of years because this issue is more at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds,” noted Scott Sadin, COO of Integrity Compliance 360, formerly U.S. Integrity. “But what we recognized very early on is that it’s impossible to take one path forward with integrity monitoring.”

Sadin was speaking as part of a varied Integrity in Sports panel lineup at SBC Summit North America. Alongside him were Elizabeth Thielen, Program Facilitator at EPIC Global Solutions; Oliver Niner, sports data company PandaScore’s Head of Sales; and Matt Fowler, Head of Global Operations at the IBIA.

No collaboration, no solution

The variation in the working backgrounds of the panelists was particularly apt given how integrity is a complex and multi-faceted issue that reaches beyond simply match-fixing of traditional sports or illegal or illicit activity in sports betting.

Niner, for example, noted that esports “has had a bit of a reputation” in the gambling industry as an area that can be exposed to fixing games or bets. “We very, very robust protocols,” he told attendees. “Blacklisting players, blacklisting teams, we’re pretty good at restricting situations or events that could be abused or could cause any damage to people. We make sure we get the data back from operators as well, so transparency shouldn’t be a problem.

“Could we do more? Absolutely. But we all continue to work with each other on integrity.”

Sadin added that U.S. regulatory bodies have done a good job of engaging and collaborating with organizations like IC360, the IBIA, and EPIC “to ensure we’re all on the same page, united by one purpose.”

Fowler compared integrity monitoring in sports betting to anti-doping programs in that just because there may be no positive tests recorded doesn’t mean the work is over or the problem is solved. “You wouldn’t pat yourself on the back and say ‘well, it’s done.’ You’d say ‘well, what else can we do?'”

Fowler stressed that “the more forward-looking sports and leagues” are grateful to receive the intelligence that integrity monitors provide because it allows them to go away and investigate and ultimately take action that may be required.

A particularly notable example of this kind of united effort came recently with the investigation into Toronto Raptors player Jontay Porter’s involvement in betting that led to the NBA handing him a first-of-its-kind lifetime ban. He was found to have manipulated his own performances to ensure bets cashed, as well as passing on insider information for the purposes of wagering.

NCAA President Charlie Baker is among the notable figures who have advocated for action to go as far as banning prop bets for college athletes to protect the integrity of sports and the athletes themselves.

The panelists were asked whether that type of measure is realistically viable. They weren’t so sure. Prop bets are a hugely popular market and bettors will find a way to bet on them one way or another. By banning those options on regulated, legal sportsbooks, there’s a risk of redirecting gamblers back into the shadows.

“By banning those props, you’re pushing more activity and engagement to those offshore or underground markets that lack collaboration, that lack access to data,” Sadin warned. “Our perspective would be that our system benefits from engagement on sportsbooks, from access to wagers and models. We all benefit from working in collaboration with sportsbooks to share that information. By banning them altogether, you’d lack the data and experiences you need in order to make sure you’re protecting as much as possible.”

“How do you combat the unregulated sector?” asked Fowler. “Our answer has always been that you make the regulated sector as attractive as possible… I think there’s a danger of ending up with the worst of both worlds where the activities are still taking place, the regulators are losing tax dollars, but the activities are not brought into the light by the integrity frameworks that we have in the U.S., which by and large are very good.”

Protecting integrity in the social media age

Technology is a big help in protecting integrity. But, like so much in sports and gaming, the challenges of integrity monitoring and enforcement have evolved rapidly and dramatically as the role of technology has grown. The other side of the coin is that the mechanics of sports fandom and betting enthusiasm have changed.

A big factor cited by the panelists is social media. As Thielen puts it, “the relationship between fans and sports is shifting and not necessarily for the better.”

“We’re on the frontlines,” said Sadin. “Every single time there’s a big call or a misjudgment by a referee, our tipline goes crazy with people saying it’s clearly fixed, there’s clearly something wrong. As you can imagine, more than nine out of 10 circumstances are nothing to investigate further.

“But one of the reasons why the word integrity is important is that we’re able to take those seriously and dig into that data… to basically refute or dispute any kind of conspiracy theorist claim that we come across on social media. It’s the age of social media, I don’t think that’s going away. We’re not going to be able to dissuade people from posting on social media at sportsbooks saying they think the game’s fixed. There’s always going to be that type of underlying suspicion that happens when there’s money on the line.”

Athletes need protecting too

Amid all of this, it’s important not to forget that athletes are human, too.

Investigations into match-fixing such as the one involving Porter can end players’ careers, so it is critically important to ensure that due diligence is done, stressed Fowler.

“From an athlete’s perspective, they deserve due and transparent process in the investigation and a right of appeal,” he noted. “There’s a balance there, for sure.”

Thielen had a unique perspective on this facet of the issue. Thielen is a former boxer and has seen firsthand the risks posed. When she was about to turn pro, she suffered a career-ending that she said pushed her towards gambling to fill the adrenaline void.

“I had no sense of purpose, no sense of identity, no excitement, no challenge. It began my descent into compulsive gambling. I have a lot of traits as an athlete that may be very competitive, I cannot tolerate loss and I’m always seeking the next win. Does that sound a little familiar when we talk about gambling?”

To that end, EPIC aims to used lived experiences to better educate athletes but also to support them.

“When we talk about compliance monitoring, we have to remember these are people,” Thielen stressed. “What are we doing to help them? Let’s not forget this is a human being. We really do focus on the human behind those stats and really help empower athletes to make decisions in this very, very complicated and difficult landscape… So when we’re talking about the consequences, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be deterred but there needs to be some overall wellness recommendations. What we jump to is testing and punishing and we’re missing something really in between. I don’t think the onus should be completely on the athletes.”