Why this matters
While the dawn of sports betting has felt sudden in the U.S., stories from foreign sports leagues show that when gambling becomes pervasive, so too does match-fixing and other criminal action centered on sports wagers.
Unión Magdalena badly needed two goals. Trailing 1-0 to Llaneros FC with roughly a minute remaining in their Dec. 4 match, Unión was on the verge of a loss that would result in Fortaleza FC being promoted to Colombia’s top-tier soccer division, the Dimayor league, rather than Unión.
And then something odd happened, the stuff of nightmares for any league that cares at all about the integrity of its competition.
Unión scored in the 95th minute – a fairly innocuous goal, although the defending from Llaneros certainly didn’t sparkle. Then Unión scored again, as the Llaneros defenders more or less stopped moving while Unión fumbled around before finally poking the winning goal into the net. It was an astounding bit of theater.
Outrage came instantaneously. Colombian President Ivan Duque called the match “a national embarrassment." Prominent national team players expressed disgust. The goal went viral as fast as the world’s data signals could carry the images.
In response, the Colombian league launched an investigation and on New Year’s Eve released a resolution stating that Unión’s players and staff “had not participated in any reproachable conduct.” Colombia’s prosecutor’s office reportedly closed its investigation on Jan. 3 without charging anybody with crimes.
Meanwhile, soccer fans in Colombia and elsewhere were left to wonder: Had the match been fixed?
International soccer’s history with match-fixing is so long that is has its own Wikipedia page, so prolific that global governing body FIFA felt the need to put out a painstakingly detailed list of anti-fixing recommendations in 2014, and so baked into the sport’s cake that even legitimate goals and results sometimes come under scrutiny.
While the reasons for fixing are numerous, sports gambling has long played a key role in fostering corruption in soccer leagues across the globe, creating a suite of incentives to fix matches as the culture surrounding the games inevitably becomes enmeshed with betting.
In the United States, fixed games have been relatively rare since the 1919 Black Sox scandal, with laws prohibiting sports gambling and a longtime refusal of sports leagues to engage in gambling-adjacent activities creating something of a firewall against the enmeshment seen elsewhere. Yet as legalized sports betting now sweeps across the nation and leagues and teams eagerly embrace what amounts to a multibillion-dollar gold rush, previous barriers are collapsing.
Increasingly, the American sports ecosystem is plugging into gargantuan domestic and global betting markets, legal and illegal. And if global soccer is any guide, that opens the door for greater corruption, including rigged games.
So what can American sports learn about sports gambling and match-fixing from international soccer? Here are nine lessons:
1. Integrity Dies in Darkness
Like most forms of crime, match-fixing tends to happen in the shadows, not the spotlight. In global soccer, an awful lot of action happens outside of the biggest and most glamorous leagues and competitions.
Sportradar, a match-fixing monitoring company for FIFA and UEFA that now also works with the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and several college conferences to track suspicious betting volume, says that of the nearly 650 suspicious matches it detected in worldwide soccer by mid-December 2021, nearly 40 percent were third-tier leagues or lower.
In America, it likely won’t be the National Football League playoffs or the World Series that suffers the next big match-fixing scandal, but rather less prominent competitions: sports where attention and scrutiny are less pronounced, and the players and officials needed to manipulate results are more accessible.
“Over the last three to four years, the numbers of fixed matches are increasing [at the] lower levels,” says Tom Mace, Sportradar’s global director of operations. “You go back to 10 years ago, the numbers would show that the worst-affected areas in football are first or second divisions. More recently, a clear tendency is these numbers are shifting further down the league system.”
The sweet spot for fixing? A league where there is sufficient betting handle for fixers to lay substantial wagers without attracting attention, populated by players who aren’t paid well or reliably. Declan Hill, the world’s leading journalist on match-fixing in sports and a professor at the University of New Haven, even has a formula for predicting the likelihood of match corruption: the total money gambled on a game or league / the median salary of the players in the league = relative risk of match corruption.
“Third tier and fourth tier are now more or less on par or, in some cases, by far the worst-affected areas,” Mace says. “One thing I’d recommend for U.S. sport is make sure you cover everything. Don’t just look at the top parts because it would be too easy for the problem to shift down and out of visibility.”
2. Pay Attention to the Biggest Games, Too
In his reporting and two books on match-fixing, Hill claims that a quarterfinal match at the 2006 World Cup between Ghana and Brazil was fixed in the latter’s favor, with a 3-0 Brazilian victory covering the two-goal spread.
There have also been credible allegations and investigations into match-fixing in Germany’s top-tier Bundesliga and the preliminary rounds of Europe’s elite continental competitions, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.
Consider the world’s finest soccer circuit for much of the 1980s and 1990s, Italy’s Serie A also has experienced match-fixing scandals so vast and pervasive that they have earned standalone monikers like the Totonero affairs – note the plural, there were two! – and Calciopoli. These schemes involved clubs from Italy’s juggernauts on down and resulted in the lengthy suspension of a raft of players – including Paolo Rossi, who would go on to lead Italy to the 1982 World Cup.
“There’s certainly a ton of match-fixing going on in Serie A,” Hill says. “In Italian soccer match-fixing is so endemic, so well-known, that many bookies stopped taking bets on it.”
Historically, no game has proved too big to fix.
3. Don’t Sleep on Exhibition Games
Match-fixing isn’t contained to official matches. The less official the game, the easier it is to manipulate – an attractive proposition for fixers operating in the vast illegal betting market that takes wagers on even unsanctioned and unregulated friendly games.
Many of these friendlies are played without much fanfare. Two teams conducting a training camp in a third country are free to play one another if they feel like it. When those games happen, it’s unclear whose jurisdiction they fall under. Sometimes, the local governing body doesn’t know that such a game is even happening.
Chances are, some illegal bookies will take the action.
“Let’s say a U.S. team and a Canadian team went to Mexico and played a game and there was some concern over that game, the question would be, ‘Who is going to intervene?’” says Steve Menary, a freelance journalist and the project manager on a research project into the vulnerability of friendly matches in soccer by the European Commission and the University of Nicosia.
“What happens is all three [nations] go, ‘It’s not really anything to do with me. Someone else should do it.’ So therefore nothing gets done at all.”
In the project’s final report, players who were interviewed anonymously declared that they felt that fixing friendlies carried less risk because the penalties would be less severe if they were caught. It’s no surprise, then, that absent a formal process to safeguard the integrity of exhibition games, they are frequently manipulated.
4. Gambling Syndicates Operate Globally, and They Are Crafty
On separate occasions in 1997, the lights went out mid-game in the stadium of two smaller English Premier League teams as they were winning home games against much larger clubs. Those games were abandoned and resumed later. Per betting rules, the wagers placed on games abandoned after halftime were nevertheless honored as if the games finished.
Two years later, a Malaysian gambling syndicate was caught trying to install a remote-controlled switch that could turn out the lights in a third stadium. The syndicate even had the help of an accomplice in the home club’s security operation.
Suddenly, everything made sense. The syndicate had sabotaged the two games in 1997, killing the lights in order to end games at the exact moments it suited the bets they had laid.
It was a plot of astonishing audacity, and one that awakened soccer to a new scourge: a sophisticated, globalized strain of organized crime intent on tampering with soccer games, no matter where they occurred.
The gambling syndicates – largely based in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, where they operate with impunity and often in concert – have long preyed on sports that lack a sturdy integrity infrastructure, such as table tennis or esports.
And their schemes are growing more complex and covert.
“You don’t have that phenomenon where a bunch of bad boys can be caught by the gambling market really easily,” Hill says. “What we’ve seen in the wave of match-fixing – it hasn’t just hit soccer; it’s hit tennis, handball, basketball, motorboat racing, esports – is that this is a massive problem because sports gambling has gone global. And America is jumping in with both feet into a situation that has been developing in the rest of the world over the last 15 years.”
Sportradar’s investigations have found that some fixers don’t simply find the vulnerable individuals in soccer clubs to approach anymore. They sometimes buy their way in through the front door.
“There’s been a trend of the fixers using companies, or commercial entities, to become embedded with football clubs,” Mace says. “A lot of the time the fixers wouldn’t just approach the players and arrange the fix that way; they take over the club and purchase it, or enter into business with them in some kind of commercial sponsorship agreement, and then that gives them the chance [to fix games].”
5. The Gambli-fication of Sports Culture Makes Fixing More Likely
Going into the 2021-22 English Premier League season, nine of the 20 teams had an online betting company as their main jersey sponsor, ranging from Hollywoodbets to Fun88 to ManBetX. Several more teams had a betting sponsor on their jersey sleeves. All 20 teams had an official betting partner. The prior season, Leicester City was sponsored by four different betting companies. A lot of those sponsors are foreign and operate outside the United Kingdom.
Two Premier League teams, Brentford and Brighton, are owned by English professional sports bettors who grew so successful that they began buying up a consortium of teams they once might have placed their wagers on. This is what happens when betting is given free rein on a country’s sports scene. It slowly consumes the culture.
Things have gotten so bad in the UK that the country’s parliament is expected to ban betting companies from buying jersey sponsorships by 2023, following similar bans in Italy and Spain, in order to break gambling’s stranglehold on the national pastime. But that won’t alleviate the other insidious ways in which betting has burrowed into the game. English gamblers report that the freedom to bet on just about anything you can imagine in soccer – which team gets the first corner kick; which manager will be fired next; which team has the most possession of the ball; etc. – rewires their brains to watch the sport entirely differently. Rather than watch the action, they keep contemplating prop bets. Their relationship to the sport has fundamentally changed.
And the more gambling seeps into the sport, the shorter the leap from participation to manipulation becomes.
6. Poorly Paid Players Are Especially Vulnerable (cc: NCAA)
In 2013, former Croatian soccer player Mario Čižmek, who had been banned from the sport for life for match-fixing, told a conference that he had only resorted to taking bribes because his club had stopped paying him and he ran out of money. "I and the other players had not been paid a regular salary for 14 months, and I owed money on taxes and my pension,” Čižmek said. “We had no money, and we no longer spoke about training or football, but only about how we were going to survive.”
In many cases of corruption among players, the primary driver is financial need, not greed. The less a player earns, the likelier the player is to have trouble making ends meet, especially if they suffer a personal financial shock or crisis. In turn, that makes the player more susceptible to the advances of someone who promises to make problems go away.
This vulnerability is at the core of Hill’s equation for assessing the risk of a game being corrupted: total money gambled divided by median salary. And it ought to sound alarms for American college sports, which historically have been home to many high-profile fixing and point-shaving schemes, including scandals involving the City College of New York in the early 1950s and Arizona State University in the mid-1990s.
Americans love wagering on college sports. In 2018, the American Gaming Association estimated that more than $10 billion was wagered on the NCAA Tournament that year. And beyond athletic scholarships and small cost-of-living stipends, college athletes are unpaid. The math is the math: When Hill and co-authors Chris Rasmussen, Michele Vittorio and David Myers applied Hill’s equation to the major American sports leagues for an academic paper published in the Sport and Society journal in late 2020, they found that college football, basketball, and baseball, respectively, were the three American sports divisions most prone to corruption. (The next four, in order: the NFL, MLB, NBA, and National Hockey League.)
“The [National Collegiate Athletic Association] has a systemic problem,” Hill says. “If you were designing a league to encourage corruption, you couldn’t do any better than the NCAA, where the relative exploitation is so large. You have multimillion-dollar salaried coaches and officials and a league generating billions of dollars in marketing, TV, and image rights, and very little of that flows to the athletes.”
Hill adds that this problem is not likely to be resolved by the recent change to NCAA amateurism rules allowing college athletes to profit from their names, images, and likenesses (NILs).
“As soon as you start paying the player, it increases the price of corruption. It’s their salary plus X,” he says. “If you’re paying the player zero, it’s just X.”
7. Prevention Is the Best Medicine
The trouble with investigating and prosecuting match-fixing is that by the time of the investigation, the damage is done. The game has been fixed, the integrity of the competition damaged. Corruption has already happened. “Match-fixing is an international crime and a very complicated one to investigate and sanction because it’s not usually possible to follow the money trail to the bookmakers,” Mace says.
So the next frontier in the fight against match-fixing is prevention, which is why teams and leagues increasingly devote resources to making players and officials aware of the warning signs: how to spot a potential fix, and what strategies gambling syndicates might use to approach them.
The other major tool for safeguarding the integrity of all of the games and matches happening on a given day is to monitor for big shifts in betting odds. Such shifts are brought on by large sums being wagered on one side of a contest.
“If you see a suspicious odds movement, it’s a very serious and reliable indicator that a match has been fixed,” Mace says.
That’s why monitoring companies like Sportradar have now been engaged by every major American sports league. Monitoring betting odds not only can help catch conspirators red-handed but also can signal that somebody is watching – that there are cops on the beat.
Mace says that preventative measures may look like overkill – until, suddenly, they are not. “Maybe what some sports have done wrong over here in Europe is if there’s no confirmed match-fixing, then the tendency might be to go, ‘Oh, right, we don’t need to do anything,’” he says. “We’ve seen how quickly these things can take hold. Match-fixing can really come out of nowhere and affect in a big way previously unaffected leagues or even countries. In a matter of months, you can go from having no problem to having a serious problem.”
8. Criminal Laws Need Updating
Since the Supreme Court cleared the way for U.S. states to legalize betting on sports by overturning the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018, 30 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized online or in-person sports betting or both. In the frenzy to tap into new tax revenues by bringing a burgeoning industry over to the right side of the law, however, one important element largely has been forgotten: comprehensively criminalizing match-fixing.
When other countries legalized sports betting, they found that they had to update their penal codes to adequately address the match-fixing problem. Existing laws were too generic, leading to failed prosecutions. For example, Sweden rewrote its gambling legislation in 2019 to specifically define match-fixing as a criminal offense after only four of 54 match-fixing cases that were prosecuted resulted in a conviction in the previous decade.
Jodi Balsam, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who teaches sports law, says that the U.S. has yet to learn from this precedent. In a recent paper, she examined the sports gambling laws proposed or passed in roughly 40 states that had either legalized the activity or were in the process of doing so. Not one had changed its penal code to reflect sports gambling’s new status and the corresponding criminal threat of manipulating now-legal betting markets.
“Maybe it was the haste of the effort to legalize sports gambling and catch the revenue ahead of neighboring states, but you think somebody would have done their research,” she says. “It was really surprising to me how little attention was paid to this. Don’t hamstring prosecutors. At least give them the tools that they need so that when they know there has been an integrity breach, there is hard evidence of match-fixing, [they can] actually be effective.”
Federal laws also need updating. Passed in 1964 as part of a larger crackdown on organized crime, the Sports Bribery Act outlawed “any scheme in commerce to influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest.”
According to Balsam, however, the Act has “a very narrow scope,” failing to encompass “extortion, duress, threats, violence, or lone wolf behavior.” Tim Donaghy, the infamous former NBA referee who was caught fixing the point-spread on games in 2007, couldn’t be fully prosecuted for his actions because much of it – lone-wolf fixing, after which he was extorted by the mob – wasn’t technically illegal under the Act.
“They couldn’t prosecute him for the first three years [of his crimes] because there is no law on the books that says this behavior is criminal,” Balsam says. “There was no basis for prosecuting it.
“If there were a federal penal code amendment, you would avoid running into some of the prosecution difficulties you see abroad, and you would also empower the victims.”
9. The Pandemic Is Making Things Worse
Since April 2020, Sportradar has detected more than 1,300 suspicious matches worldwide in 26 sports, with more than 850 of those happening in 2021. That’s a notable uptick from pre-pandemic times. Now keep in mind that a lot of sports games were canceled during the pandemic, suggesting that the rise in fixed matches was even steeper.
It’s not very hard to figure out what happened. The pandemic decimated revenues across professional sports. Financial shortfalls and uncertainty meant players were less likely to be paid on time or in full. And that opened the door wide for corruption. The same is true for the teams that, desperate for cash injections, might have done less due diligence than they normally would before taking money from a new investor or sponsor, allowing foxes to slip into the henhouse.
“What the fixers quickly understood is that a lot of sports are now suffering financially as a consequence of COVID-19,” Andreas Krannich, the managing director of Sportradar’s Integrity Services, told The Guardian. “And where there is far less money, players, referees, coaches, presidents are increasingly vulnerable.”
Sports gambling in the U.S. has quickly gone from mostly illegal and largely taboo to widely embraced and increasingly pervasive. Yet as states, leagues, and fans all join a multibillion-dollar gold rush, there are questions about the effect of this shift on government finances, competitive and journalistic integrity, and public health.
U.S. sports fans may not have asked for betting to become part of their everyday lives, but in 2022, they suddenly find themselves navigating the minefield it presents.