In January, the BBC and BuzzFeed jointly released an exposé on gambling in tennis, aptly titled “The Tennis Racket.” The year’s inaugural grand slam, the Australian Open, thus featured action both on and off the court as pundits and players alike debated the seriousness of the problem and the future of the sport.
At the heart of the matter: the Internet and mobile devices. Online gambling sites (legal in some instances, other times not–more on that below) facilitate not merely betting on the outcomes of any match worldwide, but smaller details as well. Want to wager on the number of double faults by a player in the first set? Not a problem.
The top-ranking male, Novak Djokovic, has admitted to receiving an offer of $200K to throw a 2007 match at a Russian tournament. He declined and avoided the event, no doubt the right call in light of his nearly $100 million in career earnings and counting. Yet for the penniless player relegated to the bottom rungs of professional tennis, even a much smaller amount brings much greater temptation. Still, the BBC report claimed that sixteen players, who have at one point been ranked in the top fifty in singles or doubles, were identified in a 2008 internal report commissioned by tennis itself.
Rocked by such revelations (further amplified in January by a Swedish player and coach pleading guilty to match fixing charges in an Australian court), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) acted. An independent investigative body has been formed, with the ATP proactively committing to acceptance of all forthcoming recommendations (likely next year).
Tennis is not alone in facing scrutiny. In late 2015, the New York State Attorney General ordered the two largest North American fantasy sports companies (DraftKings and FanDuel) to stop accepting bets from state residents. The Canadian Gaming Association, a trade group representing various stakeholders including casinos, subsequently released a legal opinion claiming that such activity is illegal under Canada’s Criminal Code.
Others disagree, notably the fantasy sports platforms themselves, having long argued that their offerings constitute “games of skill” rather than gambling (the latter more inherently based on chance). All major team sports have growing financial dealings with fantasy sports, the NHL having invested in DraftKings as has Major League Baseball. Estimates from the fantasy sports industry association suggest more than 40 million North American customers–and growing.
According to TSN, various sports leagues are grappling with whether to instill new policies regarding the conduct of players. The NFL, for instance, allows players to wager no more than $250 per year, requiring players and coaches to certify each year their understanding of the rules and restrictions imposed by the league. The NHL has no much policy at this time.
TSN has reported that illegal sports gambling in Canada is estimated to surpass $15 billion annually, with a third of that amount online and offshore. In light of such shadows, Parliament recently considered, and ultimately rejected, a private member’s Bill (C-290) that would have legalized single-sport event gambling in Canada (the NDP has indicated its intention to revive the bill at some point in the future).
Large global sports gatherings also face growing challenges. The implosion of World Cup Soccer’s organizing body, FIFA, is a case in point. There are ongoing corruption scandals plaguing Brazil as it prepares to host the Olympics this summer. It is perhaps telling that when bids came due for the 2022 winter Olympics, all but China and Kazakhstan had abandoned their efforts, leaving insular Beijing as likely to be the first city to host both summer and winter games.
The commercialization of professional sports benefits mightily from globalizing audiences and markets on the one hand, and virtualization on the other hand. Such forces transcend traditional guardian functions of the public sector often stunted by national borders and limited forms of international cooperation.
According to the former captain of the US Men’s Davis Cup Team, Patrick McEnroe, tennis reacted with openness and independence only in the face of escalating media scrutiny and the prospect of intervention by Great Britain’s Parliament (Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly a troubled and influential tennis fan). For tennis and for sports more widely, self-governance is a fallacy.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (email@example.com).