Covid adds fuel to the match-fixing fire
A record number of sports matches are likely to be fixed in 2021 after the Covid pandemic "added fuel to the fire", an executive at one of the world's leading sports technology companies has told AFP.
Sportradar Integrity Services, a global supplier of sport integrity solutions and partner to over 100 sports federations and leagues, says it has detected more than 1,100 suspicious sports matches across the world since the pandemic started in April 2020.
More than 650 of those were detected in the first nine months of 2021.
Tom Mace, director of global operations for the firm, has at his disposal a fraud detection system which monitors the odds of more than 630 global bookmakers and account monitoring capabilities of more than 130 global bookmakers.
"I understand Covid has not caused match-fixing to happen but the general trend is not getting better but getting worse for us," he told AFP in an interview.
"The pandemic has added fuel to the fire and we are seeing certain areas increase overall."
He said lower league football matches were increasingly vulnerable to match-fixing because the pandemic has left small clubs unable to pay their players who look for other ways to make money.
"The players might be pros or semi pros and have other jobs but most third-tier players are not rich people and are struggling to make ends meet," Mace said.
"A lot of players are not paid on time, some clubs are a few months behind in paying them.
"Those salaries already are not massive so they are looking for extra money and that is how the big gambling fixers target them.
"The pandemic has massively exaggerated this problem."
Mace, who joined 11 years ago after a career in the bookmaking industry, says match-fixing has been around for years but it is the trends he is seeing since the pandemic began that ring alarm bells.
"Covid has not caused match-fixing to happen but the general trend is not getting better but getting worse for us," he said.
"The pandemic has added fuel to the fire and we are seeing certain areas increase overall.
"We are on track to see very much an increase in 2021 compared to 2020 and even 2019, which was already the highest on record.
"Overall in 2019 there were 880 sporting fixtures which were fixed."
The top three sports affected are football, tennis and basketball due to the "volume of matches", Mace said, but football is always number one as it is "by far the most popular in the betting market."
He said match-fixers, often based in Asia, even hone in on youth-level matches.
"The third tier is often a sweet spot for fixers," he said.
"The betting coverage and liquidity is there with hundreds of thousands of euros placed on a regular match. it gives the fixers the opportunity to put it down in Asia to fix it in a decent way."
'Get into bed'
Mace said it was not only players who become prey to the matchfixers whose ambitions know no bounds because Covid "hits everyone with its financial impact".
"Clubs become desperate and start listening to offers from strange sponsors with fixers directly approaching them," he said.
"They pose as sponsors and investors which most clubs are happy to accept because they do not know where their next euro is coming from.
"They get into bed directly with fixers. Once the fixers are in control they bring in a manager who will act (according) to instructions and there will be a network of players they worked with before who will also come in.
"This is how serious this business is. For the past year it has become more of an issue due to Covid."
For Mace, whose unit is part of the wider Sportradar company, the problem also lies in the lack of a sufficiently strong deterrent for either the fixers or the parties who take their money.
"The joke of the system is that banned players act with impunity and go to another country where the sanction does not apply," he said.
The fixers, he argues, see it as a lower risk than activities such as "drugs and weapons dealing for which they will be locked up for a long time".
"Even if they are found guilty they risk usually a couple of years suspended sentence."