An Independent Review Panel (the Panel) to address betting-related and other integrity issues facing tennis was appointed in early 2016 by the four bodies responsible for the international governance of professional tennis:
- The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP);
- The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA);
- The International Tennis Federation (ITF); and
- The Grand Slam Board (whose members are the Chairmen and Executives of the four Grand Slam tournaments as well as the ITF President).
The Panel released their 113-page Final Report on 19 December 2018 (the Report) and handed down 12 recommendations for the sport of tennis to “address and limit the betting markets that ultimately drive, and give expression to, the problem; and to improve the systems for preventing and disrupting breaches of integrity, and for detecting and sanctioning them when they occur.”
Integrity issues related to the sport of tennis have arisen in the past due to an imbalance between the prize money on offer and the costs related to pursuing a professional career and/or maintaining a lifestyle on the pro tennis tour. Consequently, breaches of integrity are predominately observed in the Low to Mid-level competition where prize money relative to costs, prospects of advancement, public interest and attention, and financial resources of tournaments are lowest.
The latest of these cases was reported on 11 January 2019 by the AFP and involved the intervention of Spanish police, the Civil Guard, acting upon a complaint by the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) (funded by the four Grand Slams, the ATP, WTA, and ITF). The police detained 15 people and questioned 68 others, alleging that the gang involved had “fixed matches in ITF Futures and Challenger tournaments”. The integrity risk is clear and very real.
The current system as operated by the TIU and the International Governing Bodies themselves, including giving offenders lifetime bans and fines of up to US$250,000, is said to be failing to deal with the nature and extent of the problems regarding match integrity that are now faced.
Of the Panel’s 12 recommendations, the removal of official match data supply from matches involving players on the pathways and the elimination of betting sponsorships from tennis are major steps to consider, being not without clear positives and large impacts. One obvious impact would be a loss of revenue from that category.
Whilst acknowledging the detrimental financial impact these regulations will have, the Panel believes such limitations are necessary in order to strike an appropriate balance between competing considerations.
Other key recommendations include the restructuring of the player pathways and incentive programs, as well as the establishment of a new ‘Supervisory Board’ to provide independent oversight of the TIU.
Three core stakeholder groups would all be impacted differently:
- Governing bodies: International Tennis Federation, WTA, & ATP
- Tournament operators/Grand Slams: including The Australian Open
By regulating betting markets that are perpetuating breaches of integrity, the recommendations contained in the Report risk also having a significant monetary effect on the ITF, the WTA, and the ATP.
It is suggested in the Report that the loss of income will be minimal as the supply of official data will only be removed for the $15k developmental tier, whilst leaving intact the revenue stream created through the supply of official data from the $25k professional tier.
Given $15k developmental tier events comprise just less than half of all events running on the ITF Circuit, the restriction on the supply of official data from these events would constitute a substantial net loss that could not be fully alleviated by the continuation of data supply for the professional tier.
Despite this proposition, the Report goes on to acknowledge that their recommendations will have an adverse impact on the ITF’s revenues and suggests that other international bodies should direct funds towards the ITF to make up for the deficit.
Whilst this proposal provides a neat solution, in reality, the complex system of international governance within the global sport may constitute a barrier to the ease (and perhaps fairness) of funds transferals between such organisations.
Tennis Integrity Unit
The Report recommends the restructuring of the TIU, with more independence and greater capabilities. This will have a direct impact on players in terms of greater regulation on breaches of integrity, with the Report recommending:
- completion of enhanced integrity training should be a condition of playing – with the implementation of in-person training for players outside the top 200, down to the lowest levels of the professional sport;
- improved system of accreditation, the creation of a central registration and accreditation database and improved event security. These measures are designed to address issues of integrity at low level events where currently there are often little or no segregation of players, facilitating corruption; and
- the TIU should exercise its discretion to ‘disrupt’ activity and engage in integrity testing of Covered Persons who are suspected of breaches of integrity.
Tennis Anti-Corruption Program
The Report recommends change in the rules in order to broaden the prohibition on deceitful conduct such as deliberate contrivance of a match/abuse of inside information, and to strengthen cooperation and reporting obligation. This would result in an extension of player liability for breaches of integrity at all levels of the game.
The Report also recommends the implementation of a targeted system under which the TIU (in consultation with relevant governing body) can limit the supply of official data in respect of certain high risk sets of circumstances.
Such circumstances include:
- High risk matches such as some qualifying matches, some first-round doubles matches;
- Professional matches involving a junior tennis player; and
- Situations in which the TIU determines, based on its experience and expertise as well as the specific information available to it, that supply official data presents a significant risk to facilitating a breach of integrity by or with respect to the player, match, or event.
Consequently, if implemented the TIU would have the prerogative to limit the official supply of data in competitions such as the Australian Open if it was suspected a ‘high risk set of circumstances’ existed.
The Report identifies that integrity issues related to the sport are predominantly occurring in low to mid-level competition where an imbalance exists between the prize money on offer and the costs related to pursing a professional career.
Within this context, and as highlighted above, the Panel’s recommendations are principally directed towards the developmental tier of the sport, and thus will likely have little impact on top professional players.
If the recommendations from the Report were accepted, this would result in a significant strengthening of regulation surrounding the conduct of low-mid level matches, and the players involved.
The Report recommends a restructuring of player pathways to ensure there are sufficient financial incentives and prospects for progression.
Further, the Report states that at present “players may not be incentivised to give their best efforts at all times because the ranking points systems allows match results to be discounted on too many occasions and may in certain circumstances make it too difficult for players to progress up the rankings”. Consequently, the Report suggests the ranking system should be restructured at lower levels where it is failing at present.
While much has been achieved in stamping out corruption, match-fixing, and integrity risks in the sport of tennis, it is clear that while risks are not managed, or differing goals and objectives compete, so long as the human element remains, so too will the critical issues identified in the Report.
The TIU will now put in place the Supervisory Board, which will in turn consider the full set of recommendations, working with the governing bodies and the TIU to create the best possible anti-corruption regime for tennis.
But the learnings in the Report have a much broader application than just tennis.
4 things every sport governing body can take from this report
- Sports governing bodies and sporting leagues in the growing ‘alphabet soup’ of sporting governance will (and should) be held more accountable as the sport grows, and as such additional resources and investment (both financially and in personnel) will be required. Further, though the Panel found that whilst the Governing Bodies and TIU did not do anything wrong or illegal, there remains a lot of things they did not do. Accountability applies to both wrongful acts, as well as omissions.
- The ‘soft targets’ to combat corruption in sports are widely considered the low level tournaments where younger and poorer players can be taken advantage of. However whether the removal of a key source of income for these levels (selling data to betting companies) is going to help this cause remains to be seen. One can contend that alternative sources of data will always be found. So instead of removing the source of revenue, it might be more prudent for governing bodies to consider alternative approaches which do not stifle the growth of the sport at a grassroots or low level, such as a dedication of more compliance resources and more intensive regulation/monitoring at that level.
- The proposed introduction of ‘integrity clauses’ into contracts with betting companies seems like an obvious and long overdue addition. However this is not as simple as it sounds. In reality these clauses present complex legal questions relating to the manner of drafting and method of enforcement - especially where multiple jurisdictions are canvassed.
- The proposal to ensure there is a betting analyst/expert as an advisor to sports governing bodies and integrity units should be a cornerstone of good governance going forwards for all sporting bodies, regardless of whether formal arrangements are in place with betting agencies.
In an era where all sporting bodies sell integrity, level playing fields, and fair play to participants, stakeholders, and fans, the requirement to manage the issue of corruption in sport and match-fixing by limiting betting markets, improving prevention systems, and by detecting and sanctioning integrity breaches when they occur, is considered the basics of any effective sport integrity program in 2019. A high-performing, supported, and well-resourced sports integrity program can not only result in the minimisation of risks, but in the enhancement of investments and overall value of the sport for all stakeholders.
For advice and assistance on integrity issues in your sporting organisation, league, competition, or club, contact Mat Jessep, DWF Australia Sports Law Team.