Johannesburg – Last week, something unusual happened on a South African tennis court.
The player expected to win, lost the first set of the match, then rebounded to win the next two sets.
It was enough to pique the interest of Sportradar, a multinational corporation that collects and delivers sports data and also looks out for possible match fixing.
Sportradar managing director of Integrity Services, Andreas Krannich, said: “We suspected a player (not of an African nationality) deliberately lost the first set of the match for betting reasons. This type of ‘spot fixing’ can occur in tennis, with players manipulating specific sets, or even games within a set, rather than the match result.
“The player involved actually went on to win the match 2 sets to 1, something we commonly see with this type of spot-fixing in tennis, where the favourite under-performs in a specific section of the match for betting reasons, and then plays to their full capacity for the rest of the game to try to hide their actions.”
Tennis is just one of the sports that fixers are beginning to target as the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a massive surge in match fixing and it is likely to get worse.
Fixers are now diversifying into new areas and targeting especially vulnerable teams, players and officials.
This week experts at Sportradar revealed that the pandemic was playing a significant part in the sharp increase in betting fraud/corruption in sports globally, with South African sports being affected too.
Last year Sportradar monitored more than 600 000 matches across 1 000 leagues and competitions in 26 different sports. Its reports and analyses were used in multiple proceedings that led to 102 sanctions being handed down for match-fixing related offences.
The company works with more than 80 sports governing bodies and federations globally – and will work closely with the International Olympic Committee as it prepares for the Tokyo Games, scheduled to begin in July.
In the UK, Sportradar monitors all games in the Premier League and the Championship on behalf of Uefa and Fifa, the European and world governing bodies of football.
They also cover the Fifa World Cup and football at the Olympics, and have a strong relationship with the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and provide bet monitoring services to CAF via their global agreement with Fifa.
South Africa hasn’t been spared.
Krannich revealed that match-fixing and corruption had become rife in Africa too.
“In 2020, we detected the first ever suspicious events in African sport in three countries, including a suspicious event in South Africa,” said Krannich.
“In addition, countries like Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia and Uganda also had suspicious sporting events, as had also occurred in years prior. This shows that several countries have clear, recent, and in many cases, ongoing issues with match-fixing in one or more sports.”
Since 2016, Sportradar has detected suspicious sporting events in 14 African countries.
“We have strong intelligence that match-fixing syndicates are currently operating within Africa,” said Krannich.
“We recently had a case where someone in South Africa approached footballers on another continent with an offer to fix matches for betting purposes.
“Over the following months, we observed the same individual betting on manipulated tennis matches, and then we identified they were beginning to use family members’ details to open accounts and continue to place bets on these corrupted matches.”
Another incident involved foreign teams where much of the suspicious betting took place in South Africa at retail betting outlets.
“Our Intelligence and Investigation Services were tasked to identify the source,” he said.
In the past match fixers targeted sports with high profit and turnover like football, cricket, tennis and basketball.
“Now they have diversified into other sports and leagues that have received less attention traditionally. Match-fixers understand that many sports are suffering financially due to Covid-19 and because of this, players, referees, coaches, and even club owners are increasingly vulnerable,” explained Krannich, who added that while in the last six months the majority of suspicious matches involved soccer, nine other sports had also been targeted. These included tennis, table tennis, basketball, ice hockey, esports, volleyball, beach volleyball, cricket and handball.
“Several soccer clubs around the world have participated in suspicious friendlies, where the number of matches reported as suspicious jumped from 38 in 2019 to 62 in 2020 – a growth of 63% year over year,” he said.
Krannich added that the environment and challenges created by Covid-19 had led individuals involved in match-fixing to become more aggressive and diverse in their activities.
“Covid-19 forced match-fixers to look for new targets, and the financial hardships brought about by Covid-19 has made smaller events more susceptible to corruption, especially those that don’t have the proper integrity monitoring in place.
“The full financial impact of Covid-19 is yet to materialise and we expect match-fixing risks to further increase in the coming years.”
Match-fixers are also approaching athletes via social media, says Krannich.
“The ease of access to athletes is greater than it has ever been; and these platforms are breaking down the barriers previously in place between athletes and fans, but also unfortunately, those with corrupt intentions.”
In a bid to curb match-fixing and corruption, Sportradar last week launched its Universal Fraud Detection System, free of charge, to all sports organisations and federations anywhere in the world.
The system will be available to all sports organisations around the world from October.
“Our Universal Fraud Detection System pulls in betting patterns from legal but also unregulated and illegal sportsbooks around the world, which are monitored in real-time.
“Using a combination of machine learning and algorithms alongside our team of expert integrity analysts, we search for irregularities in the betting markets that might indicate corruption.”
Krannich said it was important that they made the system free of charge so all sports organisations could use it.
Krannich added it would be difficult to eradicate corruption from sport.
“It would be ideal to completely remove match-fixing and corruption from sports, but the reality is that there are always going to be bad actors looking to profit from this illicit behaviour.”