It's a Ghost Town...
With the current Covid-19 lockdown halting professional sport competitions across the world, football betting corruption remains intact, threatening the integrity of sport. This time through the resurfacing of 'ghost matches' in the Ukraine.
What are ‘Ghost matches’?
So-called ‘ghost matches’ are matches that do not exist. No players, officials or coaches take to the field of play and no spectators line the stands, but markets for those matches are still offered by betting operators. Ghost matches are to be differentiated from fake games, where the matches do exist and take place, but the players are not those of the actual clubs as advertised. However, the common factor between the two is the link to corruption by those looking to defraud betting companies and bettors.
So how exactly do ghost matches translate to allow betting corruption? In the absence of any television coverage or other forms of live streaming, betting companies employ scouts to report on key events in a game, so that they can adjust the prices offered to bettors as a game unfolds. Many corruptors are prepared to pay handsomely for a scout to interfere with ‘real’ reporting, or even penetrate deeper, by creating entire fictitious matches that never occur.
Ghost games, although allegedly mainstream from 2011, first came into prominence in 2015 when the official websites of two Belarusian Premier League teams (FC Slutsk and Shakhtyor Soligorsk) revealed a dramatic 2-1 win for the underdogs, FC Slutsk. Odds were offered for the game by bet365 and SBOBET, but subsequent to the match, the Belarusian FA and police confirmed that the match never took place. FC Shakhtyor claimed that their website was hacked a few days before the reported match, where the fake match report was planted. Although suspicious of the match, SBOBET paid out its customers on the fixture, which one can only assume, given the unexpected outcome of the final result, would have allowed corruptors to pocket a decent sum of money.
Consequences of Covid-19 on sport; scarily real
Fast forward to 2020 and the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in as a result of Covid-19, it is not difficult to predict that criminals will be (and are!) looking to capitalise on the lack of live and televised sport to exploit betting opportunities. In fact, on 6 April UEFA issued a match-fixing warning to its member associations to be on high alert, as match fixers were quickly adapting to Covid-19 restrictions, despite the bulk of leagues and games across Europe being shut down.
National papers in Sweden revealed that around $1 million was bet on an amateur training football match, featuring teams from the fourth and fifth divisions. One of the managers of the teams reported that prior to the match, he had received text messages from a person he believed to be local press, asking for information about the fitness of the squad. It actually transpired that the texts were from a betting trader seeking to gain an advantage in the betting markets via the solicitation of inside information. This shows the lengths corruptors are going to in order to fill the void of their usual bets.
In the Ukraine, the 'Azov Cup' was marketed on Facebook as a friendly round-robin tournament supposedly featuring four lower league Ukrainian clubs. The event soon appeared on some of Britain's biggest betting sites. Betgenius was the data provider tasked with supplying the scouting data to the betting sites. However, after suspicions grew that these were ghost games, betting sites pulled the markets, but not until four matches had already been 'completed'. The Ukrainian FA confirmed that matches in the Azov Cup had not taken place, prompting Betgenius to issue an apology.
One of the main issues here is that the scouts employed by the data providers to watch games and report events back for the betting markets, are reportedly underpaid, with the figure of £40/£50 per match being cited. Corruptors can easily bribe scouts with an offer of £200 - £600 per match to entice these individuals to start feeding false information, or even delay the provision of information. Data providers claim that they have safeguards in place to protect this, such as asking scouts to video call them from events to providing sound bites showcasing that they are at football grounds. However, corruptors are far more technologically advanced in places and are able to falsify such information, if indeed that information is ever requested, with many different operating standards applying depending on the region and betting market in question. Criminals are also known to exploit new concepts in sport before they are fortified, often finding ways of circumventing protectionist measures before they can even be put in place.
Another big issue is that sports betting laws across the globe vary from country to country, to the point of illegality in some countries but not in others. This difference in approach makes the betting industry susceptible to manipulation and provides a breeding ground for corruptors. However, this issue is not just relevant for the betting operators. It is as relevant for football, other sports and the businesses that exist because of the commercialisation of sport and sports data. It has long been debated where the responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of this illicit behaviour should sit and who it should sit with.
Law enforcement, perhaps understandably given the standard of criminal behaviour that they are faced with on a daily basis, have little appetite to dedicate resources to investigating such ‘crimes’ (if they are even categorised as such in a particular jurisdiction). That then leaves the Sports Regulators and the betting operators.
Again, understandably, a Sports Regulator faced with a game that didn’t exist or ever even take place in their jurisdiction might legitimately struggle to devote resources to dealing with an investigation into the allegations and the subsequent prosecution of individuals involved. That is if they were even able to do so, with jurisdictional issues probably proving a difficult, if not an impossible, hurdle to overcome.
That then leaves the betting industry, who at the very least have the financial resources available to tackle the integrity threat. Given the stakes for the betting operator when considering the preservation of the integrity of their markets and the risks involved in paying out on a ghost match, targeting the prevention of ghost matches would appear a prudent place to focus such financial resource. What is clear though, is that little is likely to be achieved by one of the aforementioned triumvirate tackling the issue in silo. As the saying goes, “strength in numbers”, and with the different powers available to each, it would appear the most sensible solution to join forces and unite as one entity, with representatives and experience from each.
Is there a solution?
In order for that to have any meaningful effect, the responsibilities of each would have to be clearly defined, to ensure order and consistency to combatting this type of corrupt behaviour. The entity would also need to be furnished with the requisite investigative powers to give them the best chances against often evasive and illusive corruptors. Betting companies have a duty of care to customers, data providers (might) have a duty of care to scouts, Sports Regulators have a duty to protect the integrity of their individual sports and its participants and law enforcement has a duty of care to the general public. But the industry as a whole knows far too well how to pass on responsibility when it comes to match-fixing, especially when there are difficult jurisdictional issues in play.
Strides have been made to adopt a general, at least pan-European, but also global standard of approach to match-fixing. Of noteworthy mention are the various programmes run and supported by the UN, the taskforce of the UNODC as it is dedicated to tackling sports corruption, the Council of Europe’s Macolin Convention and the Council of Europe’s ‘Model Criminal Law Provisions for the Prosecution of Match Manipulation’. The UK should also be heralded for the creation of the Sports Betting Integrity Unit (SBIU). The SBIU brings together representatives from law enforcement, the bookmaking industry and Sports Regulators to discuss issues that threaten the integrity of sport and sports betting to try and find solutions to those threats. Where that is not always possible, it at the very least allows a powerful platform of collaboration to ensure the optimum use of the complementary powers available to them.
Whilst it may be obvious that the ultimate goal should be the adoption of consistent standards, as much as is possible in the treatment of and criminalisation of this type of corrupt behaviour, that still appears to be a sporting dream, despite all best efforts.
So for now it seems that, at least in the short term whilst we long for the return of live sport to our lives and to our TV screens, that betting companies and data providers must do more to vet their employees and should heighten their integrity procedures that are in place to avoid betting markets being susceptible to corruption in the form of ghost matches, or otherwise.
This article was written by Danielle Sharkey and Ayman Shehata. For more information, please contact Danielle using the contact information in the right hand column.