Soccer, cricket, NBA and other sports followed by millions of fans around the world are, today, subject to ongoing revelations concerning corruption, match-fixing and other fraudulent types of sports betting. On the eve of the soccer World Cup in Brazil, we learned that at least five games for the preparation of previous World Cups had been manipulated. Often seen as just associated with wealthy teams and organized crime but does this influx risk jeopardizing the long-term existence of sport?
The figures are staggering
$140 billion: the estimated amount of money laundered through match-fixing worldwide each year. If China is singled out, they account for 51 per cent of this amount on their territory. However, the North American continent is no exception to these figures.
In 1989, the famous Pete Rose scandal revealed that the coach of the Cincinnati Reds placed more than $10,000 per day of bets on his own team. Elsewhere in the world, examples are rife. More questionable in comparison, is another example from September 2012, when it was astonishingly discovered that the Canadian soccer team Trois-Rivières Attak had allowed Toronto win the championship match. This shows that the lure of easy money at the expense of losing is something that is injected into sports.
The market for sports betting is indeed a financial windfall: it represents about $600 billion of all bets in the world, with 13 billion coming from the Canadian legal market in 2010 according to Canadian Gaming Association (CGA). Mafia networks and team managers can gain substantial immoral benefits: they organize games but already deciding the winning team, then they place large sums of money on the chosen team which is normally an unlikely winner so the odds are high. After the favorites are beaten then bookmakers have no choice but to pay them, which in most cases amounts to tens of thousands of dollars.
The soul of the stolen sport
Chris Eaton, a former director of security for FIFA, said that "crime is on track to steal the soul of the sports." The problem is not in sports itself but in the root of all evil: "We must tackle the real crux of the matter, which is the cash and the cash comes from the manipulation of betting." Complex bets which concern the detailed points of matches, (for example -- if a player will receive a penalty) are particularly problematic as fraud in these cases is less detectable.
Should we therefore see sports betting as a serious threat which could ultimately destroy the values associated with all sports? The answer is not so obvious.
In the last 30 years the salaries of players and coaches of the most famous club in the world has risen dramatically and is further multiplied by enormous sponsorship deals. Recently, Adidas has signed a contract worth more than $50 million with Argentina's Lionel Messi whereas Nike has agreed on $42 million with NBA star LeBron James.
Compromising a career that already pays millions of dollars per year by rigging matches is no longer a great interest for the stars of baseball or the NHL.
A danger for small teams
Soccer and cricket are the two disciplines most eaten by the evil of match fixing, even though the NBA is also regularly called into question (particularly by former referee Tim Donaghy). However, we aren't taking about first rate clubs here. The most affected teams are from second division clubs as the salaries of players are not substantial.
These are the people that try to approach the mafia promising large sums of money. There are numerous opportunities offered by illegal bookmakers, they scan odds on bets not directly related to the scores (number of yellow/red cards for example) that make fraud less obvious.
This semi-professional environment must ultimately retain the attention, as argued a recent study on Betminded. The situation is complicated by the fact that these networks operate worldwide and in fragile countries, such as Bulgaria or Romania. Illegal betting and match fixing combined with mafias are they slowly killing intermediate sporting clubs between the great champions and amateurs?
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