Tennis’s Troubled Times, and the Sportradar Question

It’s been another bad run for professional tennis as it pertains for sports betting, centering on last week’s report by the Independent Review Panel of the massive integrity and match-fixing problems occurring in the lower ranks of professional tennis around the globe.

The massive £20m study has taken 27 months just to produce an 80-page “interim” report that’s full of shame and blame, and that’s accompanied by another couple of thousand pages of a “Record of Evidence and Analysis”. Both documents are available via the review panel’s home page, at https://tennisirp.com/, should you have the urge to sample the reports and research yourself.

Yet this isn’t about reconstructing a mainstream-digestion topline of what the report’s all about, since it’s been splattered all over the largest media outlets for days. Here’s the Telegraph‘s take, for example, and here’s another from that generally anti-gambling bastion The Guardian, which jumps all over these sorts of sordid tales. Those and dozens more offer the same general package of facts, perhaps the most important of which is the acknowledgement that pro tennis’s very structure is a major factor into why the lower rungs of the pro game are so corrupt.

Most sports bettors knew as much already, especially after the blitz of stories that peaked in 2016 about match-fixing in tennis around the globe. Tennis isn’t the first such sport to suffer these indignities, and it’s not going to be the last. But trim the fat away, and there are two major reasons why lower pro tennis is so corrupt:

  • There’s not enough money in pro tennis at the lower levels to pay for almost any player’s expenses, much less let them eke out a solid living;
  • Tennis is a single-athlete game, not a team sport, making it easy for a player to perform less than optimally in a huge variety of small and mostly unnoticeable ways.

That combination would be a disaster in any “pro” sport where wagering can occur; it just happens to have run amok in tennis, due to what one could acerbically term “market conditions”. That’s the foundation; when one tosses in complicating factors such as an abundance of performance data and the simplicity of transferring that information around the globe almost instantaneously, the morass just grows deeper. The people who rig matches or sporting events aren’t betting on sports, you see; they’re just manipulating a sporting event or match as a way to turn an easy business profit.

That brings us to the whole Sportradar element. The company bills itself as a corporation “that collects and analyzes sports data. Sportradar provides services to bookmakers, national and international sports federations, and media companies.” That’s all true, and yet, as noted in some of the reports, Sportradar is itself a topic of the IRP’s intermediate findings.

According to the interim report, “The ITF [International Tennis Federation] should cancel its data deal with Sportradar, the sports-data company that enables betting on low-level tournaments. The ITF should then be compensated for its resulting financial loss by other tennis bodies such as the ATP and the grand slams, who will benefit from a cleaner sport.”

In other words, the IRP proposes something of a Luddite solution to tennis’s corruption issues, by blocking the data itself. Remember, this is the same Sportradar that was hailed just a few months back for helping to identify and quantify the corruption of Ghanian football referee Joseph Odartei Lamptey.

The real answer is to recognize that data is data, and it can be used either for good or for evil. But the more the data is focused on the individual rather than the team, and the more the structure of the game or the event itself lends itself to abuse and corruption, the more that big data will be used to magnify that corruption.

That’s why the IRP’s recommendations regarding Sportradar are probably wrong. It’s a data service; nothing more and nothing less. Ban it or get rid of it, and some other service would just come up to take its place; none of that would address the actual problems within tennis itself. Pro tennis’s problems are massive, but they have to be addressed from the inside out, not the other way around.

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