Imagine you are the 350th best tennis player in the world. You are twenty-five years old, and have dedicated time, money, intensive training, and practically your whole life to the sport. You are clearly very talented—after all there are only 349 players in the world who are statistically better than you. And in the eyes of many, you are an exceptional player with a lot of potential. You have played in the junior slams and are now making appearances in Futures tournaments (entry level professional tournaments). Essentially, you are traveling the world, playing the sport you love at a professional level. So, what’s the problem? You have never made any money in the sport and you are currently not making any profit.

How Can This Be? Unlike other sports, such as basketball and soccer, tennis players do not earn a salary.[1]This means that if they want to get paid, they have to play. It also means that if they want to get paid well, they have to win. There is little room for injuries or performance slumps, because there are no team/league contracts to support these professional athletes when they are “on the bench.”[2] The amount of money that tennis players can earn each year is complicated.[3] Performance, status, and endorsements all contribute to a player’s bottom line, which means financial stability can be a concern from year to year for a pro tennis player.[4] With the constant struggle of these lower ranked tennis players to make ends meet, they find themselves with their backs against the wall and their only solution is: match-fixing.

What is match-fixing? The concept is understood to be a match that is played to a completely or partially pre-determined result, violating the rules of the game, and often the law.[5] Players take bribes to corrupt matches. The bribes can go up to €3,000 Euros and when comparing that with the amount earned for winning a title at lower level events, the winner often nets only €2,000 Euros.[6] Essentially match manipulation takes away one of the key reasons spectators watch sport: the element of surprise.[7]

“You are traveling the world, playing the sport you love at a professional level. So, what’s the problem?”

Why is Tennis the Ideal Sport for Match-Fixing? First, it is an individual sport, which means that no teammates need to be considered for purposes of evidence/witnesses testimony to prove a match was fixed.[8] In other words, it is in the hands of the individual to simply “get the job done” and lose the match, set, or achieve a certain score. Second, tennis is a sport where everyone has a “bad” match at some point.[9] So, when a player loses a match to another player that they “should” beat, this act by itself is not suspicious, but rather a part of the game. Finally, because there is a combination of very little prize money and very high costs at the lower levels of the sport, the extra money is very tempting.[10] For instance, if we compare the 246th best paid baseball player in the US with the 246th best paid male tennis player, we can see the problem.[11] The baseball player makes a salary of $5 million and the tennis player makes a salary of $63,100, which doesn’t even include his expenses.[12]

What Expenses Do Tennis Players Have? Private lessons, coaching, fitness workouts, tournament entry fees, nutrition, travel costs, hotel expenses, clothing, stringing and equipment all add up and can be very costly.[13]While expenses can vary, on average for a player to play entry level pro-tournaments it can cost between $100,000- $150,000 annually.[14] This means that players who are ranked outside of the top 100 may be making an income, but are certainly not making a living from tennis. According to international tennis consultant Dave Miley, men pro players ranked between 100- 350 in the world and women pro players ranked between 100-250 are barely breaking even.[15]

Who is Responsible for Regulating, Deterring, and Preventing Corruption in Tennis? The Tennis Integrity Unity (TIU) is the anti-corruption body that was created in 2008 and is responsible for enforcing the zero-tolerance policy on betting-related corruption. Its main strategic priorities are: preventing corruption from taking place, investigation, prosecution of offenders, and delivering anti-corruption education to players and stakeholders so that they can recognise and report corrupt activity.[16] It is an operationally independent organisation based in London and is funded by the seven major stakeholders—ITF; ATP, WTA, Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open.[17] The TIU adopted the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program (TACP) in 2009, which is similar to FIFA’s Code of Ethics; whose goal is to safeguard the integrity and reputation of football worldwide.[18]

What is the TIU Doing to Stop Corruption? According to the 2019 TIU Annual Review many steps have been taken to maintain integrity in the sport for 2020. More resources are being invested ($8m to enhance security and player protection at WTT events), Jonny Gray was elected as new CEO, the number of TIU full time employees increased to 17, and a new Board had been created, whose most important role is reducing the opportunities for match fixing.[19] Another important measure taken occurred in December 2019 when the TIU and International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced the removal of live scoring data from all World Tennis Tour (WTT) $15K events.[20]

Is the TIU Doing Enough? The TIU has taken action and their good efforts are reflected in concrete numbers. According to TIU Director Nigel Willerton, only 138 matches generated suspicious betting alerts out of more than 114,000 that were played last year.[21]  This is only 0.1% of all tennis matches played in 2019 and was the lowest number recorded since public reporting began in 2015. It is almost 48% lower than the total in 2018. In his opinion the downturn stems from the arrests and detention of players by law enforcement agencies in Europe, the results of the TIU’s close relationship with partners in the betting sector, and the deterrent effect of regular player sanctions by the TIU. It is important to take into account that players who are found guilty are penalised harshly for violations. These penalties include fines, suspensions, and even life bans. Their most recent decision made on January 24, 2020, gave Brazilian tennis player, Joao Olavo Soares de Souza, a lifetime ban and a $200,000 fine for failing to report corrupt approaches, failing to fully cooperate with the TIU, destroying evidence, and soliciting other players to not use their best efforts. He was ranked 775 at the time of his conviction, but had reached a career-high ranking of 69 in 2015.

João Souza is facing a lifetime ban and a $200k fine for failing to report corrupt approaches.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

However, while it looks like the TIU is “doing enough” because numbers are low, rules are clear, and education is being given to the players, not everybody is in agreement that a sufficient progress is being made. Research shows that tennis is responsible for more suspicious betting than any other sport.[22] A survey of 3,200 players at all levels of the professional game found that 14.5% had first-hand knowledge of match-fixing—464 players in total.[23] So perhaps the 0.1% fails to accurately reflect the actual number of match fixing incidents that are occurring because not all of them are being reported or flagged as suspicious activity.

How to get the Fix out of Tennis

Tennis faces a serious integrity problem because placing a lot of small bets each week on the outcomes of matches between low-ranked players that have been set up in advance will rake in a lot of cash over a year. This is “big business.” Even though the TIU does its best in combatting corruption and emphasising the zero-tolerance approach, there is room for improvement. Practically speaking, some players feel that the TIU is ineffective because their processes are inefficient and slow.[24] They receive evidence about someone and their investigation is completed two years later.[25] Others feel that regardless of the education given to players, regardless of how clearly the rules are written, and regardless of how harsh punishments can be, match fixing will continue because of the fundamental issue that lower-ranked players are not earning enough money. One suggestion is to increase the earnings of the top 300 players.[26] This can be done by mandating a minimum income for the ranked players – removing the financial incentive to cheat. The difficult part is figuring out the financial model to achieve this goal. Should the winners of tournaments earn less in order for more money to be spread around and distributed in the earlier rounds? Should more money be circulated in the qualifying rounds of the grand slams? especially since first round losers in both men’s and women’s singles at the Australian Open will take home $50,000?[27] It’s hard to say where the money should come from, but the solution is clear: lower ranked players need to be paid more.

“Placing a lot of small bets each week on the outcomes of matches between low-ranked players that have been set up in advance will rake in a lot of cash over a year.”

Another suggestion would be to make it illegal to bet on tennis; especially at the lower levels.[28] Gambling is not a human right and the enforcement of a global ban would reduce the volume even if illegal betting would probably still continue.[29] Also, banning betting companies from sponsoring tennis could help the problem.[30] Less financially costly solutions would be to simply promote doubles more, and encourage the top players to promote the game at all levels like they endorse their products and sponsors.[31]

All things considered, it is clearly tempting for lower-ranked players, who are struggling to make ends meet to put their morality on pause and succumb to bribes, which is why it is hard to foresee a future in tennis completely clear of corruption. The answer may be figuring out what amount of money a lower ranked player would need to earn so that any bribe sounds unattractive. For instance, former number one Novak Djokovic told reporters a few years back that he was offered more than $150,000 to throw a match in 2006, but he rebuffed the offer. He refused the money because his annual income and reputation far outweighed the bribe. So what is the magic number a player ranked outside the top 300 needs to be earning?  As sporting bodies continue to do their best in minimising corruption at the lower levels of the game, it is safe to say that top players such as Roger Federer, who is comfortably making close to $100 million annually, will not be found in the headlines for match fixing any time soon.

Brittany Dubins

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