It’s not a secret that corruption is prevalent in professional sports, whether it be questions of an athlete’s actual age at the Olympics or who gets to host the next World Cup. It is not a new problem, but it is one that many either don’t care about or think is just going to go away. Unfortunately, corruption is not going anywhere.
During the Australian Open last month, Buzzfeed and the BBC jointly published a report that identified 16 professional men’s tennis players, all of whom were ranked top 50 in the world, that were involved in match fixing. This then sparked an investigation of these leaked documents, which led to a second investigation analyzing the betting activity and match outcomes of over 26,000 tennis matches since 2008. Once this report was completed, the investigators handed over their information to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), a group supposedly made to keep out problems of this nature, but ultimately, nothing came of the investigation. When questioned about why the Unit did not take any action, leader of the TIU Nigel Willerton said that new evidence on past matches could not be accounted for because some of the matches occurred before the TIU was created.
While the article may be seen as a distraction from the Australian Open, the timing of the release could not have been more perfect. The Australian Open is the first of four Grand Slams during the calendar year, all of which garner heavy media attention. Additionally, last year arguably saw the two most dominant seasons on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game by Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. With Williams’s devastating loss in last year’s US Open semi-finals after her attempt to pull off a historic calendar slam and Djokovic’s dominance, winning 26 of his 27 final matches including titles at the U.S. Open, Shanghai Open and World Tour Finals, the anticipation of the slam was as high as ever.
Djokovic, who went on to win his sixth Aussie Open this year, even commented on the matter. He stated that his agents were made an offer of $200,000 in 2007 before he enjoyed any top level success on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tour. Fortunately, Djokovic was never contacted directly by the bettors.
Maybe the worst part about all of this is that it makes a lot of sense how betting in professional tennis as an individual sport would be more of an issue than with team sports. The experts on ESPN’s Outside the Lines perfectly explained the reasoning behind this. The first issue that tennis faces is the decentralized leadership and organization. There is no one governing body in pro tennis as men’s tennis and women’s tennis are controlled by completely separate organizations. Males act under the ATP and women under the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). However, the ITF (International Tennis Federation) also controls events, especially on the lower levels. Furthermore, since tennis is an international sport, with events on different continents every week, it is difficult to monitor all of the betting that occurs, especially at low-level tournaments. Another issue is the possibility to bet within games and matches. You can bet on an outcome, a score, a specific set score or even a game score. Like over under can be influential in football or basketball, tennis takes this to an unprecedented level. For example, a bettor might approach a player and offer to pay them $10,000 if they intentionally lose two games in one set. It’s an obvious chance for players to make some extra money where they can still win the set and don’t risk losing the match.
For many tennis players, an offer of $10,000 for losing two games may seem like a worthwhile offer. This is largely due to the fact that there is a huge wealth disparity among professional tennis players. Last year, Djokovic, ranked at No. 1 in the world, earned over $21,000,000 in prize money alone, while John Isner, ranked 12th earned $1.7 million. When you look outside of the top 100, it is common for players to earn between $75,000 and $250,000. I am not saying that this is a small amount–the amount of money that professional athletes make in general is a completely different issue–but in comparison to those at the top, it is minuscule.
In comparison to other sports, it’s nothing. The 100th ranked tennis player in the world made $286,000 last year. Before this NBA season, ESPN ranked Tony Allen the 100th best player in the league. His salary? $4.8 million. More than twice the amount of John Isner, the 12th best tennis player in the world. I say this not to argue that tennis players deserve more money, but rather that there would be more incentive for tennis players outside of the top 50 to accept this kind of money. In addition to this, tennis is one of few sports that requires players to pay for their own expenses. There is no team funding to pay for a trainer, a coach or travel and tournament fees like the NBA and other professional organizations do. It has been estimated that it costs at least $100,000 per year to participate in a sufficient number of events on the ATP tour. When you are making barely over $100,000 each year, it is nearly impossible to support yourself and compete.
It is apparent why some tennis players might be inclined to accept such bribes. In the past, according to an ATP official, they have issued life bans to players violating rules, but even this rule has come into question as of recent when a previously banned line judge was allowed to participate in the U.S. Open. Because nothing is being done by the ATP, upcoming hearings in men’s tennis are taking place under order of the British Parliament. Unfortunately, not much will be done with this issue until the hearings are completed. I don’t see this problem being rectified any time soon, but as a consumer of professional sports, I hope some good will come of this.