“Tennisgate” is the new term that some sports broadcasters are using to report recent claims and rebuttals about betting syndicate match-fixing in the world of tennis. Following the scale of misdeeds revealed in the “Fifagate” soccer money laundering and IAAF athletics extortion scandals, the charges risk further erosion of public trust in sports. And marketing managers may now prefer to focus on completely different sponsorship opportunities.
A quick summary of the latest allegations can help put the top issues in perspective and challenge the sports community to be better prepared to manage public relations. Earlier this week, BBC Sports and news outlet “Buzzfeed” published allegations by a former South American tennis player turned coach that sports betting syndicates have manipulated elite tennis tournaments for years and the practice has been an “open secret” among top ranked players.
Tennis leaders responded quickly and organized a press conference March 19 at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Top ranked men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic reported that his support staff had previously been approached to accept cash to deliberately loose a match and that this distasteful proposal had been sternly rejected. Serena Williams asserted that she had never heard any allegations of misconduct. Veteran men’s tennis champion Roger Federer, who has also served a leader of the player’s union for most of the past decade, expressed concern about the reports and challenged accusers to come forth with detailed provable evidence. While this response would get a good grade at a graduate level public relations class, a long list of the provable evidence Federer asked for is publicly available from the Court for Arbitration for Sports and the Tennis Integrity Unit. The list (summarized below) is so long, a single press conference could not cover it.
Details about the decision to organize and fund an investigatory body, the “Tennis Integrity Unit” in London in 2008 indicate that the risk of unethical conduct was serious enough to warrant expenditures of several hundred thousand dollars a year to probe potential misconduct and that many cases of misconduct – at least fifteen — have been disciplined. The Tennis Integrity Unit was formed jointly by the most prestigious organizations in tennis, the International Tennis Federation, the ATP World Tour, the Women’s Tennis Association and the four tournaments which collectively operate the “Grand Slam.”
The published media archives of the “Tennis Integrity Unit” confirm that the volume of disciplinary actions for misconduct in international tennis is large. Three investigations have been confirmed by the Court for Arbitration of Sports: the Olaso, Savic and Koeller cases. This has not been a secret at all and it is nothing short of amazing that the news has stayed off the sports pages for such a long time.
The TIU list of players disciplined shows a widespread problem that has been occurring for many years:
- Alexandros Jakupovic: banned for life
- David Savic: banned from tournaments
- Piotr Gadomski: suspended for a period of seven years and fined US $15,000
- Arkadiusz Kocyla: suspended for a period of five years and fined US $15,000
- Ivo Klec: suspended for two years and fined US $10,000
- Walter Trusendi: suspended for six months and fined US $5,000
- Elie Rousset: suspended for three months and fined US $2,000
- Morgan Lamri: banned for life
- Guillermo Olaso: suspended for five years and fined US $25,000
- Andrey Kumantsov: banned for life
- Claudia Coppola: suspended for six months and fined US $3,000
- Yannick Ebbinghaus: suspended for six months and fined US $10,000
- Sergei Krotiouk: banned for life and fined US $ 60,000
- Daniel Koellerer: banned for life
- Lucas Renard: suspended for six months and fined US$ 5,000
This list makes it look like the US Tennis Association is doing something right. Not a single American citizen has been found guilty of any tennis player code violations.
The case details published about the charges proven against Alexandros Jakupovic are the textbook definition of match fixing. Specifically, Jakupovic was investigated and found responsible for violating the tennis policies that “No Covered Person shall, directly or indirectly, contrive or attempt to contrive the outcome or any other aspect of any event; no Covered Person shall, directly or indirectly, solicit or facilitate any Player to not use his or her best efforts in any event; no Covered Person shall, directly or indirectly, offer or provide any money, benefit or Consideration to any other Covered Person with the intention of negatively influencing a Player’s best efforts in any event” and “in the event any Player is approached by any person who offers or provides any type of money, benefit or Consideration to a Player to (i) influence the outcome or any other aspect of any Event, or (ii) provide Inside Information, it shall be the Player’s obligation to report such incident to the TIU as soon as possible.”
Former tennis player David Savic negotiated the equivalent of a plea bargain with the Tennis Integrity Unit which by and large confirmed the substance of the match fixing allegations reported by BBC Sports and Buzzfeed earlier this week. The deal will allow Savic to work as a coach starting in March of 2016 in recognition for his “support for the TIU’s player education program, in which he has appeared in a film to warn other players against involvement in betting-related corruption.” This film would not have been made if match fixing was not a serious enough problem to warrant the expense, probably at least US$ 200,000.
The scale of widespread sports betting misconduct was highlighted in the TIU case against Yannick Ebbinghaus. The player admitted contravening Article D.1.a. of the Uniform Tennis Anti-Corruption Program on 67 occasions between May 2012 and February 2013. That’s right, a total of sixty-seven violations against the prohibition against insider betting on covered tennis matches in ten months.
What is next? Last month, the International Olympic Committee published a comprehensive series of policies in a new document called the “Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of the Manipulation of Competitions.” It goals are admirable. But the details of the IAAF scandals raise important questions about the obstacles individual athletes, especially teenagers or minors under the control of their parents or legal guardians, face when the facilitators of unethical behavior have multi-million dollar budgets and access to government ministers. Most athletes still need visas for many international competitions in order to be able to collect prize money and influential opponents can keep them quiet with just a few phone calls.
BBC Sports deserves credit for raising awareness about these serious challenges to the sports world. The scale of the problems shows there is still much more work to be done.