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How match fixers can cripple a sport's economic future

Delroy Facey (green) playing international football in 2011 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Delroy Facey (green) in action for Grenada against Jamaica

Football match-fixing hit the headlines again last month when former Premier League and international player Delroy Facey was jailed for two and a half years.

Ex-West Brom and Grenada striker Facey was found guilty of conspiring to bribe non-league players.

But football is not alone - cricket, snooker, and horse-racing, to name a few - have all been hit by scandals in recent years.

As well as breaking sports' rules, and the moral ones of fair play, the criminal gangs behind the match-fixing are also inflicting huge potential damage on the economics of sports.

While organised crime launders an estimated £85bn ($134bn) a year through sport match-fixing, the cost to each individual game can also be huge.

Sporting credibility is damaged, spectators are denied a fair spectacle, and the value that commercial partners such as sponsors and broadcasters put on a tainted sport will fall.

'Playing to win'

"Supporters will be turned off if they feel that what they watch is not genuine," warns Gerard Elias QC, a barrister who is chair of discipline for the England and Wales Cricket Board.

"Watching sport these days is not cheap, TV deals are huge and vital to most sports, and these big revenue streams can be turned off if people do not believe that what they are watching is genuine."

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Image caption Criminal gangs across the world can make huge sums of money from fixing sports events

Speaking at a conference entitled Integrity and Athletes Welfare, run by the arbitration body Sport Resolutions, he adds: "Players must be playing to win, and not for financial gain off the field. Diminished spectator interest will have huge financial implications."

He says that fixing the final outcome of a match is not the major threat to sport in the UK these days, rather it is fixing an aspect of a match or performance which may not affect the final result - what is known as "spot-fixing".

This can be kicking a ball into touch at a certain point of a rugby game, missing a penalty kick, bowling a series of wide deliveries, or losing the first frame of a snooker match.

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Image caption Bowler Danish Kaneria was given a lifetime ban from cricket

Those who have bribed players can then make millions from gambling on these crooked outcomes, with the bets staked with illegal bookmakers based in other parts of the world, including south Asia, and operating outside the jurisdiction of the UK sports authorities.

Mr Elias chaired the disciplinary tribunal into allegations of spot-fixing involving former Essex player Mervyn Westfield and ex-Pakistan leg spinner Danish Kaneria, which saw them banned from professional cricket for five years and for life respectively.

Westfield was banned after admitting to a corruption charge relating to a 40-over game against Durham in September 2009 and Kaneria was found guilty of "cajoling and pressurising" team-mate Westfield into accepting cash to concede a number of runs in that Pro40 match in 2009.

'Tarnished' reputation

Snooker has also been hit by the high-profile case of Stephen Lee, who was banned in 2013 for 12 years for match-fixing. Lee, who had been a professional for more than 20 years and the winner of five ranking titles, was found to have fixed outcomes in seven matches in 2008 and 2009.

Nigel Mawer is vice-chair of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) where he is responsible for all discipline and corruption issues.

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Image caption Stephen Lee was found guilty of fixing a number of snooker matches

Mr Mawer, who also works in the worlds of darts and horseracing regulation, is a former head of economic crime at the Metropolitan Police and is aware of the monetary and reputational damage all sports face if they are embroiled in a fixing controversy.

"Sponsors run for the hills, you get bad publicity, and a sport's finances suffer," he says pithily.

"Sponsors want sport that is competitive, hard-fought, and full of real spills and thrills. Commercial partners are very aware of the value of their brands, and when they align themselves with a sport they are usually doing it because they want to target a new demographic or marketplace.

"The last thing they want is to be associated with tarnished competition."

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Image caption Many of those targeted by match-fixers are heavy gamblers

He says despite the Lee case, snooker has retained a good reputation with its sponsors, partly by being able to show the strong steps it has taken to tackle any corruption.

As part of that the WPBSA has an anti-corruption education programme for players, officials and events staff, and player managers. In addition it runs an induction programme for new players on financial matters, for example on how to pay tax, in order that players do not find themselves in cash difficulties and susceptible to fixers.

It also hires computer experts to scrutinise player social media accounts for key words and phrases which might indicate a possible fix. Meanwhile, it works with regulated bookmakers for suspicious betting patterns on matches or frames.

"It is unfortunate that when a sport has one or two cases it makes the headlines and causes disproportionate damage," he says, adding that match-fixers move on from one sport to another, looking for situations to exploit.

The former Detective Chief Superintendent also says that the type of sports player likely to be approached for a fix either have issues around lack of money, have gambling or other addiction issues, or are living beyond their means.

And while it can often be young, vulnerable players - who are not earning much yet - who are approached, it might also be a player towards the end of a career looking for one big final payday.

'Clear and present danger'

Former Blackburn Rovers and QPR player Simon Barker is deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), and also a member of the Sports Betting Group, set up to help prevent corrupt betting activity.

"We have to be aware [match-fixing] is a clear and present danger," he says.

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Image caption The PFA's Simon Barker (hoops) in his QPR playing days

He says match-fixing approaches often take place lower down the football tree, and with players who have not looked after the money they earned when they were at the top.

In order to stop the players of tomorrow being out of pocket and susceptible to match-fixers the PFA, as part of its life skills programme, teaches young players aged 16 to 18 coming into the game basic financial realities, including that an earning career in football might be short.

That includes putting money into pensions or bank accounts, rather than "on flash cars, which might look good but be hard to sell at their true value in an emergency".

He says that he has found that the essential building blocks a sport must have in place to make it more robust to match-fixing approaches are player education, intelligence gathering, information sharing, a robust disciplinary processes, and a clear sanctions regime.

"Education is not everything that we do, but it is a major part," he says. "Part of that programme is talking about the integrity of football.

"If that is damaged then the money side of it - the sponsors and TV deals - will be harmed. You shouldn't be doing something that might undermine your livelihood, or those of other players."

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