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Covid-19, Integrity & The Premiership: First Clues To Pandemic’s Role In Match Fixing

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at October 16, 2021

November 17th will mark the second anniversary of the first reported case of Coronavirus. Two years of turmoil have ensued—with the sports industry suffering agonies no worse to other sectors of the global economy. Despite this, fears of financial collapse have played out particularly publicly in the sector. Meanwhile, as business gradually returns normal, experts and analysts warn that Covid-19 has left all sport with a problem that could prove particularly infectious, unless acknowledged. As I first reported for Forbes in November, both football association FIFA, and bilateral law enforcement body Interpol had embarked on initiatives to highlight the threat to fair play spawned by the pandemic. Research conducted by StatsPerform and Starlizard Integrity Services on suspicious betting activity across all flights of soccer, including the English Premier League, add empirical evidence to the spartan news coverage published so far. While the reports authors are reticent to draw immediate conclusions—due to the data gathering difficulties caused by the pandemic itself, as significantly fewer fixtures than normal were played—the betting patterns observed across 61,296 soccer matches show that transnational crime is a real, and resilient threat to the beautiful game. In the absence of action, there is a real danger that crime could rob fans of their faith in results, and in the teams they support.

Fate Of A Nation: Why Wealth Inequalities In The F.A Premier League Provide A Useful Litmus To Risk Of Foul Play

Fears of bankruptcy among teams in Europe’s upper leagues, relate directly to the ghostly stadiums which fans witnessed when leagues in Europe and the United States locked down, during the first quarter of 2020. While a handful of teams in the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, the Serie A and La Liga had successfully leveraged decades of league success to license their brands, globally, most in soccer’s top flight were considerably less liquid. While the same is true across developed nations, Covid-19’s effects on the English Premier League may be most revelatory when studying the threat of soccer’s infiltration by criminal organizations. Though rich, the distribution of finance between teams varies enormously. As industry experts and analysts—such as Price Waterhouse Cooper, and Deloitte, state—the business acumen on show in the Premier League can also oscillate wildly between football clubs. Teams who play alongside Manchester United and Chelsea often rely on budgets that are just a fraction of those leading the league. As PwC are particularly keen to explain, diversification of revenue and adaptation to new technology an identifiable problem—for many C-suite executives globally, not least those based in the U.K. In some cases, teams went in to the Coronavirus pandemic with low cash reserves, and commercial norms that had hardly changed for seven decades.

As Deloitte highlight, most clubs weighted spend on player salaries were, and remain, outside the norms appropriate to business in any other sector—likely to an extent that is subtly but still significantly greater than comparable sides in Europe and North America. With such significant outgoings, clubs outside the top four ranking teams in the Premiership entered the pandemic dependent on ticket sales at the turn-style. When Great Britain entered its first lockdown in the first quarter of 2020, this vital source of revenue evaporated. In the absence of weighted revenue streams, Premier League clubs entered the pandemic with different risk exposure. Neither Stats Perform nor Starlizard identifies successful attempts by organized crime to engage clubs in any form of improper behavior—but prevailing constructs on corruption in English law traditionally tie financial impediments and acute stress to heightened risk of impropriety.

Findings: Stats Perform & Starlizard Integrity Services’ 2021 Suspicious Betting Trends in Global Football Report

As Stats Perform Integrity and Starlizard Integrity Services’ 2021 Suspicious Betting Trends in Global Football Report highlights, it is too soon to claim to know the extent of the Premier League’s exposure to match fixing—not least, whether the related criminal offences which would almost certainly accompany such an accusation have occurred in any UK fixture. Both companies preface the data set by underscoring how global betting patterns reported during the pandemic have certain unfortunate flaws—which derive from a significantly smaller number of football matches being played under Covid-19 conditions in 2020. This said, the report does intimate that match-fixing in football is targeting new leagues, perhaps at higher levels than previously known, with transnational crime making important adaptations to the loopholes which regulators cannot restrict diligently and reactively, within the confines of Coronavirus laws.

In an interview by telephone from his office in London, Jake Marsh, who is Global Head of Integrity at Stats Perform, clarified that there were clear differences between the methodology of the 2021 report “due to league closures, and the number of matches played in 2020, which, in contrast to comparable years, were far fewer due to the closure of most soccer leagues in the United States and Western Europe”.

Despite concerns raised by various watch-dogs, as I have previously reported, the fear that football faced heightened risks as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have not been proven—which is why Stats Perform and Starlizard’s work is framed as a primary source data set for conflation with research from the sector, unlike the work both organizations performed in the prior three reports.

As Marsh was keen to qualify, only 217 (or 0.35%) matches played in 2020 were identified as suspicious. This represents a reduction in both real and percentage terms from the 456 (or 0.56%) of the matches cited in the company’s 2019 report. From a strictly empirical perspective, 2020 is in fact the third successive year that the proportion of suspicious matches identified was reduced. As Marsh told me, by phone, “the matches identified were now over 50% fewer than the figure given in our inaugural report back in 2018, when approximately 0.73% of matches we investigated were identified to be suspicious”.

Yet this does not negate, nor explain, several new trends which present—often during the most confusing moments of the Coronavirus pandemic, and likely, if proven to significant criminal gain.

Unfriendly Matches: Sheikh & The Demand For Football Fraternity During Lockdown

As Affy Sheikh, who is CEO and founder of Starlizard Integrity Services’ elaborated to me, by phone, ‘Friendly Matches’—which have long been attractive to criminal syndicates, for their low profile, high remuneration betting—became “considerably less friendly” during the initial phase of the United Kingdom’s Coronavirus lockdown.

Sheikh, whose background includes work for UK and European security services, heads the joint party to Stats Perform’s work. In addition to consulting on integrity for the Premier League, and Italy’s Serie A, Sheikh advises national football associations in Central and Eastern Europe—including the Moldovan and Slovakian soccer federations. In his view, the ‘friendly’ took on an usual and potentially suspicious form as Europe and the United States isolates themselves.

“The suspicious betting patterns on such matches doubled in 2020, when compared to 2019” Sheikh told me, in an interview by telephone, also from his home in London. “This means that for comparable purposes, the overall percentage of suspicious friendly matches doubled, rising from 0.67% in 2019 to 1.19% in 2020. The majority of these matches took place during the spring months when most competitive leagues were suspended.

While Sheikh feels it is not helpful to be “state specific” on what is “clearly a transnational threat, comprising the cross-border entities and individuals present in all forms of organized crime” Sheikh did disclose that the majority of these suspicious friendlies were played in three countries, where analysis has shown professional leagues have become considerably less prone to fixing—which is obviously a coup for fans. The counter argument, though, is that fixers were instead more selective—riding improved trust for the integrity of players and officials, to decisively and profitably rig a handful of results outside league ties. Sheikh declines further comment, on basis that the report will require “further substantiation and discussion in our sector, and between all of our partners” which seems a reasonable and cautious consideration for the current time, as others begin to embark on similar work to collate with Stats Perform and Starlizard.

End Game: Soccer’s Uncomfortable Lessons From Covid-19

In a report titled “A whole new ball game: Navigating digital transformation in the sports industry” Deloitte implore the soccer industry—in both the United Kingdom, and beyond—that to avert the financial position which will exacerbate risk to integrity during future shocks, lessons must be learned. The auditor warns [that] “digital will need to be embedded in every aspect of the business, transforming people, processes, and technology”.

These are sentiments echoed by Price Waterhouse Cooper, whose fall 2021 report “Sports Industry: Ready For Recovery?” canvasses 792 industry leaders, in 55 countries. According to David Dellea, who heads PwC’s Sports Business Advisory team, optimism reigns—with PwC’s findings revealing “the imperative for sport to better confront today’s collective responsibilities”.

In PwC’s view, teams, leagues and owners must now “frontally embrace societal challenges, using their influential platform not only to promote human well-being and environmental protection, but [to] more concretely play an active role in developing a stronger society”. A redoubled focus on sustainability, fan engagement and new technology makes for sound counsel—but any politicization of leagues in the United States and United Kingdom has proven highly divisive. Dellea’s belief that “the reality of the world at large is now directly shaping the future of our industry” is sound council—yet ignores the serious problems which sport has embraced during Covid-19. For their to be any meaningful progress on the lessons of Covid-19, it would seem sacrosanct that financial stability first be secured—which PwC’s delegated predicted to be a five year project. Without this, steps to improve soccer’s governance, close funding gaps, entrench fair play, and underscore best practice will always encounter the same hurdle. It’s probably fair to say that panic about threats to integrity on the pitch closely mirror concerns about business integrity which require redress, too.

Issues such as the opacity of player ownership has led other bodies to voice concerns about the potential for conflicts of interest between team and owner. Couple this with the long shadow that the gambling industry has been alleged by UK lawmakers to cast its influence over teams—whose very existence, never mind solubility, depends on shirt sponsorship, and it’s challenging not to tie soccer’s pandemic morals with wider trends in many developed countries. Many timely questions about fairness will hinge on the ultimate outcome of leaks such as the “Pandora Papers”. Yet a fairer, stronger, cleaner game, is foregrounded in statistics—which is precisely why this first look at integrity during Coronavirus is so much more valuable than anecdote.


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