2020 was a turbulent year for the betting industry with major sporting events postponed and retail outlets forced to close, and it appears that a similar scenario is emerging in the early part of 2021. Whilst the impact has not yet been as extensive as the first half of 2020, retail betting continues to be impacted in many countries and matches across various sports continue to be abandoned due to the pandemic, with ongoing concerns about the viability of major tournaments later in the year.
From an integrity perspective, there also continue to be concerned about the governance and integrity protocols of privately organized sports tournaments that have sprung up, initially to replace lost fixtures in the traditional sporting calendar. At IBIA, we are acutely aware of the opportunism of corrupters and the need for heightened vigilance around such events and we quickly put in place a process for monitoring and reporting suspicious betting patterns emerging from such tournaments.
This has included working closely with our existing stakeholders such as the IOC and what is now the International Tennis Integrity Agency, but also reaching out to those data providers offering these events to betting operators. IBIA also initiated a series of webinars between our members, sports and regulators to provide a cohesive and coordinated response to the challenges posed by the pandemic. In these uncertain times, we want to ensure clear communication and timely cooperation.
Such ongoing engagement and monitoring activity is important as, whilst many of the main sports returned last year, the pandemic has accelerated the expansion of betting consumers’ interests and consequently betting operators’ product catalogues. There is no doubt that eSports was one of the biggest winners from the pandemic in terms of increased consumer interest, primarily because it can be conducted remotely and does not require in-stadium events, albeit those are very well-attended.
Prior to Covid, eSports betting was predominately based around real-time strategy games like League of Legends and DOTA, but what the pandemic did was push more conventional video games like FIFA and NBA2K to the fore. This raised some commercial opportunities around eSports, but also some integrity challenges. IBIA has a long-standing and positive relationship with the eSports Integrity Commission (ESIC) and we have reported our concerns to them, which they are investigating.
It is important to remember that suspicious betting alerts do not mean that match-fixing has definitely taken place and the vast majority of eSports is free from corruption. However, where proven, we welcome the strong sanctions which ESIC has been handing out. Moreover, whilst there has been a heightened focus on alternative products like eSports, football and tennis continued to be the most bet on sports last year and have consistently been the top two sports in terms of the alerts reported.
One of the emerging integrity challenges that we highly during 2020 is the increasing importance of accurate, reliable and transparent sporting data. This is imperative for betting operators and ensuring that the data supply chain is robust and secure has become a central issue for the responsible regulated operators that IBIA represents. We saw the adverse impact of this most starkly in the reported ‘ghost’ football games in the Ukraine and Brazil and the consequent defrauding of operators.
With an increasing range of sports and tournaments of all levels offered for betting from around the world, this data reliability issue has correspondingly taken on increased importance. No data approach is immune from potential corruption, but measures can and should be taken to guard against illicit activity and effective controls can minimise risks. As a result, IBIA set out to examine this issue during 2020 and have sought to address this through the development of a set of standards, focused on three key areas: personnel vetting and training; the data collation process; and data integrity and reporting.
Within these sections is a range of requirements seen as important working practices in the collation of sporting event data, such as ensuring that data collectors are well-trained, avoiding potential conflicts of interest and maintaining the security of event data. The integrity reporting section is of particular interest for IBIA and its members and, as it states, upholding and protecting the reliability and credibility of sporting data is of paramount importance for the association.
That section promotes that a detailed risk assessment should be conducted on any sporting events and competitions on which data is collated, with ongoing monitoring and review. Furthermore, where any data integrity issues are identified, that all parties in that data supply chain and any other relevant integrity stakeholders must be informed immediately. The feedback that we have received to date on these standards has been overwhelmingly positive, notably from some major sports bodies.
Those that support the development of IBIA’s data standards recognise that the danger to the integrity of sporting event data persists and coordinated action is an effective countermeasure. Ultimately, our core aim in developing these standards is to benefit all concerned in the sporting data supply chain. I am pleased to say that an announcement regarding the first data provider to achieve these standards is imminent, as are IBIA’s annual betting alerts statistics which will provide an interesting observation of the integrity challenges faced in 2020 and which may persist throughout this year.
IBIA, which is the largest consumer account-based integrity platform in the world with a growing membership now representing close to half of all global private operator regulated betting activity, is determined to continue to explore all avenues and solutions to the integrity challenges facing operators, regulators and sports alike. Our responsible members are commitment to this and their growing global activity and IBIA’s market integrity monitoring will continue to increase during 2021.
Khalid Ali, CEO, International Betting Integrity Association