Smartening up: How Genius Sports is fighting future threats in match-fixing

Ben Paterson, Genius Sports’ Integrity Operations Director, explains how data has helped power the company’s leading integrity products, and explains why sporting bodies need to take protecting themselves from corruption seriously.

Smartening up: How Genius Sports is fighting future threats in match-fixing

Match-fixing and betting-related corruption have been posing a significant threat to sports organisations for some time now, and recent instances have shown that the need to preserve the pillars of fairness and integrity can easily be lost amidst the allures of riches and fancy.

In 2006, Italian soccer was rocked when police uncovered a scandal involving Serie A champions Juventus and other major teams including AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina, all of whom were hit with severe punishments for match-fixing. Seven years later, cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) was marred by an equally damaging spot-fixing case in 2013, which resulted in various arrests of star players, sponsorship withdrawals and two-year suspensions for the Chennai Super Kings and the Rajasthan Royals.

Indeed, federations, leagues and their teams can only remain relevant for as long as they are seen to be making a conscious effort to prevent darker influences from infiltrating the virtues that have underpinned their popularity for so long. Failure to do so, however, can result in a credibility shortage that can have an enduring impact on a sport’s appeal both commercially and from a fan engagement perspective.

It seems imperative then, that sports organisations take the appropriate steps to protect themselves. Since being founded in 2000, Genius Sports has been helping sporting bodies do just that. The company has established itself as a global leader in sports data technology, and now provides its integrity services to the likes of Major League Baseball (MLB), golf’s PGA Tour and English soccer’s Premier League.

SportsPro caught up with Ben Paterson, Genius Sports’ Integrity Operations Director, to learn more about the data and technology that informs the company’s suite of integrity products, and to discuss why sporting bodies need to be educated about potential threats in order to take protecting themselves against corruption seriously.

In terms of sport integrity, what was the gap that Genius Sports spotted in the market?

Bet monitoring technology is at the heart of integrity services for sports. This technology is dependent on three things: mathematical models, official sports data and global betting data. While simple in concept, there are only one or two companies out there who can offer such a service due to the complexity of the technology and the depth of data required.

We were able to develop our integrity services primarily because of the level of betting data we have access to through the regulated betting side of our business. When combined with official data provided by the sporting partner, we were able to develop proprietary algorithms which enable us to see what the odds should look like across all major pre-match and in-play markets.

This technology has grown and developed over time and is now relied upon to protect the integrity of some of the largest organisations in world sport.

Ben Paterson, Genius Sports’ Integrity Operations Director

What is Genius Sports’ key differentiator in this space?

Compared to our competitors, a key differentiator for us is our close working relationships with the bookmakers.

Through Betgenius, the regulated betting division of Genius Sports Group, we have working relationships with hundreds of bookmakers across the world. What this means is they are very quick to alert us to any anomalous activity, such as if they are seeing high turnover compared to what they are used to on a particular event, or if they are seeing new accounts created for certain betting limits.

A lot of bookmakers spend a lot of time and effort profiling their own customers, so when they identify the wrong kind of customer placing significant bets, they are very quick to tell us because they want us to change their odds and protect their bottom line.

Why do sports organisations need to take integrity seriously? What are some of the dangers of not doing so?

The threats of match-fixing and betting-related corruption have never been greater. The global growth of sports betting and constant improvements in technology mean it is now possible to place a bet anywhere, at any time on anything.

By failing to be proactive, sports can face severe consequences across their commercial sustainability, their right to self-rule and their fan engagement levels.

From a commercial perspective, we have seen multiple high-profile organisations including the IPL, South African Football Association and Australian Open tennis lose significant financial sums from match-fixing scandals. If you look at Serie A as well, going back five or ten years it was on a par with the Premier League and La Liga, but now it’s fallen behind the biggest leagues in Europe, and its spate of match-fixing scandals have undoubtedly played a part.

Fans have to believe in what they’re watching or else they’re not going to tune in, they’re not going to pay money to buy shirts, they’re not going to purchase TV packages and they’re not going to buy tickets to go to events and watch their teams play.

Genius Sports provides its integrity services to the likes of Major League Baseball, English soccer’s Premier League and EuroLeague Basketball 

Is there currently an element of naivety or even a lack of awareness and education about the threats that match-fixing and betting-related corruption pose to the integrity of sport?

I think there certainly was. Slowly but surely though we’ve turned a corner in recent years, at least with the major to mid-level sports acknowledging they needed to take action. However, more can always be done and all levels of sport are at risk. 

If you look at Uefa, which governs the top two soccer leagues of every single country in Europe, they’ve had some major scandals and taken a number of important measures to protect their competitions. In the recent Skënderbeu case, they handed down a one-year ban from European soccer, following a case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. However, this ruling was a result of over 50 detailed betting reports on suspicious Skënderbeu matches, dating back over the last seven or eight years and they are now back playing in Europe once again.

By failing to be proactive, sports can face severe consequences across their commercial sustainability, their right to self-rule and their fan engagement levels

So while the awareness might be there, further action needs to be taken and I think there’s a long way to go until all sports are actually taking the full measures they need to.

How do you tailor your products to suit the needs of the individual leagues or federations that you partner with?

We have different tiers of approach when it comes to bet monitoring. We have a premium product whereby we monitor all of the different betting markets and the derivative markets, we investigate all significant odds changes, and we provide detailed reports on any market which has seen significant betting even if we think it’s easily explained by clear sporting factors. This service is typically used by our highest-profile partners, with our most recent agreement being the extension of our Football DataCo partnership alongside Perform Group.

As far as tailoring our products goes, our range of services go far beyond bet monitoring. We have a suite of products for integrity, and that includes education, which is where we really see the huge growth coming from. With the PGA Tour, for example, we’ve just created an e-Learning tutorial, which is rolled out to all the top professionals in the world who have been required to complete the tutorial before they get their card for the 2018 season. This module will help educate the tour’s global network on the approaches, criminals and consequences associated with betting-related corruption.

Genius Sports has created an e-Learning tutorial for golf's PGA Tour, which all the top professionals have to complete before receiving their card for the 2018 season

What role does technology play in safeguarding against match-fixing?

Bet monitoring technology simply has to be at the heart of any effective integrity strategy and I believe we have the best monitoring system out there. We have betting data from bookmakers worldwide which has enabled us to create state-of-the-art mathematical models around a whole host of different betting markets. We’re able to build metrics from that, so when odds move from one level to another, or when bookmakers are closing their markets early, our system automatically generates an alert for our team of analysts to investigate.

Fans have to believe in what they’re watching or else they’re not going to tune in, they’re not going to pay money to buy shirts, they’re not going to purchase TV packages and they’re not going to buy tickets to go to events and watch their teams play.

Technology is vital but it’s important to combine this with proper expertise. In London we have a team of eight people working on integrity and in Tallinn, Estonia we have another half a dozen people working solely on protecting sports from match-fixing and betting-related corruption.

The technology flags anomalies and significant odds changes; it then becomes our team of experts’ job to determine what is potentially suspicious and what’s not by digging into hundreds of sporting factors, including the weather, match officials, team news and the motivations of the teams or individuals involved. It’s only when we’ve exhausted all possible mitigating reasons that we’re left with the possibility that an event is potentially manipulated.

Do you think there is an appetite for a universal code of conduct? Is that how you would like to see attitudes towards integrity issues evolve in the coming years?

Whenever I think of codes of conduct I always think of the rules that the athletes have to abide by, and these - in general terms - aren’t far apart from sport to sport.

Certainly from the smaller sports that we deal with, if you have a semi-professional athlete base then they can perhaps do a little bit more, but at professional levels these codes of conduct are generally in place - players aren’t allowed to place bets and they have a duty to report approaches from match-fixers.

So the code of conduct is established, but stricter regulations are required to initiate long-term progress. If you take this a step further, in Asia and other unregulated betting markets, some of the largest bookmakers in the world are operating without any onus on them to proactively report suspicious activity that they see. The nature of this part of the market means that people can bet anonymously, they can bet at the highest betting limits in the world, they can bet at the most competitive odds and - if you like - it’s a perfect storm for a criminal match-fixer looking to place bets.

An insight into how a bet monitoring system works

What projects will Genius Sports be working on in the near future?

2017 was a landmark year for Genius Sports’ integrity services. By partnering with the PGA Tour, expanding our agreement with Football DataCo and hosting Latin America’s first major integrity conference, it was a hugely exciting period for this part of our business.

Going forward, we’ll continue to expand our level of service to sport, particularly around education. Sports are increasingly open to new and innovative measures to protect their competitions and we have tailored our products and services to meet the requirements of all levels of sport.  

We recently hired Kevin Carpenter who’s a well-respected lawyer in this integrity space, and he offers us a different skillset altogether which will help support our partners from a legal standpoint reviewing rules and regulations.

There are so many different areas that sports need to be thorough on to be properly protected from match-fixing, and we’re trying to ensure our partners are as protected as possible.