LAST YEAR, WELL BEFORE SPORTS FANS around the globe tuned into a thrilling month-long FIFA World Cup, the tiny country of Belize faced the United States in a tournament that would crown a football/soccer champion of the Americas. Given little chance to win, Belize players were approached by a man who offered them thousands of dollars to throw the match. The players spurned the advance and reported the incident (and got thrashed in the game, 6-1). But the case illustrates the corruption that has plagued sports ever since mankind put foot or stick to ball. Transnational crime associated with sports—namely, illegal gambling and related corruption—is a growing problem, and experts say that governments must do more to combat it.
An estimated $140 billion annually is laundered through sports betting, an amount equal to roughly 10 percent of revenue generated by all organized crime worldwide, according to a recent report on crime in sports.
“We’re talking massive amounts of money,” says Stuart Page, one of the sports integrity experts who worked on the report. Protecting the Integrity of Sport Competition: The Last Bet for Modern Sport was jointly issued by The University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS).
The report is the result of a two-year research project, and the issuing institutions say it is the first-ever comprehensive report into the scale and scope of illegal activity related to sports. In sum, it reveals a worldwide epidemic of sporting event manipulation and illegal betting.
“Cases of corruption involve athletes as well as their professional entourage, clubs, referees/judges, and sometimes even officials of sports organizations,” the authors write. “Regardless of the perspective used to analyze these cases, the manipulation of sports competitions emerges as a global phenomenon.”
There are several reasons why the problem is a growing one, experts say. From the criminals’ perspective, sports betting is sometimes looked on as lower in violence and overall risk than other forms of crime, like drug trafficking. “It’s like a white collar crime in some ways,” Page says.
In addition, with the rise of the Internet and new technologies, online gambling sites have flourished, and this has made illegal gambling a transnational issue. While not all sports gambling sites are illegal, many are; the report finds that 80 percent of sports betting is illegally transacted.
“No one’s really regulating the IP addresses of all those Web sites around the world,” Page says. An American who places online bets on World Cup games may be using a Web site that is controlled by a Chinese organized crime syndicate. “You have no idea where those sites are housed,” Page adds.
The crime’s borderless nature can also make prosecution tricky, according to Fred Lord, the head of operations at ICSS.
Lord is also a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Task Force on Charting Illicit Trade, a group that is attempting to map out and quantify the illegal economy. As a task force member, Lord has met with U.S. State Department officials and other government representatives about issues regarding illegal gambling and associated money laundering. He says that for federal agencies, sports betting is usually not a top priority as some believe it should be handled by the professional organizations themselves, such as the National Basketball Association or the National Football League. “This is the blind spot of law enforcement agencies,” Lord says.
When it comes to sports-related corruption, the report found that Europe, with 37 reported scandals in the last three years, led the world. Second was Asia, with 17 reported scandals, and then the Americas, with 5 reported scandals. The report authors cautioned, however, that reported scandals realistically represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sports corruption. “The actual number of cases of manipulation in 2013 alone is widely suspected to run into the hundreds, or even thousands,” the authors write.
And the fact that the United States has not had as many sporting scandals as Europe and Asia in recent years does not mean that the U.S. problem is minor, experts say.
In terms of specific sports, the report identifies soccer as the one most targeted for manipulation, with cricket coming in second. Corruption also reaches into other sports, such as handball, wrestling, snooker, and badminton.
Europe and Asia, combined, represent 85 percent of the world’s total betting market—both legal and illegal—and online gambling now represents about 30 percent of the global betting market. Regulatory models have not kept up with the growth of global online betting, and regulators often lack the resources to undertake the surveillance and analysis required to detect illegal activity such as money laundering via gambling, the report found.
In addition, the authors say there is insufficient cooperation between law enforcement agencies, professional sports associations, and legal bookmakers. As a result, efforts to combat illegal sport-related activity turn out to be occasional and piecemeal.
“America is still trying to grapple with it in bits,” Page says. On the international level, the report found an urgent need for a multinational agreement in which nations pledge to cooperate in fighting illegal betting and associated activities.
Given the report’s findings, Page and Lord say ICSS is looking to spread awareness of all this illegal activity, as well as to advocate for stronger prevention efforts. “We’re trying to raise it up, to get people to understand, to get the prosecutions to be tougher, to try and band together and share the data,” Lord says.
Among other things, ICSS is pushing for greater use of international bodies, like the UN Convention Against Corruption; more antibribery legislation; and increased efforts to harmonize laws so that country-to-county cooperation will be easier. They are cautiously optimistic that more government officials are beginning to take the problem seriously.