Suspicious gambling activity, which can be anything from gambling underage to full-on match-fixing, existed long before 2018 when the Supreme Court struck down the federal sports betting ban.
But since sports betting has become legal in more than 30 states nationwide, there have been plenty of scandals even in the regulated marketplace. Some, like the recent suspensions in the NFL, were as innocuous as players betting on games — flouting league policy but not the law. Others, like the scandal involving Alabama baseball, compromised the game’s integrity.
But it’s arguably easier to catch than ever before, given that most betting is done in a regulated marketplace and that integrity monitors have improved technology, multiple gambling industry experts told Front Office Sports.
But how does the industry catch a gambling crook?
Myriad of Betting Scandals
When monitoring “match-fixing,” companies look for four major types of activities, Sportradar Head of Integrity Services & Athlete Wellbeing, Jim Brown, told FOS.
These include a player, coach, or referee exercising their influence to artificially create a specific outcome within a game (that would influence a prop bet), the overall outcome of the game, or sharing private information that could influence a game’s outcome before it’s public — like an injury.
In the U.S., the last issue is the most common — often simply due to a lack of education around what someone in the sports industry can and can’t share, Brown said.
In fact, the situation at Alabama, where Bohannon was caught on the phone with someone placing bets against his team before a game, is an example of this type of cheating. Bohannon, as the coach, knew his star pitcher was about to be scratched — so he had wagers placed against the Alabama team despite their dominant record.
But there are other issues, too. People could be placing bets illegally if they’re in a jurisdiction that doesn’t allow betting or if they’re underage. That may have been the case at Iowa and Iowa State, where 41 athletes are being investigated for “potential criminal activity” related to sports betting. Though the exact nature of these allegations remains unclear, they weren’t related to the integrity of the games, sources previously confirmed to FOS.
Integrity monitors even help teams and leagues keep athletes from violating policies that aren’t against the law but are just against league rules. NFL players, for example, aren’t allowed to bet on NFL games even if they’re not part of them — which is why several were suspended in April.
Activity Indicators for Monitors
Despite the recent headlines, the U.S. is hardly the most high-risk jurisdiction for illicit gambling opportunities. If anything, legalizing sports betting made it easier to monitor illegal activities.
“It doesn’t just happen in one jurisdiction,” Brown said. “When bad actors do match manipulation, they’re going to look for liquidity in the marketplace, and they’re most likely going to an unregulated marketplace.”
But when nefarious activity exists, integrity monitors like Sportradar and U.S. Integrity have multiple strategies.
They use technology — AI algorithms and data gathering — as their first line of defense.
Typically, they look for deviations in patterns: whether a line moves significantly, and then information is released about a player injury after, for example. Or if wagers are placed on games that aren’t normally popular. They can also track the probability of certain prop bets in real time and whether money lines have deviated from legitimate odds.
Sportsbooks themselves often monitor teams, too.
They have data on their customers’ typical betting habits — such as the size of wagers or sport of choice — as well as their age and identity. So if the sportsbook flags an out-of-the-ordinary behavior, it can then be passed along to state gambling regulators or an integrity monitor to analyze.
In the case of the NFL players, GPS location may have been used to help determine the identity of people who weren’t allowed to be wagering, as FOS previously noted.
Then, once a bet is flagged by a monitoring system, a sportsbook, or even a tip, “we have that human layer,” U.S. Integrity COO Scott Sadin told FOS. A betting analyst (a real-life person) will investigate to see if there’s a reason to believe the bet could signify sketchy activity.
The investigation can then be passed on to the appropriate parties, whether law enforcement officials, a state gambling regulator, a school, or a league.
Many believe the issues flagged so far show the monitoring systems are working as designed. “I think the books have a pretty good system at the moment,” Philip Milan, founder of Vegas Kings, told FOS.
In 2022, Sportradar found 1,212 instances of suspicious wagers — a significant uptick from previous years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean gambling is getting dirtier worldwide, Brown said, noting that that number was out of 850,000 matches the company monitored. The uptick can be attributed to more oversight rather than more sketchy activity.
As the industry matures, “it’s only going to get harder for people to get away with stuff like that,” Milan said.
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