Earlier this month Major League Baseball announced a deal with Sport Integrity Monitor (SportIM) based in the UK to track suspicious betting patterns on MLB games at licensed and unlicensed sportsbooks. The company which currently has agreements with soccer and basketball leagues in Europe will keep track of trends and statistics which MLB hopes will stop or prevent corruption in the sport. While all parties are making this out to be a revolutionary idea the truth is that sports leagues already have memoranda of understanding with various UK sportsbooks to identify suspicious betting patterns and have so for years. FIFA, F1, both tennis federations, rugby and cricket, among other leagues, have memoranda of understanding with Betfair, William Hill and Ladbrokes whereby the betting companies point out suspicious betting to those leagues for investigation.For North American leagues, both the NHL and CFL have similar agreements in place. What perhaps makes Sports Integrity Monitor different is that it analyzes all sportsbooks, both licensed and unlicensed, in real time and hence doesn't rely on the sportsbooks to highlight the suspicious betting. SportIM takes that upon themselves and they can see betting patterns at all sportsbooks at the same time. Upon announcing the deal in a press release, people connected to the deal highlighted the advantages of having the agreement:
"MLB is pleased to work with SportIM in this vital area, as this partnership will be an essential part of our initiatives to protect the game's integrity," MLB chief legal officer Dan Halem said.
"We look forward to making use of SportIM's expertise and market-leading monitoring solutions in order to ensure that we have accurate and timely intelligence."
Mark Locke, chief executive of SportIM, added: "It is reassuring to know that forward-thinking organisations such as MLB are actively taking steps on how to best safeguard their competitions and implement effective measures in this environment to prevent any issues."
According to the SportIM website the company offers consultancy services whereby they partner with legal firms to help leagues develop regulatory frameworks with regards to match fixing; education and training whereby they teach referees, umpires, league officials and any relevant stakeholders how to understand the dynamics of match fixing and what they can do to help prevent it; and investigation services where they help investigate likely match fixing to provide law enforcement the tools and research to proceed with charges. But the main product that clearly provides the most interest to the leagues is the real time monitoring, which ideally can identify match fixing before or while it's occurring. That product is explained on the SportIM website:
- SportIM's Integrity Monitoring System oversees sports betting markets to prevent and identify instances of match-manipulation.
- The Integrity Monitoring System is a technology-based system, which analyses the global sports betting markets in real time for signs of corruption. The system is based upon advanced odds monitoring software, which is powered by SportIM's market leading algorithms. Automated alerts are provided when the global betting markets behave differently than statistical models have predicted.
- The bet monitoring system is operated by a team of SportIM analysts who are in 24/7 communication with betting operators all over the world and conduct real time analysis of threats. Whether alerted by suspicious odds movements or a report from a betting operator, SportIM analysts will conduct an immediate and thorough investigation in search of a reasonable explanation. Only when events cannot be attributed to legitimate factors is a match deemed suspicious and the sport is notified.
- SportIM provide hands on account management and easy to understand reporting. The service provides sports critical information in a format they can understand.
It's uncertain why MLB decided to engage in this partnership at this time, although speculation is that it relates to both the revelations by ESPN earlier this year that Pete Rose bet on games both as a player and while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds and also the recent DraftKings leak whereby an employee leaked customer rosters before the contest deadline and also the revelation that he won hundreds of thousands of dollars playing fantasy sports at competing site FanDuel.
Unfortunately, if those indeed were the situations that lead to this decision it's unlikely that SportsIM could have been useful in identifying either.
The algorithms and statistical models that SportIM talks about will look at trends and unusual patterns and will not be able to identify an individual's play. Pete Rose by all accounts did not bet in any unusual manner when he was with the Reds and it's unlikely he was involved in a syndicate who bet his plays in a large group at various sportsbooks. So the monitoring that SportIM provides wouldn't have identified anything suspicious there. Similarly DFS is not currently on SportIM's watch list and even if it was, there is no way the software can identify suspicious patterns of contest picks. The reason for that is that DFS players can change their picks up until game time and no individual information is released until after the contest closes. That's specifically why the leak was deemed such an onus violation.
What the software will be good at identifying is unusual betting patterns such as what happened in a tennis match a few years back where Nikolay Davydenko was playing an unknown Polish tennis player in a minor tournament and there was an unusual amount of betting (10 times as much, to be exact) on the match and more specifically on Davydenko's opponent at Betfair. The betting continued on the opponent even after Davydenko won the first set and when Davydenko retired from the match in the third set with a foot injury Betfair halted payments until an investigation was conducted. While Betfair had the ability to identify the unusual betting patterns as it all occurred on their site, it may have gone somewhat unnoticed had the betting been spread out at say 10 or 20 sportsbooks worldwide. That's where SportIM would be invaluable since they would be able to see betting everywhere and notice that the overall amounts being wagered worldwide made no sense.
That said, SportIM could still be quite useful if certain MLB games are being bet in a strange pattern at a combination of books whether it's at Betfair, Bet365, Bovada, 5Dimes or at the Westgate sportsbook in Las Vegas. Of course SportIM will be restricted to sportsbooks that are willing to give them access to their real time betting but the company would be useless in a case like the Tim Donaghy scandal of 2007 since Donaghy's illegal betting tips were made at underground bookies and it's unlikely that Louis the Lip is going to give SportIM access to his customer's wagers.
There is widespread belief that Major League Baseball is just the starting point for North American sports monitoring and that Adam Silver will likely sign a similar deal for the NBA, since he has already stated he has no objections to people gambling on the sport. And as mentioned the Tim Donaghy scandal is a good reason to explain why the partnership is necessary. The fact that SportIM as mentioned would have been useless in that instance is irrelevant since in the eyes of politicians and the public what is important is the impression that the league is trying to be proactive to stop sports fixing scandals. After the NBA look for the NHL, MLS and possibly NASCAR to get on board too with SportIM from the American sporting organizations. The NHL already has a similar deal in place as mentioned earlier and the NHL had a major betting scandal in 2006 with operation slapshot whereby former NHL player Rick Tocchet was charged with running an illegal gambling ring. No doubt the NFL and NCAA will be the last to sign up since they still want the public to believe that they are opposed to anything that even links them to betting but it's almost certain that their stance will change too once Roger Goodell is shown the door.
The decision by MLB to start the ball rolling with this partnership is a good beginning and hopefully will lead to other leagues doing their part to try and stop match fixing where possible. More importantly it's the first real indication by a major North American sports league that they admit gambling is taking place on their sport and rather than trying to deny it or turn a blind eye to it like the NFL has done, they want to address it in an attempt to stop it. It's uncertain whether SportIM will actually stop match fixing and since they can't access illegal bookmakers it's highly unlikely but it's certainly a good start. And hopefully as one commentator stated on a radio station this week "this could be a good indication that the leagues are going to drop their objections to legal sports betting in the U.S. and this is just a measure to assure the public that they will do whatever they require to ensure that betting won't affect the integrity of the sport."
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