By James Trusty
With the increasing popularity of sports betting across the country comes the ever-present concern that big money brings big temptation, and that concern is most acutely fixated on the NCAA sports scene. Gamblers and non-gamblers alike do not want to see their favorite collegiate contests infected with fixed results or point shaving. But in an era where technology is exponentially spreading the availability of sports betting and the interest in daily fantasy leagues, it is also technology that holds the greatest hope for ensuring the integrity of the games.
The America East Conference (AEC), a ten-member conference in the northeast that includes schools like the Universities of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, has taken the innovative step of taking a deep-dive into sports betting and sports integrity. Their plan calls for studying the laws and regulations surrounding sports betting, exploring case studies of corruption, and focusing on issues like use of insider information while identifying best practices for schools who want to keep even a whiff of corruption at bay. Other colleges and conferences are already formulating and implementing similar plans. This is an eminently reasonable step to take for universities around the country, for a variety of altruistic and practical reasons. It is good for the integrity of the games, for the mental and financial well-being of students and athletes, the reputation of the school and conference, and, frankly, good protection against potential liability at schools with big sports programs and consequently plenty of opportunities for mischief.
Traditional integrity monitoring has taken a fairly “macro” approach to detecting fraud. For instance, in 2018, many U.S. sportsbook operators formed a non-profit organization called the Sports Wagering Integrity Monitoring Association (SWIMA). This group’s website describes the NPO as designed for “collaboratively identifying suspicious wagering activity.” Unusual betting behavior can be a sign of underlying fraud, but it is somewhat akin to identifying the symptom rather than the specific illness. Similarly, U.S. Integrity is an operator association that seeks to “identify suspicious behavior by analyzing changes in betting data against a benchmark of normal betting activity.” This monitoring focuses on line movement and betting analysis, misuse of insider information, notable player or coaching events, and referee monitoring. All worthy areas of inquiry, but not necessarily getting down to the “micro” question of how the fraud actually took place.
The most reassuring part of the plan to engage sports data experts is a relatively unknown side- effect our highly digitalized sports world – data collectors are not simply gathering up information to support a point spread or setting the over-under on points, they are increasingly analyzing highly individualized data that can serve as a tripwire to detect corrupt conduct on the court or field. The implausibility of a great free-throw shooter missing two clutch shots might be a yellow flag, but if that shooter dramatically altered the arc of the shot (as analyzed in his last 1000 free throw attempts) it may be a red flag for regulators watching for fixed games or point shaving. The investigator who busts a big sports corruption case may wield algorithms and a laptop computer, rather than a gun and badge.
And the power of that data’s usage, with an increasing likelihood of detection, may well provide the kind of deterrent that young students and athletes comprehend better than most generations ever could.