Rise of sports data gathering firms providing opportunity to fix matches that don’t exist

Though images of players and officials pocketing wads of cash are the first that come to mind when match fixing is discussed, the practice can take many forms. And now match fixers have developed a simple new way of living up to their name: having people bet on matches that don’t actually exist. Ghost games.

The Telegraph reports that a recent game between Belarusian Premier League clubs FC Slutsk and Shakhter Soligorsk, which ended in dramatic fashion with Slutsk scoring two late goals to come from behind and win 2-1, never actually happened. Both the clubs are real — Slutsk have a delightful winged horse on their crest and Shakhter have appeared in the Europa League qualifying rounds each of the last four season — but the match itself was not. And yet, legitimate bookmakers offered odds on it, real people placed bets on it and the clubs’ official websites featured match reports for it.

All of this was made possible by the growing sports data gathering industry and how easy it can be to bribe their meagerly paid data gatherers. According to the Telegraph, such a person is suspected of perpetrating this ghost game as Shakhter now say that it never happened and the match report on their site was the work of a hacker. Slutsk, meanwhile, told bookmaker SBOBET, which paid out on the result, that it did happen and they did win 2-1. Because why let truth get in the way of a perfectly good win?

Several variations on the ghost game have occurred in recent years, but none have been quite this fake. Former FIFA head of security Chris Eaton says there is one common element, though. From the Telegraph:

He said: “Criminals look for the vulnerabilities in new areas and they believe they’ve found a vulnerability in the sport-data model in its reliance on very poorly paid individuals who are there providing minute-by-minute or second-by-second data.

“You’re talking about a sport data scout at a match being paid €50 [£37] maximum – often even less. So, economically, they are already pretty easy targets if they are of a mind to take any inducement.”

The last known ghost game was a friendly last August played by teams posing as Spanish club Ponferradina and Portuguese club Freamunde. It had match data provided by a scout working for RunningBall — which has 1,000 of these scouts providing real-time match data in 70 countries. Bloomberg says RunningBall was acquired by UK-based Perform Group “for as much as €120 million” in 2012.

Anyway, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that Real Madrid and Boca Juniors will be playing a friendly in my back yard this weekend. None of you can attend, but I will be accepting bets and you can pre-order the friendship scarves for it now.

For more on the many permutations of match fixing, Brett Forrest’s 2012 story for ESPN is worth a read. 

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