29 January 2016

Sympathy for the Fixer: Shifting Perceptions on Match Fixing

Daniel Gallan

World tennis is reeling in the wake of wide-spread match-fixing allegations. Tennis now joins the growing list of sports with questionable integrities after the recent scandals that rocked football and athletics. While there is no question that match-fixing is a heinous crime at the elite level of the sport, a closer examination of the inner workings of tennis might shift your perceptions.  CONQA Sport explores the challenging financial environment that low ranking players live in and discovers that the temptation to throw a game for money can be rather enticing.

Roger Federer casts a shadow as he serves in the 2016 Australian Open. After damning allegations of match-fixing have rocked the integrity of world tennis, the future of the sport remains in the dark.  Image supplied by Action Images. 

Roger Federer casts a shadow as he serves in the 2016 Australian Open. After damning allegations of match-fixing have rocked the integrity of world tennis, the future of the sport remains in the dark. Image supplied by Action Images. 

On the eve of the first Grand Slam tournament of 2016, the integrity of world tennis hung by a thread. BuzzFeed and the BBC broke what might be the most controversial story in tennis history. Damning reports have revealed that elite tennis players, many of whom are ranked among the world’s top 50, have been involved in match-fixing - deliberately losing matches in exchange for money.

Next to doping, throwing a game is the most deplorable crime an athlete can commit. Sport should be the only form of mass entertainment that is unscripted. We watch and love it for its uncertainty. Match-fixing changes the unpredictable spectacle to something sinister.

In no way can top-ranked players justify fixing a match. Not everyone on the circuit earns as much as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, who earned $24.6 million and $48 million in 2015 respectively, but a top 100 ranking, and the regular appearances in Grand Slam tournaments that it brings, does ensure a decent paycheque.

But, a closer look at the inner workings of tennis reveals an environment where the temptation to fix a match is understandably strong. Once you slip out of the top 100, and even more so when slide down past 300, tennis ceases to be a glamourous cash cow and very quickly becomes an incredible financial struggle.

Professional athletes are forced to eke out a living as journeymen, balancing paltry winnings with exorbitant expenses. Losing on purpose for money besmirches the integrity of competition, but it might keep the lights on for low ranking players wishing to stay in the show for one more season. This hardly compares to stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry child, but desperation can push a person to extraordinary actions.

For Chanel Simmonds, South Africa’s top female player with a world ranking of 318, the financial slog of being a low level player is all too real. Though she has never been approached to fix a match, she has seen such exchanges take place.

“It happens often in the minor leagues,” she says. “Many of my friends on tour have been approached. It’s never a lot of money. Sometimes it’s a few thousand dollars but that would be enough to help with the costs of playing and travelling.”

So what are the costs? Simmonds has a rolling check-list of expenses that starts with the annual WTA and ITF registration fee of $850. Next she has to budget for Visas - $500 for the year. Unless you’re at the very top, participation in tournaments also comes at a price – Simmonds paid $1000 last year to compete in 26 tournaments in 7 countries, none of them in South Africa.

Hotels and flights eat up most of her budget. Simmonds’ father is a pilot for South African Airways and so she benefits from discounted rates. Without them she estimates she would be paying around $15 000 a year on travel on top of the roughly $300 she pays for hotels each time she is on the road.

Throw in weekly expenses for food, transport and restringing her racquet, and Simmonds spends roughly $30 000 a year to be a professional tennis player.

All well and good if she were earning anywhere near what the top ranked players are making. She isn’t – last year she won $8 615 in prize money. After tax, she only took home $6 030.

In 2013, Simmonds was ranked in the top 200 in the world and competed in all the Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open), making $52 534 from those four events alone.

Now, competing on the lowest rung in tennis, the Futures circuit, the most Simmonds can win at one event is $2 160. If she fails to get past the quarterfinals she can earn as little as $37 for a tournament.

By comparison, the total prize money for this year’s Australian Open is just over $30 million, with singles winners taking home over $2.5 million each. Singles players who get knocked out in the first qualifying round still earn over $4 000 – a decent return for one day’s work.

This is why rankings are so important and mean so much more than personal pride and glory. They ensure a seat at the big table where even scraps are substantial.

Chanel Simmonds in action on the WTA Tour. After sliding down the rankings in 2015, Simmonds faces an uphill battle to return to a position where the money is good and she can focus solely on her game.

Chanel Simmonds in action on the WTA Tour. After sliding down the rankings in 2015, Simmonds faces an uphill battle to return to a position where the money is good and she can focus solely on her game.

If world tennis wishes to eradicate the temptation of match-fixing from those battling it out in the lower echelons of the game, it needs to address the alarming disparity between the haves and have-nots. It is not enough to offer the enticement of better things to come.

Tennis, like so many sports, is a microcosm of capitalism gone awry. Those at the top enjoy the benefits of a billion dollar industry: free hotels, invitations to tournaments and massive sponsorship deals. The better you play, the less you pay.

Sure, through hard work and exceptional skill anyone can muscle their way to lofty positions and financial security, but as we all know, those at the bottom often stay at the bottom.

Simmonds can’t afford to travel with a coach. She doesn’t have a mentor court side or someone to correct her stroke-play mid-tournament. If she is struggling, she does it alone in a foreign country.

“Sometimes I’ll lose a game and I won’t know what I did wrong or how to make changes,” she says. “All the players playing in the smaller tournaments want to make the step up. The thing is though; the players who do manage to climb the rankings are almost always the ones with coaches that help them at tournaments.”

Understandably, anxieties rooted in financial pressures directly impact performance. Simmonds admits that she feels extra stress whenever she goes through a period of poor form. She is aware that the consequence of poor results is lost ranking points which directly impact how much money makes. Akin to poverty and poor socio-economic conditions, this cycle can be difficult to break.

She acknowledges that right now tennis is a tournament-by-tournament struggle. “If I’m doing well I can cover my expenses but there is no guarantee in tennis,” she says. “Of course it affects my game, but I obviously try not to think about it.”

And this is why we shouldn’t necessarily paint all match-fixers with the same brush. If suggestions that former Grand Slam champions are involved in fixing matches are true, may they face the full penalty of law. Fixing on this level is parallel to a Wall Street banker embezzling funds.

Match fixing at the lower ranks is still a crime, but one that should be understood for what it is. The temptation will always be there so long as players feel that they have no alternative to remain in the sport they love.

If indeed the Futures circuit represents the future of the sport, those in charge need to create an environment where all players are rewarded fairly for their talents. Does the winner of the singles event at Wimbledon need to earn $2.7 million? What if that was reduced and extra funds made available for smaller tournaments? This would hardly detract from the sport’s appeal nor force Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova to take up a second job. But it might keep Chanel Simmonds, and many like her, in the game.

“I became a professional in my final year of high school, and a high school certificate is all I have,” says Simmonds, now 23 and starting to contemplate what her future will look like. “I’m going to give it my all for the next two years but if I haven’t improved my situation then I’ll have to think of alternatives.”

Richard Ings, the former executive vice president for rules and competition at the Association of Tennis Professionals, told BuzzFeed and the BBC that match-fixing was a “regular thing”. He said that “If you were to invent a sport that was tailor made for match-fixing, the sport you would invent would be called tennis. It doesn’t take much effort on a player to throw a match without the opponent or the officials or the fans or even the media being aware.”

If that is true, all temptation to deliberately lose needs to be eliminated.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.