This cross-border investigation reveals how live data fed to the sports betting industry can create a fertile ground for match-fixing.

Many unregulated data companies provide so-called integrity services to sports bodies yet at the same time sell data to betting operators, some of which are regulated but others of which are poorly regulated or unlicensed. 

Both poorly regulated and unlicensed operators do not report suspicious betting, which can indicate potential match-fixing. 

At the top level of sport, these companies — often described as Asian facing, since they target markets in Asia where betting is often illegal — are increasingly advertising online betting at English Premier League football clubs even though these operators cannot take bets in Britain, the investigation found.

Over the 2021 Christmas period, the project monitored adverts for betting operators at Premier League grounds, and found a competition swamped by betting adverts. 

The journalists investigated a number of mysterious betting operators, which were often based in or focused on customers in Asia and used football to target customers in parts of the region where betting is illegal. Those companies often have opaque corporate structures and operators registered in the Philippines that sponsor clubs in the Premier League and are linked to sex-trafficking and prostitution.

The public faces of these companies can be false. An investigation into Manchester United’s new betting partner, Yabo Sports, found that the “boss” was really a male model sent out to represent the recalcitrant operator’s owners. Another investigation found links to a suspected Chinese Triad gangster.

These companies also offer low-level games, which law enforcement bodies such as Europol warn are far easier to corrupt, but do not report signs of suspicious betting to the authorities as their licences don’t include this as a condition.

Digital scraping uncovered close to a thousand semi-professional and youth games on global betting markets every weekend. Live data collected from English games as low as the eighth level is routinely collected and sold to operators such as 1XBet, yet the players who are swamped by betting adverts are the subject of a crusade against them placing bets. 

The project looked at the activities of 1XBet, a controversial betting operator that sponsors FC Barcelona, but which also stages and streams a variety of sports that might be considered fake, from indoor football to ice hockey, with “players” engaged to look like real clubs and teams.

A visit to Cyprus to track down 1XBet’s operations found a network of ghost offices and exposed how the operator was declared bankrupt in Curaçao in June 2022 and faced losing its licence.

The sporting world’s inability to do any meaningful background checks on betting partners was also exposed by an investigation into international basketball federation FIBA’s new global betting partner, J9, which found that the Philippines-based operator is not covered by any licence.

Some data and betting companies have been unaffected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the investigation revealed the stake held by a director of a leading sports data provider in Russia’s biggest licensed betting operator.

To expose the role of data companies in enabling the offering of vulnerable, low-level games, the team created a fake unlicensed Asian betting operator, Fanzone’s speciality was to offer bets on the lowest games possible and the “company” asked data companies to supply it with data.

More than 10 well-known data companies responded. Just two mentioned a licence. One was happy to take the team’s word for it and although another one asked for proof of licence, it was happy to supply data without the team providing it.

As the online sports betting industry grows, the investigation posed important questions about the role of data companies in creating opportunities for match fixers to manipulate games, as well as the double standard of offering “integrity services” to protect against match-fixing while selling data to anyone who asks.

In April 2023, the project won an IJ4EU Impact Award for excellence in cross-border investigative reporting.

“As jury members, we had no doubts that this project provides an in-depth insight into a rarely uncovered world, using bold methods, resulting in the highest quality investigative journalism with a profound impact on society,” Joanna Krawcyzk, chair of the IJ4EU Impact Award jury and deputy managing director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said.

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