THE ITF'S DEAL WITH THE DEVIL
I walk off the court, frustrated after a loss in the finals. In typical millennial fashion, I pull out my phone and anxiously wait for the spotty wifi signal to connect. A few minutes later, contact with the outside world is made, and the messages begin to roll in: a few words from my coach, a couple of Snapchats, a new Instagram follower. I roll my eyes when I see the Facebook notification: “John Smith would like to send you a message.” Creative. “John Smith.”
“Die you stupid fat worthless whore! Go suck dick for a living! I have never seen anyone so bad in tennis as you are! Pathetic dog!”
I decide to give John Smith some points for originality with his use of “pathetic dog,” but he only gets a 4/10 on the aggressive scale.
Then I notice another notification – this time from a name that appears to be an actual person (or perhaps he's just more creative than the previous troll.)
“YOU FUCKING RETARDED WHORE!!! CHOKE ON DICK BITCH PISS ON YOU AND YOUR FUCKING FAMILY, FIND YOU ALL. YOU FUCKING WHORE!! OMG YOU ARE SUCH A WHORE FUCKING RETARDED WHORE!! SHIT ON YOUR PLAY YOU FUCKING MORONIC WHORE, DIE OF CANCER BITCH!!!”
This one gets a 0/10 for questionable use of the English language, but destroys John Smith's aggressiveness with the “Die of cancer, I'm going to find your family” comment. This time, the messages aren't too bad. I close my Facebook messages and head to the gym to stretch out.
This is the norm as a professional tennis player, and the higher your ranking, the more messages you are likely to receive. Who are these “John Smiths” of social media? They're bettors, and they exist in large part thanks to the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
In 2012, the ITF signed a five-year, $70 million deal with Sportsradar – a deal which has now been extended until 2021 – to distribute data collected from lower and mid-level tournaments for betting purposes. Distributing this data meant that bookkeepers could now offer odds on these matches, and gamblers around the world suddenly had unfettered access to these professional tournaments. By 2016, over 60,000 ITF men and women's 15k and 25k matches were open for betting.
For the ITF and Sportsradar, this deal has been enormously beneficial. In a recent article posted by the ITF, its President David Haggerty said: “Our valued partnership with Sportsradar has enabled us to develop the content and reach that we need in order to continue strengthening the relationship between our fans and the tennis they love to follow.” If this deal was truly developed for tennis fans, however, why not reach out to other firms that stream data without involving betting companies? Of course, while a $70 million deal that keeps the ITF from operating at a deficit is understandably important to the ITF, their disregard for how the arrangement affects the tennis players whose data is being sold is problematic to say the least.
So, where exactly does this $70 million go? My fellow players and I are certainly not seeing any of it (we would be staying at much nicer hotels if we were.) I decided to do a little research and see what I could find out. The ITF states that 80% of data sales after “integrity costs” goes to developing tennis in member nations. (Remember the phrase “after integrity costs” – this will be important later.)
In 2017, the ITF changed the expense category of “science and technology” to “integrity, science and technology” on its financial disclosures. Based on the ITF’s total financials, without the annual contribution to revenues provided by this $70 million deal, the ITF would be operating at a significant deficit. By changing the “science and technology” category of its financials to “integrity, science and technology,” the ITF now can put some of the $70 million towards science and technology – and not only “integrity costs,” as it suggests.
Here is why this matters: Essentially, the ITF is supposed to be giving 80% after integrity costs to member nations. By lumping “integrity” in with “science and technology,” this gives the ITF a chance to use more of this money, as well as legal ground to use that money for anything – integrity, science, or technology. By combining integrity costs with its science and technology costs, the ITF makes it impossible to determine just how much it spends on any one of those categories. It is thus impossible to know how much of the millions of dollars it receives in exchange for selling player data the ITF actually devotes to improving the integrity of the sport.
For example, let's imagine “integrity” costs were just $10, but “science and technology” costs were $1,000. By putting all three into one category, the ITF could theoretically spend the $10 on integrity costs, and then also legally spend $1,000 from the 80% remaining “after integrity costs” on science and technology. If the ITF operated in this manner, the 80% it says it is giving to member nations is significantly less than what it receives for the data sales -- meaning the ITF isn’t giving nearly as much as it suggests it is to member nations. The problem is that there is no way of knowing how much of the data sales revenue actually finds its way to the member nations’ programs.
On top of the lack of transparency about how the data sales revenue is actually used is the ITF's constant claims that it is promoting “player welfare.” Recall for a moment the Facebook messages I received after losing that one match – nothing about those messages is helpful in any way to a professional athlete. The fact is, these bettors are often malicious, hiding behind computer screens to attack players if the match fails to go the bettor’s way (even a winning player can be the target of hate messages when he/she manages to upset the odds). It is the ITF that has allowed these bettors into the sport by signing this $70 million deal with a company that the ITF knows distributes the data to gaming sites. Its claim that it is concerned with “player welfare” becomes difficult to believe once one realizes that players around the world that the ITF is supposed to be working for are getting messages like these – and far worse – on a daily basis.
With all of this in mind, I decided to investigate the ITF's claims and compare it to the reality that the players experience. The deal with Sportsradar was of particular interest. The ITF is selling player data: our scores, our matches, and our personal information is all being distributed to these betting companies on a daily basis. Companies such as Sofascore offer users the ability to view players' full names, the country that they play for, their age, how much money they've received, and previous results, and they also distribute betting odds on hundreds of matches around the world. In return, the players receive . . . hate mail. It is the players' data being sold, so where are their benefits in this arrangement?
While researching all of this, I remembered that the ITF is a company based out of England – a country that, as of May 25, 2018, implemented the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is a fairly strict law designed to protect personal data – regardless of where you live or who you are. Essentially, this new law has placed tighter restrictions on what can be done with people's data. This offers people more control over how their data is collected and used.
More importantly, it means that companies have to be able to explain what they are doing with your data, and why. GDPR explains that personal data is considered any data that can identify you. Because of this new law, it has become much more common to have to give companies permission to use your data, and in some cases people have the “right to be forgotten.” This means that you can request to have your data deleted (although certain conditions do apply). If a firm does not comply with this new law, the fines can be up to 20 million euros, or up to 4% of annual turnover – whichever amount is greater.
At this point, any answers I found during my research led me to more questions. One thing, however, is painfully clear: the ITF is not operating in a manner that serves the interests of its athletes. The Sportsradar deal, while increasing revenues for the ITF, has resulted in more match-fixing issues as well as daily hate mail to and abuse of players. It is by no means clear how much money – let alone 80% of the data sales revenue – actually makes its way to member nations to help develop the sport that we love. Furthermore, while the ITF claims to use our personal data to benefit the game and protect its integrity, it simultaneously and knowingly sells that data to a company that in turn sell it to betting companies. The customers of these companies then harass and threaten players – at times, even bribing players in an effort to fix matches.
Players are clearly being used as pawns for the benefit of the ITF, and it would seem that in order to bring about changes, the players will have to work hard towards holding this huge corporation accountable. This article was written with hopes of raising awareness – in addition to raising a lot of questions about potentially shady business practices – that will ideally spark further investigation into the suspect way the now-profitable ITF operates.
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.