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.
2/26/2019 09:28:20 pm
Great post Shelby. Very clear and well-written. I played on the tour for 10 years and retired just last year. It is sad to see what is happening to our sport. Great job with your article and good luck with everything! Will share it to raise more awareness.
2/27/2019 02:21:45 am
Hate messages I would consider an occupational hazard. I can imagine top players of our sport or any sport receive lots of criticism and hate messages. However, with the new system many players of mid and lower levels have gone from professional players to amateurs since they are no longer in the ATP rankings and definitely not living from the sport. Thus, we cannot consider this an occupational hazard anymore, it is a threat and coward act from cowards hiding behind a fake account on the internet. Something has to be done to stop this or players have to receive money or benefits from their personal data being sold to betting companies.
2/27/2019 03:34:28 am
i agree with 100% about you Shelby, put finish betting will be difficult because betting exists in all sports.
2/27/2019 05:44:12 am
Very well argued. You might also have noted the posturing hypocrisy of the ITF in banning young players for life from playing ITF events, for taking a bribe that was partially engendered by the ITF's lucrative deal with Sportsradar.
2/27/2019 08:48:52 am
Sad that some have not appreciated the game of tennis and thought that this B S was needed to grow are game.
2/27/2019 12:24:02 pm
Hello, Shelby Talcott, I have loved your article, only make a qualification regarding:
2/28/2019 08:52:42 am
3/4/2019 08:47:12 am
Hi Shelby, This is a very insightful post. You make a very convincing case for the ITF to review its association with gambling interests and restore integrity to tennis.
Paul Banks Harclerode
3/4/2019 03:45:30 pm
Sounds like the ITF uses similar verbiage in their "conditions'' as Google & Facebook & many others until they get caught. i.e. "Agree that we'll do as we please with all your identity data... or Try to find the little settings Somewhere to change and opt out... . or Don't Sign-up at all.
3/5/2019 02:04:20 am
Unbelievable, but true!When I got my first message as coach, because my player lost a match where she was highly favorite I was soo shocked and this message was soo aggressive, but I got used to it and never told my player.Shelby you explained everything great and your comments are very smart! This kind of things are just a few of the problems players and coaches have to deal with, but at least I can answer for what ITF and WTA need so much money. For sure you know that the WTA players get their 4 or 5 stars hotel paid and if they loose they can stay more days to recover from their defeat and the ITF need the money because the Grand Slam winners are underpaid! My former player got 750.000 winning Wimbledon and now it is fast 4 times more, but we should not complain because winning a 15K now you get after winning 8-9 matches and after paying your tax Euro 1.400 and before 1.100.Thanks to the ITF(our friends)we can order a salat to our hamburger!Shelby as I know how it is at the lowest levels as well at the highest level it is to get soo furious on this ITF that with all the problems those young, injured and players who first finished school already have to give them the final kill.We have to get more and important press people on our site to get those arrogant people changing their minds!
Wayne F. Stiles
3/6/2019 12:43:39 pm
As a career fraud investigator, my first thought upon reading your excellent post was, "I wonder where all that money goes"? I bet a lot went into salaries. Readers, please remember that once you cross that line, no matter how far, the criminals have you for life!
3/9/2019 04:37:18 pm
VERY well written, Shelby! Thanks very much for taking the time to write, and please keep at it! Best of luck!
3/10/2019 08:50:33 am
Nice work Shelby. Keep it up. You can have a career in journalism and writing commentary. Your blog merits wide attention. I am an avid reader and tennis player and follower and knew only a little about this.
3/12/2019 12:42:58 am
Great article. Its frustrating that the ITF has killed off the qualifying draws. Its nearly impossible to play at this point. I had no idea how far reaching this was. I figured it was just a bunch of bad decisions by bureaucrats who weren't playing on the future events. I played 5 last year and it was a great experience in qualifying. No one was complaining that was trying to break through. That opportunity was crushed this year. Impossible to enter in qualifying. I think they should go back to the 2018 system immediately. Long term, this is bad for tennis and kills the dream for so many players. And to think this was all done for gambling, such a dark hour for the future of tennis.
3/13/2019 11:00:19 am
Got your website link via SI John Wertheim article.
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Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.