Match fixing is the practice of staging a competitive event, usually in organized sports, with a predetermined outcome. Often associated with gambling, both legal and illegal, match fixing is usually illegal and those caught can be criminally prosecuted. Some fixes occur for other reasons, though, such as when players or teams deliberately hold down a score in sports where aggregate scores influence seeding or tie-breaks. In sports where a league’s end-of-season standing determines the order of making draft picks before the next season, with the team finishing last getting the first draft pick, it’s been alleged that some players have caused their teams to lose to enhance those chances.
Match fixing can take many different forms. In boxing, for instance, the only outcome that can be fixed is the victory itself, and the losing fighter must be a participant in the fix, agreeing to feign being knocked out, or “take a dive,” often in a particular round. Nearly all cases of fixed boxing matches have been initiated by gambling interests, which have been instrumental in fixing matches in other sports as well.
Point shaving is a famous form of match fixing in which the difference between the teams’ scores, or “spread,” is held down by the winning team. Point shaving is most meaningful for gamblers in sports where wagers are based on that spread: if a gambler bets that a team will win by 10 points, and the team wins by fewer points, the bet is lost. In some sports, like soccer and hockey, the total goals scored by a team in a season is used as a tie breaker in determining standings; some teams, near the end of a season, may try to influence a league’s final standings by keeping their own score totals low. There are also cases of teams cooperating on the playing field if a particular outcome is advantageous to both teams.
Horse racing is especially vulnerable to fixing because gambling on horse races is generally legal. If the jockeys riding horses favored to win a race can be persuaded to hold back their mounts, even slightly, it may be enough to let a long shot win, enriching those gamblers who bet on the long shot. Horse racing venues and racing associations constantly monitor videotapes of races to detect any indication that a jockey isn’t calling for his mount’s best performance. In many cases, however, it’s impossible to prove that a horse race was fixed.
There are countless examples of fixed matches throughout history. One of the most famous American scandals was the Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which a gangster paid eight members of the Chicago White Sox to lose that year’s World Series match to the Cincinnati Reds. When the scandal was exposed, the eight players were banned from baseball for life. Allegations of fixing are often leveled against professional soccer teams, and when proven, similar consequences are meted out to the offenders. Such severe consequences are usually imposed on anyone subject to the jurisdiction of any sports organization, professional or amateur, found to be involved in fixing matches in any way.
In most jurisdictions, match fixing isn’t only a violation of the rules of the sports organizations involved, it’s also a felony, because the spectators who pay for tickets have been promised an honest competition. When allegations of fixing are sufficiently substantive to warrant investigation, the government’s investigatory powers can be called into play, usually enhancing the fact-finding process. The involvement of law enforcement in the process can also result in punishment of those outside the jurisdiction of the sport, such as gamblers and their associates.
Those sports most vulnerable to match fixing are those whose participants are relatively underpaid. The Black Sox scandal is widely blamed on team owner Charles Comiskey’s notorious miserliness. Baseball salaries have grown considerably since then, and it’s nearly impossible to buy off even the lowest-paid player; instead, gambling interests seeking to fix games are more likely to seek out corruptible umpires. College sports in the United States are particularly susceptible to match fixing attempts because the players receive no cash compensation, and the governing bodies of college athletics are highly alert and poised to ban players for fixing matches. Players banned from college sports for fixing matches lose their athletic scholarships, are often expelled, and usually find the door closed to any professional athletic career.