On any given college football Saturday, Matt Holt will flag approximately five games for gambling improprieties. That’s equates to about 8% of weekly contests raising enough suspicion of game fixing and/or point-shaving that a closer look is required.
“When we send an alert to every operator and regulator across the country, we’re pretty sure there is something happening here that is not good,” said Holt, founder and CEO of U.S. Integrity, which oversees corruption in the gaming industry.
That’s five games every Saturday, approximately 15-18 per month, according to Holt.
“[Improprieties] are going on right now,” Holt said. “Anyone who says that’s not happening is naïve to the marketplace.”
The idea that college football games may not be legitimate is barely mentioned these days. The messages throughout a three-hour broadcast are more about the ancillary profit for all in wagering. Ads flood our TV screens, phones and tablets spouting the legitimacy, potential windfall and entertainment value of sports betting.
Terms like “game-fixing” and “point-shaving” seem archaic. In fact, the last major college gambling scandal in any sport was 10 years ago. But gambling on college football alone remains a giant industry. An estimated $8 billion is wagered on the sport per season.
College basketball betting scandals have been most common for obvious reasons. The number of participants needed to influence an outcome is smaller than football. But in 2018, CBS Sports detailed. It turned out to be much more common than previously thought.
Holt broke it down further by explaining how to influence “micro portions” of a game.
“It’s a much easier proposition to go to a player and say, ‘Look, I hope your team wins by 50, but I need you throw two interceptions. I can’t have you throw any touchdowns today, so when you get in the red zone, run the football.’ That’s an easier case to manipulate. You don’t care what the team’s performance is,” he explained.
How could this be determined in real time?
“The more data we’re able to get, the more real bets we’re able to get, the more identification we can do [and] the better off we’ll be. The fixers — especially when it comes to individual performance props [prop bets] — are always ahead of integrity monitors like us,” said Holt, noting that “abnormal event activity” is identifiable on an individual level.
“… [We would say,] ‘Hey, this quarterback never throws at interception. It was weird he did it in the second quarter against a team like that. [And] oh, by the way, we have correlating information there is 300 bets over $1,000 that he would throw an interception in the second quarter.'”
It is because sports gambling has become so available, universal and increasingly legal in the college space that Holt’s services are in demand in the first place. Theallowing state-sponsored sports betting necessitated his four-year-old company emerging as an industry leader. The likes of the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and MAC have partnered with U.S. Integrity for advice in the coming tsunami of college betting.
It’s taken the 4 ½ years since that decision for college athletics to begin realizing both the profits and the implications of the newly legal sports betting landscape. Improprieties are a concern in the college space, but much like alcohol being introduced into stadiums a few years ago, fun increasingly sells.
Thirty-two states will have adopted sports betting to some degree by early 2023. Colorado, LSU and Maryland have already signed sponsorships with gaming companies. In March, the MAC became the first FBS conference to license its data (statistics) for betting purposes. That same month, the Pac-12 signed a similar deal with Tempus Ex Machina.
“More and more schools are looking at it because it’s legal,” Colorado athletic director Rick George told CBS Sports. “There’s some value in that. If you think of 20 years ago, people started selling beer [at games]. That was a taboo that most people didn’t embrace. I think you’ll see an evolution [in gambling] as well.”
Societal mores are changing. The NCAA has lessened its penalties for marijuana at the same time many states are turning the sale of the drug into a cash cow. The same with gambling as on-site sportsbooks are sprouting up next to the stadiums where games are played.
“Will there come a time when a school decides they want to put a betting kiosk in the stadium?” asked Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane’s Sports Law School.
The answer seems obvious, raising various concerns. State laws are not yet uniform and may never be. Players, coaches and staff have always been vulnerable as parties who could be approached to influence games.
Anti-wagering language in the NCAA rules manual has been adjusted to reflect those changing societal values. To do its deal, the MAC asked the NCAA to clarify its longstanding gambling bylaw (10.3), which states that schools cannot “provide information to individuals involved in … any type of sports wagering.”
That seemed to be exactly what the MAC was doing, and it made sense. Its partner, Genius Sports, is also the official data partner of the NFL and EPL.
“I admire the MAC for doing it,” said Tom McMillen, CEO of Lead1 Association, which represents the FBS ADs. “I believe all the conferences will do it.”
The NCAA continues to prohibit betting on any sport it sponsors. However, those mores continue to change amid what promises to be potential bumpy introduction of widespread legal wagering in college sports. The convergence of what is left of the collegiate model and gambling will take some time to be refined.
“We don’t have a month go by during the [academic year] where there’s not at least one real issue around misuse of inside information,” Holt added. “People being inappropriately paid, people being inappropriately compensated and disclosing information to betting groups who look to take advantage of it.”
Holt has emerged as one of the most compelling figures in the new college wagering scene. He has spoken directly with coaches at spring meetings about the risks of gambling and its influence. An Air Force veteran, he got a sports marketing degree from Morehead State. His biography says he has “a suite of algorithms and proprietary tools to detect game manipulation.”
Not coincidentally, U.S. Integrity is as old as that Supreme Court decision.
“The integrity of the game may be safer now because so much of this is regulated,” Feldman said. “But all of these issues are unique to college sports … college athletes are still going to be, for the most part, underpaid and unpaid and extremely susceptible to taking money to fix games.”
If it wasn’t for the convergence of COVID-19, NIL and NCAA transformation dominating the news, Feldman believes legal state-sponsored gambling would be a much bigger issue.
“The legalization of sports betting is almost an afterthought,” he said. “In any other time period, this would be the No. 1 story by far. This is the one thing that the sports leagues and NCAA agree could destroy the game.”
The influence of NIL is a further mind bender. Does that added income make an athlete more likely to gamble or less likely to be influenced because they are better compensated? Now add in new technology, new laws and a new willingness to embrace college gambling.
College athletics is always looking for additional streams of income — whether in times of financial strife or otherwise. It added a 12th regular-season football game in 2006 for just that purpose. Media rights deals funded the explosion in coaches’ salaries and the facilities boom.
Why wouldn’t capitalizing on legalized sports betting be the next investment?
“What it’s doing from my seat, it’s converting an asset and being paid for it. Taking control of that,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told CBS Sports regarding his conference licensing its statistics.
Genius Sports, that London-based global sports data and technology firm, purchased those MAC rights. It then sells that data to sportsbooks. The profit part of the endeavor has to do with the “latency” of that data, the time between action actually occurring and when it is posted electronically for betting purposes.
Twenty years ago, that latency period was 30 seconds to a minute. The current latency period is fractions of a second. Advantage to whoever owns that moment in time and can get that information to gamblers quicker than anyone else. The tactic is similar to that described in Michael Lewis’ 2014 book about Wall Street, “The Flash Boys.”
Talk about making those mid-week MAC games a lot more interesting.
“You’ve got to take what just happened, whatever that is, turn it into a proposition, assessing odds, [then] you’ve got to publish it and then you’ve got to take the bet,” explained Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, who like a lot of his peers is interested in future gaming possibilities. “That’s all got to happen in, like, a second.”
Transparency continues to be a major issue in this transition because injuries aren’t fully reported by college coaches on a consistent basis. Sometimes, they are not reported at all. A few years ago, the ACC tried standardizing the reporting of injuries, but the initiative kind of fell apart when coaches stopped adhering to the policy.
“If not for gambling, there would not be a mandated injury report in the NFL,” Holt said.
He added: “We constantly tell colleges, ‘If you continue to hide information for gamesmanship or competitive advantage purposes, you are putting your student-athletes, trainers, equipment managers and assistant coaches in a heightened risk category.’ When betting groups start to figure out, ‘Hey, this coach won’t disclose injury information,’ … now there is real value to getting that inside information.”
Proposition bets — wagers on in-game outcomes that have nothing to do with the final score — are a concern because of the potential additional pressure it puts on athletes. Savvy bettors have even found an opening exploiting women’s basketball.
Holt said women’s college sports has been “extremely vulnerable” to impropriety across the last decade. Why?
“It’s because the bettors are smarter or more attentive to what happens in the women’s basketball game or there could be some funny business because the athletes don’t make that much money,” Holt added.
Gambling and its scandals are woven into the history of the NCAA. It was the epic point-shaving scandal in 1950-51 that involved seven schools and 33 players that eventually led to the establishment of an enforcement division.
More than 70 years later, not all the factors are accounted for in a new, emerging betting market. How can they be when 40% of the country hasn’t yet adopted legal sports betting?
“That’s the question, right?” Swarbrick said. “If it’s sponsorship and data, it’s OK. Prop bets change everything. That’s one I might go down with the ship on. I hate the dynamic of that.”
Holt explains the dangers of those prop bets this way: “With millions of bets for a game, how do you decide which ones are suspicious? … That makes it really hard for companies like mine to catch.”
Jack Blair still takes a walk around his car each time he leaves the house. As far as he knows, there is still a hit out on his life. Blair, 80, is a former FBI special agent who busted mob figures involved in match-fixing and point shaving. In the late 1970s, Blair uncovered the basketball recruiting scandal known as “Lobogate” at New Mexico.
“My concern is anytime you’re talking about allowing a contestant to be involved in a sports bet, he can affect the outcome of the game,” Blair told CBS Sports. “He can get the whole team involved. It’ll happen. I guarantee.”
In 2021, the FBI developed an Integrity in Sports and Gaming initiative, in part, as a reaction to that Supreme Court decision.
“These games, the professional leagues and collegiate games … and Final Four, all the sports in the NCAA ranks are viewed as societal institutions that we would want to protect,” an FBI official told CBS Sports.
That official, whom the FBI allowed to speak with CBS Sports under the condition of anonymity, said the bureau shares the same concerns as the NCAA and integrity institutions that work with colleges.
“It’s like a wave,” the official said. “They can’t really stop it, and we just hope we can have enough collective education [that] the players can stay away from any trouble areas.”
“The upside of it is, the money is talking,” said TCU AD Jeremiah Donati. “There is direct correlation between sports gambling and viewership. … In an era where TV media rights are more [lucrative] than ever, there’s more at stake than ever. They have a direct impact on how these conferences are being shaped.”
Gambling shaping conference realignment? Why not? We’re not that far from every major football and basketball program having an official gaming partner.
It’s getting harder to remain insulated from sports betting. What was once the domain of Las Vegas is now nearly nationwide, actually worldwide. Add cell phones as a primary betting device along with in-stadium betting, and the U.S. may be just catching up.
“Coming from a country where the one of the Queen’s hobbies is having a bet on the horses, it is so deeply ingrained in the British culture,” said Sean Conroy, executive vice president of Genius Sports. “When you speak to many Brits, they’re not aware [of the U.S.’ more conservative gaming culture] and they’re shocked.”