Sports betting integrity leader ESSA is working towards broadening its reach in Asia, as the latest statistics from the group reinforce the region's growing reputation as a match-fixing hotspot.
ESSA's Secretary General Khalid Ali recently told AGB in an interview that he sees greater regulation in the region as ultimately being inevitable in the fight to stamp out corruption in sports, although it may be a slow process.
The organization is a major player in the fight against match-fixing, representing many of the world's major related sports betting operators and holding positions on working groups like the European Commission, Council of Europe and International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Formerly known as the European Sports Security Association, in 2014 ESSA sought to rebrand and moved into Asia, with betting goliath the Hong Kong Jockey Club joining the network of operators whose participation forms the basis of the group's alert system.
As well as detecting possible instances of fraud in sports betting, ESSA also acts as an advocate for the regulated betting sector at national and international match-fixing policy forums.
ESSA was joined this week by Sporting Index, a British-based market leader in the field of sports spread betting, growing the group's membership to 19 betting operators, including major players like William Hill, Ladbrokes and bet365.
Now the next frontier is the relatively unregulated world of Asian sportsbooks and government operators, and late last month Ali travelled to the region, speaking at the iGaming Asia Conference and meeting with key industry stakeholders.
"We are looking to build partnerships with potential new members,” Ali told AGB during his visit. “If you are a betting operator then we all have a common interest in working together.”
The latest figures from ESSA outlined 11 suspicious alerts worldwide in the first quarter of 2016 – and five of them occurred in Asia, after 24 occurrences out of a total of 100 emanated from the region in 2015.
“If one of our members sees anything that is suspicious – like a lot of bets coming in a short space of time on a particular event, maybe support for a weaker team, big price movements, a lot of bets coming from one place, a lot of new accounts being created or activated – it doesn't mean it is match fixing necessarily, but if any of our members see anything like this, they go into the system, send out an alert and the other 18 members will receive the alert and are asked to respond within an hour," Ali explained. “When that information is gathered, our head of security will look at the information, if we have enough evidence to believe there is something suspicious we will pass it on to the relevant sporting organization.”
Ali said that the latest developments in Europe, and what he calls “the politicizing” of the sports betting world, would eventually have a ripple effect into Asia – a market still in a relatively formative stage of its development as far as regulation goes.
ESSA is an observer in important policy-making forums like the EU and works to ensure there is a proper understanding of the industry from government bodies.
“That's the value of ESSA – our raison d'etre is the alert system, but we are also in these different forums explaining how our industry works. So that is where the value add is,” Ali said. “We have a voice at these policy forums – we are with the European Commission working group and we were involved in the drafting of the Council of Europe convention on match fixing. When it was first being drafted there was a lot of stuff in there that was going to kill the operators – they wanted to restrict in-play betting, and a lot of restrictions on betting markets, which has been proven not to assist in integrity measures at all. It was just because the lawmakers don't understand the betting markets – we came in and helped changed around 80 percent of it. We are there to raise awareness and the industry needs that advocacy at the political level.”
ESSA's influence is also felt with support for the actual participants in sport, with a ground-breaking education program for athletes introduced in 2010. “We rolled out the program to more than 15,000 athletes, it is a code of conduct that works off key principles that help players understand the responsibilities they have and how to prevent match-fixing. It also allowed former athletes to come back and speak to current athletes."
So what does this have to do with Asia? – well-known as the epicentre of sports betting, but where operators are still often lurking in grey markets. Certain jurisdictions are also beset by money laundering issues and overall, action has been slow in coming in the fight against match fixing.
"It is different in Asia – the way the things are done here,” admitted Ali, who foresees far greater scrutiny on the horizon for Asian sportsbooks. “It won't happen immediately, but eventually fingers will be pointed at certain jurisdictions and questions will start being asked, I think it inevitable.”
Ali also said membership with ESSA also brings a certain amount of credibility to organizations, given the strict criteria required for joining.
"We have a very strict code of conduct for our member organisations," he said. "We have a due diligence process, because we want to make sure that the members that come into our organisation are of the highest quality – if we have one bad egg the whole thing falls down."
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