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Real-Time Data Could Corrupt Big-Time Sports

“After a goal is scored, the result is transmitted to a server in Malta and shows up on a screen, before people in the stadium even jump up and scream.”

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As you’re watching the Super Bowl this weekend, keep in mind that behind the scenes, loads of data — and money — is shifting with each and every play. And as real-time data plays a bigger and bigger role in big-time sports, there are more opportunities for corruption.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, James Glanz of The New York Times discusses his reporting on high-speed data in sports, as well as his investigations into daily fantasy sports. To listen, stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app.

Glanz also reveals that over the course of his reporting, he uncovered that the government routinely finds the names of active professional athletes when it takes down gambling rings. Video and a transcript of that part of the conversation are below.

Are pro athletes gambling?

Jody Avirgan: In the last couple years, you hear NFL players talk more explicitly about the fact that they know people have them in fantasy sports and their performance is linked to this proxy game or gambling that’s happening. Does it worry you that players are aware of all this other stuff that’s happening around them?

James Glanz: Yeah. Yeah, it does. In reporting this story, integrity monitors are some of the people I spoke with — we didn’t do a lot about that — but what I hear from them is that unfortunately, even when [sports leagues] are working privately with integrity monitors, it’s not in any of the sports’ interest to really publicize the cases that they actually find. For example, here’s something I’ll give you that we didn’t put into the series.

Avirgan: Are you about to out a player?

Glanz: I’m not going to out a player, but in the United States betting organizations get taken down, prosecuted — sometimes severely if they’re convicted of money laundering and things like that, which is the usual charge — but prosecutors do not go after individual bettors, but they often know who they are. And in ring after ring, in this country, active players are constantly caught up in these dragnets that become criminal prosecutions, but because the players are generally just betting, they’re never named.

What exactly is data?

Avirgan: Over the course of all your reporting, did you land somewhere in terms of how our law should think of what the Internet is — or what data is?

Glanz: I guess I’d turn it around. The Internet doesn’t rule the world. We’re in a nation of laws, and we have to actually change those laws if we want to operate under a different set of operating principles. The Internet calls some of that into question, but in some cases it just takes advantage of people’s ignorance about the way the whole system works — I’m talking about the digital system. So, if you’re running an illegal casino in Chelsea, you’re going to have to own up to it; that’s just the way it works.

Avirgan: But you’re OK with the fact that it’s illegal in Chelsea, but it’s legal in Malta or some Caribbean island?

Glanz: Well, I can’t really help what happens in Malta. I guess the way I’d put it is, that if you’re going to set up your casino in Chelsea, then put a sign out front. Because if what you’re doing is relying on law enforcement’s ignorance about the Internet, I can tell you, the house isn’t going to stand forever, because they’re going to figure that out — and they partly did from our series. That’s an inconvenient fact. Data is like all the rest of us, it exists in a physical place, and you have to take that into account. That’s just the way it is.

Avirgan: What’s next in your reporting?

Glanz: I’m not sure. I think that networking, and I’m talking about this in a very technical sense, is something that now weaves through all of our lives and affects almost every professional area in the United States as well as our personal lives and very few people understand. I’ve just started to get close to how complicated it is, but also how weirdly understandable it is. I’ll probably find another topic that kind of takes me through that world, and I’ll end up again in these places where you’re looking around and you think you’re in the belly of a submarine, but it’s really “the cloud.” I sort of like those places.


If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.


Read more: “Inside the Shadowy World of High-Speed Tennis Betting”

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

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