Sports Betting – Are Games Fixed?

Written by: Joseph Falchetti, Editor-in-Chief, Pro Sports Bettor and Casino Expert
Last updated:
8 minute read

There’s plenty of disagreement on this issue when it comes to those in the industry and the sports betting masses. There’s no doubt that there have been instances of match fixing and point shaving throughout the history of sports and sports betting. However, the true question is, how prevalent are fixes in today’s betting market?

If you happen to be in Vegas sportsbook on an NFL Sunday, or you are frequently around people who bet sports, you will likely hear them cry fix quite often. “This game is rigged!” or, “The fix is in!” are just some of the phrases you might hear when things down go their way. It’s not that fixing a game is impossible. It’s certainly been done plenty of times throughout the history of sports, but in today is less likely for a number of reasons.

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The last betting scandal to take the US sports world by storm was in 2007 in the NBA. NBA referee Tim Donaghy fed information to sports betting syndicates and bet on games that he officiated. Donaghy was investigated by the FBI and has several connections to organized crime. He ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 months in prison in August 2007. Hilariously, once Donaghy was released from prison, he turned into a sports betting consultant otherwise known as a tout.

Is Sports Betting Rigged – The Fix (Most Likely) Isn’t In

Donaghy’s tale is one to consider, but it’s not as if he was right every time. Much of Donaghy’s value came from knowing the coaches, other referees and how the league wanted the games officiated at the time. Even then, he was often wrong about the betting advice he gave and lost bets on games that he officiated himself. Overall, he did offer an edge to gamblers, but it’s not quite as significant as many think.

To fix a game to make the outcome inevitable, or to even shave points effectively, is an extremely difficult process. We will touch on referees concerning match-fixing a bit later, but paying off an official to call a game isn’t simple.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the “Black Sox Scandal” that took place in the 1919 World Series. The Chicago White Sox intentionally lost games in exchange for money from sports gamblers. The scandal ended with eight players banned for life from the game, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. It also deeply hurt the integrity of league as a whole and led the first commissioner of Major League Baseball to be appointed in 1921.

Baseball History Of Match Fixing During The 1919 World Series In A New York Newspaper Report

One of the reasons that players agreed to fix the Series was because of a lack of free agency in those days, and the small amount of money players earned back then. Almost all the players back then had jobs in the offseason, something that was extremely common until after the Second World War. Many of these guys had families, and they needed extra money. Essentially, they were the perfect target for match fixers and corruption. Today and those salaries have changed drastically.

Yeah, unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s pretty lucrative to be a professional athlete these days. Not only do players make tens of millions of dollars from their salaries alone, but there’s a whole another world of endorsements. Athletes are now a massive part of pop culture as well.

Money & Earnings In Today’s Professional Games

You’re looking at some players who have the potential to make 100+ million in their careers. Even guys who play professional sports for a few years have a chance to make $5-$10 million. Same for the coaches, they’re getting millions per year from the sidelines. Both players and coaches have a chance at a media job or one with the league after they retire as well.

Does one honestly think that many athletes are going to throw it all away just because match fixers approach them? Even if they offered them a substantial sum of money, how could it possibly be worth risking their entire career over? There’s simply no way that athletes would risk their fame and fortune to throw games on a large scale. The theory that a large percentage of professional games are fixed is not rooted anywhere in reality.

Furthermore, match-fixers would likely need several players to shave points to succeed accurately in fixing a game. Forget major stars or coaches, they’re going to be off limits. Even the most powerful match fixers with deep pockets would have a tough time getting several professional players from the same team to throw a game. Articles like this sensationalize the world of fixing and act as if there’s an opportunity on every corner. Athletes with gambling problems or those that may have general financial issues may be more susceptible to corruption, but these guys don’t exactly grow on trees.

Rigged Games Hurt Sports Betting Markets

Las Vegas sportsbooks certainly aren’t involved with match-fixing. It would make little sense to their brand, and if these deeds came to light, it would not exactly help gamblers’ confidence. Sports bettors want to know they’re getting a fair shake. Sure, they’re happy to go along with the oddsmakers’ vigorish and can even deal with a questionable bad call from the referees. However, if bettors honestly thought that every game was likely to be fixed, how likely would they be to continue to gamble on sports?

Indeed, many still would wager on the games, but it’s likely a decent percentage would not. Rigging games and damaging the integrity of sports is bad for everyone involved, not just the professional leagues and the NCAA. It shouldn’t be breaking news that sportsbooks make money when people place bets. Sure, they have some bad days now and again, but overall, they win, consistently. As the amount wagered rises, the profits collected by the sportsbooks rises along with it.

There’s little reason for them to engage in shady dealings or match-fixing simply because they’re already raking in the cash. Reports of widespread match-fixing could potentially hurt public confidence. What about illegal bookies and offshore sites? After all, the vast majority of money wagered in the United States isn’t being bet in Vegas. So, if public confidence in professional leagues went down, they would lose business as well.

Long-Term Profitable Sports Bettors

Another issue is the fact that many handicappers have profited off of sports gambling for decades. If the games weren’t above board and honest, there’s no way there would be sports bettors who would be able to consistently profit. There’s no way that handicappers could overcome large scale point shaving, coaches throwing games or referees that were on the take to manipulate outcomes. The fact that there are long-term winners at sports betting proves more than anything else that the games are nearly universally honest.

Extensive Background Checks For Officials

NFL Referees Are Banned From Certain Bars

Even before the Tim Donaghy fiasco in the NBA, background checks for referees were extensive. Since that scandal, they have gotten even more rigorous. For example, few people realize the extensive background checks required to get the job in the first place and rules that active NFL referees must follow to keep their jobs. These background checks are similar to high-security clearance government jobs.

Their finances are reviewed. The NFL sends investigators to interview friends, family and neighbors and also frequents any local betting establishments to see if the potential referee frequents these facilities. Basically, they want these guys as far away from gambling as possible. Once they become active officials, they are not allowed to step foot in Las Vegas or Atlantic City during the NFL Season. They are also required to notify the league within 24 hours of frequenting a casino.

When traveling to different cities, they are given a list of bars and gaming facilities where gambling activity occurs that they are not allowed to frequent. This isn’t just casinos or sportsbooks, but anywhere that gambling is taking place, legal or illegal. That’s the kind of strictness referees are bound to.

NFL Betting Today

The NFL actively monitors these places to make sure that their staff of officials comply with their rules. Others leagues are slightly less strenuous in terms of background checks and rules for active referees, but it’s not as if they’re a cakewalk. Referees are watched like hawks across all professional sports. If one happens to fall the through the cracks, like in the case of Donaghy, it’s likely he won’t get away with it for long. There is far from an epidemic of referees being working with fixers. In fact, it’s likely extremely rare based on the vetting process of hires and the rules that must be followed once they accept the job.

Mistakes Don’t Count – Preventing Fixed Games

Many bettors will use bad calls or the fact that referees may favor star players or certain teams as a reason for the games not being honest. There have been instances of this throughout all professional sports in the United States, and there are still are today, but this is still far from point shoving or throwing games.

Does a Cy Young winning pitcher get the strike call more than an average starter when a pitch is borderline? You bet. Do NBA superstars benefit from favorable calls compared to other players when it comes to charges and blocking fouls? It sure seems like it. These aspects of the sport are just reality.

NBA Finals Betting Possibly Rigged

Many fans are convinced the NBA “rigged” Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings in favor of L.A. However, after revisiting the game more than a decade later, many agree that there’s no conclusive evidence that this was the case. Teams will occasionally suffer from a bad run of luck, and there may be games where calls don’t go their way. Just because a group of officials has a bad game in a prominent contest, doesn’t mean there’s a vast conspiracy.

With that said, this is the only area where the league may have an influence on the outcome. After all, sports are entertainment. Commissioners may issue directives to referees to not call penalties or fouls on star players or perhaps show bias towards teams in larger markets. However, these instances aren’t exactly commonplace, and almost none of them have been truly confirmed, as mentioned in the Lakers-Kings example above. Most importantly, they’re not happening on a mass scale and offer no evidence of point shaving or match fixing.

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It’s Not Impossible To Fix A Game But Here Are The Facts

Match-fixing definitely happens. It’s just not something that is widespread or commonplace in American professional sports. European soccer, especially lower level clubs and Under 21 matches have been much more prone to fixes than American sports. For US-based sports, NCAA football or basketball would be the most susceptible to corruption due to the lack of salaries for players. But once again, there’s no evidence that point shaving or other forms of corruption are a massive problem in college sports.

Match-fixing is also used as a crutch by bettors who can’t seem to win at sports betting. It’s not only extremely unlikely that the game you are betting on is fixed, but it’s not even something worth considering when you decide to place a wager. So for the most part, focus your efforts in doing great research before betting to actually win, instead of worrying around about a match being fixed or not.

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About the Author

Joseph Falchetti

Joseph Falchetti

Editor-in-Chief, Pro Sports Bettor and Casino Expert

Joe is the author of the majority of sports betting pages on SBS and he serves as a gambling consultant to our content team. He's been mentioned on as a gaming analyst, and his articles have been linked by larger publications, such as the New York Times.

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