Tennis may not be as big as football or basketball, but – largely thanks to Wimbledon and despite the histrionics of John McEnroe in his pomp – it is known for sportsmanship. This wholesome image makes the sport very appealing to sponsors, but is now under threat from a serious match-fixing scandal.
Details of the scandal can be found in sports pages across the web, but here’s the gist. An unlikely alliance between the BBC and Buzzfeed News uncovered evidence of match-fixing by 16 male players ranked 50 or above at some point over the last decade. More seriously, they alleged that the tennis authorities failed to act on a 2008 report into the cheating, which they kept out of the public domain.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which governs the men’s sport, has strongly denied turning a blind eye or that the cheating was widespread or severe. It defended the body set up in 2008 to police the sport, the Tennis Integrity Unity (TIU), and said the evidence in the report wasn’t strong enough to take action.
Let’s assume for the moment that the ATP is right and these allegations are indeed unfair. What is it to do? As business long ago discovered (and as both Seb Blatter and the athletics world are even now discovering), denial and protest do little to allay suspicions. ‘There’s no smoke without fire’ rings true for a lot of people.
This won’t go away until the ATP is seen to do something to address it. This could be a high-profile investigation into the (largely historic) allegations or it could be a detailed report into exactly what evidence it was presented with and how and why it dealt with it the way it did, but simply dismissing the scandal won’t be enough.
It’s true that it’s a delicate situation for the ATP, with players’ reputations and livelihoods on the line, and nobody wants a witch hunt. It’s also true that it doesn’t need to respond to scandals in the same way that businesses do – unlike VW, BP or the banks, there is no trigger happy regulator lurking in this story. But the reputation and integrity of tennis itself is at stake. Sponsors considering pouring funds into a tennis event might just play it safe and go with golf instead. Something needs to be done.
Just how much money is in tennis? Read MT's feature on this increasingly profitable sport.