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How gambling 'courtsiders' are affecting tennis

Julian Finney/Getty Images

The most important point in any tennis match is the last point. Brad Hutchins was aware of this. And he knew it was lucrative.

"The match point is a gimme," said Hutchins, the author of "Game Set Cash! Inside the Secret World of International Tennis Trading," a new book about live tennis betting. "That's the only point during the match where you can bet after the fact and just take free money.

"Same goes with retirements [due to injury] -- both morally questionable and not something I was involved with, but others were."

Hutchins, from Australia, is a former member of a small fraternity of individuals that travels the world attending professional tennis tournaments for the purpose of transmitting data in real time to employers who are often continents away.

They are called "courtsiders," a word that is toxic to tennis governing bodies and tournament officials.

"Courtsiding [is] a major issue, as it provides fast, low-quality, inaccurate data to unscrupulous bookmakers and betting operators," said Mark Locke, CEO of Sport Integrity Monitor, a global technology and betting data company.

A former courtsider described the practice in a textured BBC News interview earlier this year:

"You would sit on court for as long as you were needed pressing the buttons, which were sewn into my trousers and relay the scores back to London. You'd press one for [Novak] Djokovic, two for [Andy] Murray, for example, as fast as you could. ... The purpose of us being there is that we can send back information a lot faster than TV or betting companies can get the data."

"The analogy is to high-frequency trading on the stock exchange, where facilitated by computer programs, a microsecond advantage can translate into profit," wrote scholar Jack Anderson in a new academic article on the topic.

In recent years, the acronym soup of tennis governing bodies -- WTA Tour for women's tennis, ATP World Tour for men's tennis and ITF for the four Grand Slams -- has invested in resources to fight back against data dissemination by unapproved third parties, like the now-retired Hutchins.

A London-based entity called The Tennis Integrity Unit helps tournament officials crack down on courtsiders. So-called spotters are retained on-site to ferret out courtsiders. Signs like the one on the left have also sprouted up at tennis tournaments.

The same language is also in small print on the back of tickets. Even passes for credentialed media now include similar prohibitions on the transmission of real-time information.

Why?

Data, especially if it is quickly transferred, can be packaged and sold. The WTA and ATP recently inked an exclusive deal with a data partner that extends through 2020. Gambling businesses are among the target customers.

"A few years ago, the WTA and ATP got together and collectively moved to control, gather and distribute real-time data," said Jorge Salkeld, senior vice president at Octagon, a global sports management firm. "They did it in a way where the money was collected and pooled so it would go back to the tournaments and players.

"With tennis as probably one of the most popular sports worldwide to bet on, it was really important that the tours do this. In addition, the tours have made sure the TV broadcasts have a short delay of a few seconds so as not to feed the gambling. This works for everyone."

The United States Tennis Association, the national governing body and organizer of the U.S. Open starting on Aug. 31, has entered into the instant-data-for-gambling biz, too.

"We are excited to announce a deal for live web streaming," wrote USTA executive Brian Earley in a July 2012 email obtained by ESPN Chalk. "The revenue is being generated through legal betting sites in Europe."

Courtsiding was prominently spotlighted in January 2014, when a British man was arrested for transmitting real-time data back to London during the Australian Open tennis tournament. The man's employer, London-based Sportingdata, issued a news release after the incident, emphasizing how the practice was unrelated to any corruption issues.

The Australian criminal prosecution based on a new sport integrity law was quickly dropped, making the arrest an outlier. Like card-counters in casinos, courtsiding could violate house rules at the tournament, but the practice is not -- for now, at least -- illegal. Courtsiders who get smoked out by on-site personnel are most commonly escorted from the premises and handed a cease-and-desist letter telling them not to return. The resulting cat-and-mouse game has moved some courtsiders to don disguises in an effort to avoid detection.

Despite these obstacles, the practice has continued, with the ensuing debate highlighting the importance of high-quality real-time data.

"The notion of high-quality, officially-sanctioned data is crucial in a successful regulated betting environment," said Sport Integrity Monitor's Mark Locke. "The collection and distribution of unofficial data by courtsiders to unscrupulous operators -- based in the Caribbean in the U.S. context -- is a major threat to a clean and successful sports gambling infrastructure in the U.S. and beyond."

While an "official" tennis data feed is now available, the straight-from-the-stands variety is still attractive for some gambling syndicates trading matches in real-time. The continued preference for courtsider-sourced data is a result of the official feed coming from the tennis umpire sitting up in a chair, Hutchins explained in a recent interview with ESPN Chalk.

"Such data is generally OK, but it's still a lot slower than any courtsider because the umpire's No. 1 priority is to oversee the match," Hutchins said. "They have a lot more to think about each point and are not as reliable or quick.

"Having someone there firsthand to report injuries, player mindset and fitness is very valuable."

The chasm between official live data streams and those from purportedly unauthorized providers persists.

"As an industry, we need to do more to bridge this gap," Locke said. "The integrity of the in-play data collection and distribution process must be preserved, and to do this, there has to be a frank and open international debate with all stakeholders, such as policy influencers, sports governing bodies and betting operators."