Tennis has a long and complicated relationship with the betting industry, especially at the lower levels, where prize money is often significantly less than what match-fixers are offering.
Now, however, with professional tennis halted during the coronavirus pandemic, a talent agency and tournament organizer have turned to sports betting to generate the revenue needed to get players back on the court as safely as possible.
Topnotch Management teamed with Genius Sports, an international data and integrity-monitoring company, to produce Topnotch Tennis Tours MatchPlay 120 series, a six-week event (beginning on May 25) featuring some ATP and WTA players ranked inside the top 300. Players will share upward of $150,000 in participation fees. Sam Querrey (ATP No. 40) and Jennifer Brady (WTA No. 48) are among the highest-ranked players in the event.
The matches (all singles) will take place at four venues in Florida, California and Ohio and will be streamed online. Several U.S. sportsbooks in multiple states are already taking bets on the event.
Prior to the pandemic, Topnotch estimates that more than 80 personnel were required to put on tournaments. The MatchPlay 120 events will have fewer than 10 on site, including players and chair umpires. There will be no fans, no ball retrievers and no television announcers. Social-distancing protocols will be in place, including requiring players to use different sets of balls when serving.
"The last match I played, my set [of balls] has X's on them and hers did not, so they were clearly able to distinguish between the two," Shelby Rogers, the 113th-ranked player in the WTA, said. "And then when you go to pick it up, you just use your racket. You don't touch it."
Genius Sports will produce a livestream of the matches, using an HD camera app powered by artificial intelligence, and distribute the streams, odds, scores and other data to its sportsbook clients. Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are among the states that have approved betting on MatchPlay 120, with sportsbooks PointsBet, DraftKings, BetMGM and Bet365 among the operators already offering wagering on the matches.
"I cannot emphasize enough how weird it is -- and honestly how challenging -- to manage an event that has four match courts in four different locations, almost entirely remotely," Topnotch event director Kyle Ross told ESPN. "We're leveraging every bit of technology and communication tools we can."
The streamlined production of the event, the video stream and partnerships with sportsbook operators could provide a roadmap for other lower-tier sports to return to play and gain exposure, said Chris Dougan, chief communications officer for Genius Sports.
"I imagine that there are other sports out there that are looking at this system and saying, 'Why not?'" Dougan said.
Tennis' relationship to sports betting remains a concern for some, but Dougan said his company's experience in the industry allows it to advise event organizers on best practices to prevent match-fixing. Genius Sports provides technology and integrity support to many sports leagues, including the NBA and Premier League.
"If you look at it anywhere else in the world, where sports betting occurs, there is a recognition of a transparent, regulated market where sports betting is seen as a business that is legitimate," Dougan said. "It has a vested interest that sports maintains its integrity because if a sport loses its integrity, they lose their customers. They lose trust. I think the relationship between sports and sports betting needs to be transparent and fair so that sports have a fair return on their content."
Still, lower-level tennis tournaments, with smaller prize pools, remain targets for match-fixers. Retired pro Ronnie Schneider, who played two years on the lower circuits, said attempts to compromise matches were prevalent. Not all attempts were successful, but plenty were, and many of them went undetected, Schneider said.
"I just don't think there's any way they're going to stop it," Schneider told ESPN of match-fixing attempts, "but they're certainly getting it out there and putting the fear in the players."
The ITF, ATP or WTA do not sanction the Match120 series, but participants are subject to the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program (TACP), which prohibits players from betting or encouraging anyone to wager on a tennis event. Player sponsorships with betting companies also are not allowed under the TACP.
"We understand that these will be attractive opportunities to many of you eager to play and to earn an income," the Tennis Integrity Unit said April 15 in a published release. "While the playing opportunities created are welcomed, we must advise you that there may be an elevated risk of corruption and corrupt approaches in some of these environments."
Prize money can range from $15,000 at the lowest-level futures events to $150,000 at the biggest Challenger tournaments. Offers from match-fixers at times dwarf potential winnings for players, especially those who don't advance far in tournaments.
Schneider said he was approached to compromise a match while competing in a low-level futures tournament in February 2018 in the United Kingdom. After winning his first match, he received a private message on Instagram from someone he didn't know congratulating him on his performance and wishing him luck. Schneider responded with a thank you. The next message he received from the account got more to the point.
"He ended up offering me £20,000 [roughly $25,000]," Schneider recalled. "It wasn't even to throw the whole match. It was for one or two specific games in the match. That's not an atypical story from being out there."
Schneider did not respond, took screenshots of the interaction, provided them to the ITF supervisor on site and responded to a series of questions in detail from the Tennis Integrity Unit.
"I probably made like $400 from that tournament," he said.
Ryan Rodenberg contributed to this story.