As the athletic director at Northwestern, Jim Phillips opposed the legalization of gambling on college athletics. Now, as the ACC’s commissioner, Phillips is tasked with preparing the conference and its member schools for that very reality.
“We’re all trying to get a hold of this thing before it spins too fast,” said Phillips. “I don’t know that I’ve moved off of that stance considerably since a few years ago, but what I would say is, it’s going to take a more concerted effort by all of us to try to get to the right place as it relates to sports wagering.”
In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), ruling that the 1992 federal law banning sports gambling in every state except Nevada was unconstitutional.
That ruling allowed individual states to legalize gambling on sports.
Currently, 21 states (plus Washington, D.C.) — including Virginia — have legalized wagering on sports. Eight others have approved it and are finalizing regulations. Ohio, Massachusetts and North Carolina could soon join that list.
In February, Phillips took over the ACC reins, and the intersection of legalized sports betting and college athletics was among the issues he identified as needing attention. The league’s annual meetings in May included a presentation by Sportradar Integrity Services, a company that works with Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL and NASCAR in the U.S. and many sporting leagues abroad to ensure integrity in competition.
The ACC hired Sportradar to provide end-of-season summaries on the betting markets for all of the conference’s 27 sports to try to get a big-picture look at what that risk level is.
During the presentation, a Sportradar integrity expert explained the company’s four pillars when it comes to sports gambling, said Andy Cunningham, head of integrity for the company’s United States operations.
First, intelligence, where data from betting markets is monitored for irregularities and relationships are forged between leagues and sports books and regulators.
Second is having rules and regulations in place to guard against and address issues that can arise due to sports gambling.
Third is education, making sure athletes and officials understand both the rules of the league as it relates to sports betting, match fixing and sharing of inside information, and also that they know what to do if they are approached by someone seeking to influence the outcome or score of a game.
“Recognize, resist and report,” said Cunningham.
NCAA rules prohibit athletes and coaches from betting on sports that the NCAA offers.
Finally, there is investigation, where a league can look into possible cases of integrity breaches.
“It was giving them an understanding of which of their events have a wagering market, the size of that market, and then understanding what can be done off the back of that,” said Cunningham.
Sportradar works with over 80 sports leagues around the world and said that of the more than 600,000 games it monitored in the past year, only 500 were flagged as suspicious, Cunningham said. The majority of those were in soccer and tennis, though competitions in sports as diverse as table tennis and esports were among that list.
How prevalent is match fixing in American sports?
“From my experience, serious instances would be very few and far between across sport in the U.S.,” said Cunningham. “But the risk is there.”
Brad Hostetter, the ACC’s deputy commissioner and chief of internal affairs, said one of the conference’s big concerns is the possibility that athletes might divulge inside information on injuries or lineups that could be used to influence betting.
Education, he said, is the key to combating that. He said the ACC’s member schools indicated to the conference that they thought education should be handled at the campus level by compliance departments, and Hostetter said the ACC supports that approach.
Virginia launched legalized sports wagering in January, has 10 companies licensed to take bets and, earlier this month, became the fastest state to pass the $1 billion wagered mark.
For UVA athletic director Carla Williams, arguably a larger concern than any potential game fixing or point shaving is an increase in toxic interactions, particularly on social media, between frustrated gamblers and college athletes, an issue that figures to expand as legalized gambling reaches more bettors.
“Along with gambling comes people who get upset about losing money, and now with social media and access to student-athletes, it’s easier to reach out with a grievance about that,” said Williams. “So, I do worry about that for young people who are trying to play sports, to get an education, to impact the community, to be subject to that. That’s very difficult.”
And it’s another issue on which the ACC is keeping its eyes.
“We now have a scenario where students are sitting next to student-athletes in a classroom who they just openly bet on, potentially, this past weekend and lost money because of a missed field goal or an interception or whatever it may be,” said Hostetter. “That creates a new dynamic that I don’t think we had before it was legalized.”
It’s just another challenge associated with legalized sports betting, another reason why Phillips didn’t support it then and why it presents problems for him now.
“It’s really difficult,” said Phillips. “Incredibly difficult.”