Not worth the gamble: match-fixing punishments unclear for CFL players

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The Canadian Football League has taken steps to protect themselves from match-fixing in the wake of legalized single-game sports betting in Canada, but questions remain regarding how the rules are being enforced.

Players are banned from gambling on league games, betting by proxy, or providing insider information that could be used to wager on games or props. Unlike the NFL, CFL players are allowed to bet on other sports regardless of the location or timing.

In his State of the League address, league commissioner Randy Ambrosie said the monitoring of potential match-fixing violations will fall predominantly to Genius Sports, the league’s official data and technology partner.

“It all starts in basically an algorithm-based structure that evaluates bets and gambling based on patterns,” Ambrosie explained. “They are able to scientifically identify areas of concern, areas where there looks to be anomalies and those anomalies then are elevated and there’s a human intervention to look at the data to see whether there’s something there.”

The league has also provided an independent, anonymous hotline for players or staff to report suspicious gambling activity. Sportsbooks also do their own data analysis to identify potential match manipulation, though the amount of that data that’s shared with sports leagues varies significantly based on the operator and the local regulations.

If an issue were identified, the CFL has not specified what disciplinary action would be taken against the offending parties. The commissioner has broad authority to determine supplemental discipline and suspensions at his discretion, with the Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA) revealing in their State of the Union address that they have been provided no official guidelines regarding the punishments for gambling violations, an oversight they are seeking to rectify.

“That’s in the collective agreement, the ability of what the commissioner can do and the league office can do in terms of discipline,” explained CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay. “Our understanding is that would fall under that realm, but I do think that we have the ability to have that conversation more in-depth and it’s something that we should (do). In fact, we’ve talked about having it this offseason in more detail.”

In the wake of increased scrutiny, the NFL announced new disciplinary benchmarks for illicit betting in September. Players who bet on NFL games, bet by proxy, or provide insider information will receive indefinite suspensions of at least one year, with the mandatory minimum ban growing to two years if a player wagers on his own team. Non-NFL betting triggers suspensions of two games for a first offence, six games for a second offence, and one year for a third strike. Actual or attempted match-fixing triggers a permanent banishment from the league.

Over the past two seasons, 10 NFL players have been suspended for gambling-related infractions, including Jacksonville Jaguars’ receiver Calvin Ridley. Prior to 2022, the NFL issued only four suspensions for gambling in the league’s history dating back to 1963.

There’s no public record of the CFL ever issuing a suspension for sports gambling. However, some have suggested that the league’s lower salaries could make players more vulnerable to external influence and incentivize corruption, a narrative that the CFLPA pushed back on.

“I would say there’s a risk anywhere, it doesn’t matter what sport you’re in,” Ramsay said. “But anytime there’s a significant change to a process or you’re implementing something new, the focus has got to be on the education. You have to understand what the program is, you have to understand what the restrictions are, in order to be put in the best position to be successful.”

Since taking over a 10 percent stake in the league’s commercial arm, CFL Ventures, in December 2021, Genius Sports has spearheaded the league’s approach to sports betting, while also handling projects as wide-ranging as the development of a free international streaming platform, CFL+, and the botched roll-out of a new stats system. One branch of the multi-national firm specializes in advanced analysis of betting trends to flag potential issues for in-depth investigation.

“This was one of the benefits of our relationship with Genius because this is an area that they have worldwide experience in,” Ambrosie shared. “We are relying heavily on their local experience and their global platform to help monitor and evaluate our gambling ecosystem to make sure that there are no violations.”

In May, the CFL announced the development of a new match manipulation policy developed in partnership with McLaren Global Sport Solutions (MGSS). All CFL players and staff underwent mandatory education through the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) on the new policy this season. The online course, which takes approximately 30 minutes to complete, highlighted the possible corruption offences and how to report incidents of match manipulation.

“I think education is the first and most critical part of this, to educate our members,” stressed CFLPA president Solomon Elimimian. “We’re seeing this happen in the NFL with players gambling, and it’s one thing to punish guys but if they don’t know the do’s and don’ts, we want to educate those guys.”

Single-game sports betting was legalized in Canada on August 27, 2021, after receiving vocal support from the CFL due to the unprecedented revenue opportunities it presented. Thus far, Ontario is the only province to formally regulate operators.

According to the CCES, a single CFL game can generate as much as $6 million in wagers around the world. Ambrosie was unable to provide specific evidence of revenue growth from sports betting beyond the sponsorship level, instead citing it as a potential force behind the league’s notable uptick in attendance and television ratings in 2023.

Those positive trends can only continue if fans and bettors trust the integrity of the games they are watching, a fact that the commissioner is confident in ahead of the most important contest of the year.

“So far I feel fortunate to say, I feel like the system is working well. Our experts are telling us that the system is working well,” Ambrosie said. “But you have to be forever vigilant on this front because that’s a problem that we simply don’t want to have.”

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes will meet in the 110th Grey Cup on Sunday, Nov. 19 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton. Kickoff is slated for 6:00 p.m. EST.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.