In November 2021, Calvin Ridley, a wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons, placed several multi-legs parlay bets on his team through the Hard Rock Casino app, totaling $1,500.
The gamble could end up costing him $11 million.
A few days later, Ridley, who was on a non-football related illness list, tried to place another bet and his activity was flagged by Hard Rock and Genius Sports, the U.K.-based tech platform that provides play-by-play statistics and data to sports betting and media companies for the NFL, NBA, NCAA, FIFA, EPL, and dozens of other leagues.
Genius’ integrity services arm, which monitors betting markets across hundreds of thousands of sporting events, alerted the NFL that one of their players broke the league’s cardinal rule: do not bet on football. And last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Ridley for at least the 2022 season, meaning he will forfeit his multimillion-dollar salary.
“The process worked,” says Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, explaining that guarding against gambling by players and team personnel is one of the reasons the league contracted with Genius Sports in April 2021. “Integrity of the game is crucial to the health of the NFL.”
Genius Sports, which was founded 20 years ago by entrepreneur Mark Locke and went public on the New York Stock Exchange last year through a special purpose acquisition company deal, puts all 16,000 players, coaches and NFL staff through educational seminars and tutorials about the league’s gambling rules. Players are allowed gamble but not on football; staff members cannot place a wager on any sport. During every game, Genius monitors betting activity to look out for anomalies.
Simon Martyn, the director of integrity at Genius Sports, says that even though his division is not a major revenue-driver for the company—that’s the data and statistics division—it is a foundational service that prevents entire sports leagues from crumbling.
“The reason we all love sport, at the end of the day, is the unpredictable nature, isn’t it?” says Martyn. “We trust the sport, we turn up knowing that any result can happen. So it’s important that we have measures in place, which protect that because without it, you’re going to undermine everything. We’re talking about a threat to the whole commercial ecosystem. It’s in the interest of everyone to have a clean sport that has the proper integrity measures in place.”
The cornerstone of Genius Sports’ integrity division is its bet monitoring system. Genius has a predictive algorithm that suggests what a particular wagering market should look like and what the odds should be based on what’s going on before and during a particular event. The company’s database includes key historical records on teams, players, and competitions, which also inform the algorithm. “We look for suspicious odds movements,” says Martyn, “by monitoring both regulated and unregulated bookmakers.”
If the system catches any deviation from the predicted outcome, the company will flag it and investigate. The company then forwards any suspicious activity to sportsbooks and leagues that cannot be easily explained.
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“If the money line were to change drastically in one team’s favor, that would be flagged in our system,” Martyn says. “We want to see movements that can be explained by genuine sporting factors—team news changes or weather. Can it be explained? If it can’t be explained, there’s a further investigation.”
Athletes are subject to a different standard of monitoring by Genius, leagues and sportsbooks. “There is a level of information sharing where appropriate and required,” says Martyn. “It’s in the interest of everyone to have a clean sport that has the proper integrity measures in place.”
One of the most high-profile scandals Genius Sports helped to uncover was a fixed FIFA soccer match. On November 12, 2016, Joseph Lamptey, a Ghanaian soccer referee, awarded a penalty kick to South Africa during a match against Senegal during a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup. The penalty, for a handball, was a sham—the ball clearly hit Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly on his leg. South Africa won 2-1. A couple days later, Sportradar, Global Lottery Monitoring System, Starlizard Sports Betting Consultancy and Genius Sports all filed reports that the sports betting market for that game showed “irregular” movements and showed evidence that gamblers knew what the score would be ahead of time. FIFA’s judicial body banned Lamptey for life and the Court of Arbitration for Sport found him guilty of “unlawfully influencing match results” to “make pertinent bets successful.”
The 1,500-employee company is large in size, but not in financials. Genius Sports has a $922 million market cap and it increased its revenues by 75% in 2021, hitting $263 million, over 2020. But it reported a $592 million net loss last year and a dramatic 90% drop in EBITA from 2020 to a meager $1.6 million.
As for future Calvin Ridleys, Genius Sports would not reveal the number of suspicious activity reports it sends to the professional leagues. When asked if these types of incidents are getting worse as sports gambling is now legal in 30 states across the U.S., Martyn says legalization has helped with transparency and information sharing. “I wouldn’t characterize it as an issue that we’re constantly rooting out,” he says. “It’s something that we are working with everyone in the industry to put in place the best practices that protect the integrity of their sport.”