Cheating in sports falls into two categories. On the one hand, when the rewards for winning dwarf the rewards for coming second, third or lower, the incentive of participants is to use every means possible to win. This can lead to a damaging competition among athletes to take performance enhancing drugs and adopt potentially harmful therapies in the search for excellence. This problem, a consequence of the “winner-take-all” reward structures encouraged by newspapers and media, sponsors and advertisers is most obvious in the Olympic sports where many believe that illegal doping is rife. However, all the major sports have struggled to control the use of performance enhancing drugs and cricket has not stood out as a sport suffering particularly extreme problems in this regard.
The second form of cheating is the one we are concerned with here. It is the reverse of the “winner take all” dilemma. If the rewards to athletes are inadequately differentiated, then there is an incentive for those athletes who are good enough to exert a disproportionate influence on the outcome of a contest to use that power to enhance their income, largely through gambling. This is likely to be exacerbated in sports such as cricket where the individualistic nature of the conflict creates opportunities for betting on performance of particular players2. Of course, when athletes’ incomes are undifferentiated, it is normally because they are all very low. Match fixers are only interested in sports that command significant public interest. Match fixing in recondite sports such as curling is probably a limited problem even though the best curlers probably make very little money.
Most sports can cite examples of this problem. Perhaps the most famous example is that of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Jackson, who held the second highest lifetime batting average in baseball (.354) at that date was earning a mere $6,000 a year (less than $50,000 in today’s money), unquestionably a small reward compared to the attendance income generated by his efforts. The desire to enhance his income by throwing the World Series was his undoing. An example from English soccer illustrates the same point. In 1965 ten players were jailed for conspiracy to defraud by fixing the outcome of matches on which they had placed bets. Most of the matches concerned took place in the early 1960s, when the average footballer earned less than £20 per week which was in fact the maximum wage allowed until its abolition in 1961. The history of cricket has itself not been without instances of corruption of poorly paid professionals (see Birley 1999, Craig 2001).
Match fixing may be motivated by activities other than gambling. In particular, when one team not in contention for a championship title can influence the outcome by it performance, side-payments or non-monetary arrangements are not unknown. Condon (2001) suggests that the “seeds” of the current crisis may have been sown in the atmosphere created by “accommodations” of this kind in the 1970s. However, in any case of match fixing, the fundamental elements of supply and demand must balance. From the point of view of the “buyer”, fixing matches is generally only important when there is a high degree of interest in the sport and so a significant return is to be made by controlling the outcome, usually for the purposes of gambling. The potential match fixer must have the capacity to significantly influence the outcome, so that in general only the stars are likely to be approached. On the “selling” side, the players must balance the reward from fixing against the potential cost of being caught. This cost is the probability of being caught multiplied by the penalty for fixing. In almost all sports the most draconian penalty available to authorities is deprivation of sporting income by exclusion from participation in the sport. Raising salaries of the top players is therefore the main way of raising the penalty to cheating.. Moreover raising salaries is also likely to diminish the attractiveness of additional illicit income. To put it simply a player on $100,000 a year would find a bribe of $100,000 very much more attractive than the same player earning $1,000,000 a year3.
High salaries do not eliminate all forms of cheating, and do not even eliminate match fixing. In particular, if the controllers of the sport are themselves unable to extract a significant proportion of the consumer surplus associated with the sport, then match fixing may be hard to prevent. For example, if 90% of the money spent on the sport is in the form of gambling, while only 10% is generated through the sale of match tickets and broadcast rights, the rewards that someone interested in controlling the outcome of a match or a race may be well in excess of any reward that the event organiser can offer. Any sport that becomes a vehicle for gambling where the gamblers have only a limited interest in the sport itself is at risk. However, high salaries make match fixing less enticing for most players, and means that those players committed to cheating can be more easily detected since they are a relative minority of the profession.