“Courtsiding” in sport: cheating, sharp practice or merely irritating?

Published 13 March 2015 By: Craig Dickson

Australian Open Tennis Court

International sporting tournaments usually bring to the host country a spectacle of sight, sound colour and the experience of close up encounters with other cultures and languages. At the opening Cricket World Cup (CWC) 2015 match at Hagley Oval however, the local cricket‑watching public were also introduced to perhaps the newest word in the gambling lexicon: ‘courtsiding.’1

Originating in the world of tennis, courtsiding (or ‘pitchsiding’) is the practice of relaying real time information to remote locations in order to take advantage of technological, broadcasting delays that may facilitate the manipulation of bets on what will happen (or already has) by gamblers and/or sports books.

There were a number of people ejected2 from the opening game of the CWC for doing exactly that. Although courtsiding is not illegal in New Zealand (where this author is based) it is a breach of the CWC Ticket Terms and Conditions – that is, the contractual terms that a ticket purchaser enters into when buying the ticket. Those conditions prohibit being engaged in “any form of betting or gambling whatsoever within the Venue3 and the use of “any electronic device to engage in any online betting activities …”.4

It is not hard to see why the International Cricket Council (ICC) is sensitive about the issue.5 Having initially struggled to identify the nature and scope of the gambling and match and spot fixing in their sport, subsequently the ICC have been very proactive and successful in identifying corruption within cricket – prosecuting it and regulating to stop its recurrence.6 Accordingly, the cricket authorities are presumably keen to avoid any unsavoury association with any form of gambling and have moved to ban it from their venues. Basketball New Zealand have taken a similar stance, looking to halt the activity and asking teams to be vigilant.7 That appeals as an entirely appropriate response but beyond that, devising other methods to proscribe courtsiding behaviour is problematic.8

There is clear commonwealth jurisprudence to the effect that there is no ownership of a spectacle9 and none in the facts of the game (e.g. a batsman’s score). Moreover, the mere relaying of real time information to another person outside the ground (even for the purposes of effecting a gambling transaction by another) arguably does not fall under the ambit of ticket terms and conditions, strictly construed.

The new and existing legislation outlawing match fixing10 is of no use as the practice of relaying real-time information does not involve trying to manipulate the result of a match or any event within a match, which is the wording used in the relevant NZ provisions.11 It had been argued that “courtsiding” was illegal under the Gambling Act 2005 (UK),12 but the UK Gambling Commission has indicated that the practice is “unlikely to be an offence” in Great Britain.13 Even so, all major sports have banned the practice under their own ground regulations.

The Australian state of Victoria amended their Crimes Act in 201314 to include a provision proscribing conduct that could affect the outcome of bets placed on an event, which carries a potential penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.15 However, the only person arrested under this provision (at the Australian Open Tennis in 201416) had the charge dropped due to there being “no reasonable prospect of conviction”.17 As the person involved was sending information back to a sports book based in Surrey, jurisdictional and evidentiary issues doubtless played a part in that outcome. Indeed, it needs to be realised that while taking advantage of existing technological delays to try and leverage some personal gain might sound attractive, it is highly unlikely that the bookies are unaware of the issue and do not have measures in place to deal with it. Indeed, as the Australian Open case made clear, some of the alleged courtsiders are employees of the sports bookies relaying real-time information so that that the bookie is not caught out by the technology.18

A puzzling aside to the ejection of the alleged courtsiders at the opening CWC game was the role the NZ Police played in proceedings. They had placed a number of plainclothes officers in the crowd in order to detect courtsiding behaviour and actively participated in removing the identified patrons from the venue.19 However, the breach of conditions on the ticket (which may result in ejection from the venue) remains a contractual breach of the terms agreed between the ticket purchaser and the ICC (a private commercial entity) and/or its agents. Accordingly, as a civil breach, the primary role of enforcing and/or remedying a breach can only be undertaken by one of the parties to the contract – in this case, the ICC or its agents. Where the security staff had asked courtsiders to leave and they refused, they would be trespassing,20 but that does not appear to have been the case. Plus, it was reported that the ejected patrons were taken to a police tent at the ground and interviewed before being ejected21 – which raises the question of what provision they were being questioned under, and what law had been broken.

It is not clear that police constables should be performing a primary role in the enforcement of a breach of private contractual terms. The NZ Police have since outlined that they see their role as ensuring safety and security, ensuring the tournament was a success and to assist security and their partner agencies.22 The first and third of those objectives are uncontroversial but it is difficult to see how the forces of the state should be intervening to proactively support the objectives of a private entity – notwithstanding that governments routinely now have large financial stakes in the operation of such events.23 Arguably, ensuring that plain clothes officers were patrolling the venue in order to identify courtsiders goes beyond the public order mandate of the police forces. Particularly, when those ejected are also detained and interviewed regarding a practice that does not attract criminal sanction.

It is also worth noting in this regard that the two streakers who entered the playing area at the game, were initially apprehended and detained by ground security staff before being handed over to the police. Pitch invasion of that type is a criminal offence under s.27 of the Major Events Management Act (attracting up to 3 months imprisonment or a $5,000 fine).24

The police later outlined that they also saw their mandate as ensuring the terms and conditions of tickets were maintained and have equated their policing of courtsiding as that, in the same way that someone who is intoxicated would also be in breach of the ticket terms.25 Outside of the public security and order role of the police (the breach of which may be duplicated in the ticket terms) however, it is not clear how that can or should be the case.

When placing a bet is not an offence, it is likely that contractually proscribing gambling practices within sporting venues is a rational response by sports bodies wanting to remove any taint of gaming activity from their sport. Whether courtsiding should be seen in the same vein as match or spot fixing is not clear and whether the activity is in some way (illegally) influencing a ‘betting outcome’ remains a moot point.

 

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Author

Craig Dickson

Craig Dickson

Craig Dickson is a senior lecturer in the Law School at AUT University in Auckland where he teaches Sports Law as part of the regular undergraduate LLB electives and he has occasionally appeared in front of sporting disciplinary tribunals. After obtaining an LL.M. at the Centre for Innovation Law and Policy, University of Toronto, he spent some years in private practice before taking up his current position. Craig’s other teaching and research interests include insurance law and intellectual property law and he was recently appointed as inaugural treasurer of the newly formed Asia-Pacific Copyright Association.

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