Sports betting is often a game of information, but there’s a fine line between what’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds. Sometimes a peculiar wagering pattern is merely peculiar. Sometimes it crosses over from peculiar to suspicious. And sometimes it goes from suspicious to improper.
As it pertains to a UFC featherweight fight in Las Vegas this past Saturday, at least the first of those lines — from peculiar to suspicious — was crossed, and an investigation is underway to determine whether it went from suspicious to improper as well.
As David Purdum and Marc Raimondi reported for ESPN, Shayilan Nuerdanbieke’s first-round TKO win over Darrick Minner came on the heels of betting that was flagged as suspicious by numerous sportsbooks. Money came in on the favored Nuerdanbieke to win, on him to prevail in the first round, and on the fight to last under 2.5 rounds.
The betting led numerous sportsbooks to contact the Las Vegas-based monitoring firm U.S. Integrity and report what they perceived as suspicious activity — which appeared more suspicious when rumors swelled that Minner was coming into the fight with a leg injury. Just 30 seconds into the fight, Minner kicked at Nuerdanbieke with his left leg and winced in apparent pain after landing. Nuerdanbieke promptly took Minner down and pounded away until the fight was officially stopped after 67 seconds of action.
U.S. Integrity President Matthew Holt was not at liberty to discuss specifics of the incident because there was still an investigation ongoing when Sports Handle spoke with him this week, but he did give indicators of the potential gravity of the situation.
“The information that was sent across was really, really strong,” Holt said. “It’s been rare that we have incidents involving UFC. This was very abnormal.”
When U.S. Integrity receives reports like this, the company sends alerts to the betting operators it works with, accompanied by a mandated response form asking a series of simple questions about the betting on the event in question at that sportsbook and whether it was abnormal in any way.
“This one,” Holt told Sports Handle, “I think we got more responses from operators than basically any alert we sent out in 2022, from operators saying they saw suspicious activity.”
Three avenues of alert
Holt describes U.S. Integrity as “the front-end alerting system for regulated sportsbook operators, the state regulators, and some of the leagues.”
There are three ways alerts can come about. One is U.S. Integrity’s system spotting abnormalities. The company pulls in betting odds from every regulated sportsbook in the country and can monitor their odds on any market in real time for abnormalities. To the untrained eye, it’s an overwhelming array of colorful points and lines and bars layered one on top of another, but the system detects outliers and sends them to an analyst, and that analyst investigates and decides whether an alert is warranted.
“We identify hundreds of abnormalities a month, and probably send out five to 10 alerts,” Holt said.
A second way alerts can be generated is by external integrity organizations, such as FIFA or the IOC, sending U.S. Integrity a report on one of their sporting events.
A third way is how Saturday’s UFC situation went down, with operators sending the initial reports of suspicious activity and U.S. Integrity anonymizing that information and then sharing it with other operators and regulators. The benefits go both ways — operators are made aware there’s a situation to be mindful of, and they report back to U.S. Integrity to give Holt and his team a picture of how widespread the abnormalities are.
“We’re not a law enforcement agency,” Holt clarified. “We’re just a licensed integrity provider. So our obligation is to collect this information, aggregate it all, and then redistribute it to the appropriate people that will actually do investigations. And in this case, that will probably start with the state gaming control boards.”
‘You’ve got to consider every possibility’
The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas was not among the various books in multiple states that experienced abnormal betting on the Nuerdanbieke-Minner fight.
“We saw people betting a little bit on the fight, but nothing that was out of the ordinary,” Westgate Director of Race & Sports John Murray said. “We had some customers betting the favorite, and we moved the price up, we wrote some money on the ‘dog. I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it if it hadn’t been for the reports out there.
“Significant betting on a fight like this would raise my eyebrow, though, because I don’t even know who these guys are — and I follow the UFC. So when you get all this action on a really early prelim fight between two relatively unknown people, that’s concerning. It’s concerning because you know those guys probably don’t make a lot of money. You’ve got to at least think about stuff like that. You’ve got to consider every possibility.”
Murray is not accusing anyone of anything and he made it a point not to speculate about this fight.
For its part, the UFC told ESPN Monday in a statement, “At this time, we have no reason to believe either of the athletes involved in the bout, or anyone associated with their teams, behaved in an unethical or irresponsible manner.”
But it’s easy to conjure a hypothetical scenario worthy of investigation. You don’t have to have a “fixed” fight or a “thrown” fight. What you can have is a fighter who is injured but doesn’t want to forego his payday, and people around him who see an opportunity to make money off the depleted fighter’s near-certain defeat.
Many observers assume that such opportunities for manipulation in conjunction with wagering happen more often in individual sports than in team sports because one athlete controls half the action. But Holt said any imbalance between individual and team sports is owed solely to one outlier sport.
“There are more suspicious incidents on a per-event basis in individual sports than in team sports, but I think those numbers would be a little misleading and skewed because tennis by far has the most issues of any sport in the world when it comes to match fixing and game manipulation,” Holt said. “If we took the tennis numbers out, I think we’d see that it’s really close. Tennis makes it look like you’re five times more likely to have an issue in a one-v-one sport, and then you take tennis out and, oh, they all look about the same.”
With UFC, both Holt and Murray said there is not a pronounced history of incidents on this level. Importantly, in mid-October, UFC announced a new policy barring fighters or their teams from betting on UFC fights.
When is it insider information?
Saturday’s UFC fight is worthy of comparison to two other sports betting abnormalities that garnered attention in 2022.
In January, injured Golden State Warriors veteran Draymond Green planned to start a game (so he could share the court with teammate Klay Thompson in Thompson’s return from injury) and exit at the first stoppage of play, a plan that was revealed on Twitter shortly before tipoff. Some bettors pounced with same-game parlays combining Green prop unders before sportsbooks removed the markets.
In May, sportsbooks took a notable number of large futures bets on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers three days before Tom Brady reversed his retirement announcement and revealed he would be returning to the team. There was widespread suspicion that at least some of the bettors had information about Brady that the books and the general public didn’t yet have.
Both situations have parallels to the Nuerdanbieke-Minner fight, but Holt doesn’t see either as entirely analogous.
“We certainly received alerts about the Brady case,” he said. “The problem with a situation like that is the network of people that may have known that Brady was going to come back — he probably had to tell his agent, his sponsorship people, his marketing team, the league, his coaches. So there’s this huge ring of people that actually know, and thus, the information is very likely to get out. The larger the circle of people that know, the more likely the info is to get out. I know some people were frustrated with the way it happened, but the circle is pretty large and some people probably had that information for legitimate reasons.
“In the Draymond case, the information was publicly available and thus it wasn’t truly an insider situation. But insider situations certainly have a massive detrimental effect on the industry. The idea that people have information that isn’t public that would massively swing the odds and they take advantage of that information through regulated, licensed sports betting is no different than insider trading, and in some cases is treated similarly.
“If you allow people to take advantage of the sportsbooks, then that’s less taxable revenue that the states take in, and that taxable revenue goes to fund lots of different programs. So at the end of the day, it is hurting everybody when those things happen, and there are a lot of states and leagues that have strong policies against it for that reason.”
Murray’s sportsbook was among those impacted by Brady’s unretirement (although the SuperBook’s concern level has assuredly dropped with Tampa under .500 midway through the season), and it was the most recent example he could recall of a blatantly suspicious betting pattern at Westgate.
“It’s not common. It’s really not,” Murray said. “But there have been times where we’ve seen some things that were a little out of the ordinary, and we’ll just alert our team to keep an eye on this event, to keep an eye on that game, to keep an eye on the way it’s being bet and who’s betting it.
“We get very cautious. Because your No. 1 job is to protect the book. And you’ve got to be very cautious when people are making bets where they might possibly have some information they can beat you with.”
From here, it’s in the gaming authorities’ hands to determine whether bettors with winning tickets on the Nuerdanbieke-Minner fight have a leg to stand on.