Global Soccer Scandal: The Experts Sound Off

12:11 PM PST 02/05/2013 by George Szalai
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Authorities in Europe and elsewhere have reported evidence of match fixing in 680 games.

A global soccer match-fixing scandal is unlikely to have a major immediate effect on sponsorship and TV rights deals, but has the potential to have longer-term fallout, according to sports industry experts.

The Union of European Football Associations, the European soccer governing body, and Europol said early this week that it has evidence of match fixing in 680 soccer games, including 380 matches in Europe and 300 in Africa, Asia and South and Central America, played between 2008 and 2011.

The matches included World Cup qualifiers and games in the popular Champions League, which pits the top teams from across Europe against each other. The authorities did not identify any individual suspects, teams or matches in their investigation.

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The news led some in the media and sports industries to wonder if the scandal could end up affecting TV viewership of the world's most popular sport, as well as TV ad and club sponsorship deals. It could also affect how much TV networks pay for soccer rights - similar to how cycling scandals have put pressure on TV rights fees for the sport.

"In the short term, sponsors and television rights holders will be apprehensive, but probably not react until specific names and clubs are implicated," said Frank Shorr, director of the Sports Institute at Boston University.

He compared the likely response to the scandal to the reaction to the Mitchell Report in Major League Baseball. "The hue and cry was minimal until names leaked out," he said. "At that point, you’re likely to see the Tiger Woods effect where sponsors jump ship. But as we’ve seen, once he started to win again, they came knocking for his brand."

"I do not believe this news will impact soccer's popularity the way performance enhancing drugs negatively impacted cycling (and to a lesser extent, baseball) unless it is proven that some of the guilty parties were among the most high-profile players or teams in the world," said Patrick Rishe, director of sports market research firm Sportsimpacts and sports business professor at Webster University. "If cheating did take place, my guess is that most of it would originate with teams at the lower divisions."

But he added: "If Manchester United, Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and similar high-profile teams/players were tied to this, it would certainly hurt world perception of the sport. In the case of cycling, the sport lost popularity in the public's eyes because most of us now believe that a larger percentage of the top cyclists were doping," said Rishe. "So the damage to that sport was significant because a majority of the elite riders were implicated, suspected, and/or proven to have doped."

The organizations said that more than 425 "match officials, club officials, players and serious criminals from more than 15 countries" are suspected of being involved in match fixing attempts. The games generated more than $10 million in betting profits and nearly $3 million in corrupt payments, they said.

"This is a sad day for European [soccer] and more evidence of the corrupting influence in society of organized crime," said Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol. He argued that the scale of the scandals "threatens the very fabric of the game."

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