Daniel Dobson courtsiding Australian Open

Daniel Dobson – a 22-year-old Brit who is accused of courtsiding at the Australian Open – could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted, based on a new law (Image: Reuters)

For tennis fans, there’s nothing they’d rather be doing right now than sitting courtside watching Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams at the Australian Open. But one young man from the UK was arrested this week for “courtsiding” of a different nature, becoming the first to be charged with the emerging crime Down Under.

The 22-year-old Brit, Daniel Dobson, was arrested after attending a match at the Australian Open on Tuesday afternoon. He was immediately charged with “engaging in conduct that would corrupt a betting outcome,” a description that sounds more like tampering with the match itself than what was truly going on in this case.

Growing and Nefarious Phenomenon

Courtsiding involves the practice of sitting live at a tennis match and watching the event unfold, while simultaneously betting on the outcome, or alerting a third-party via mobile device as to what is happening in real-time so that they can do so. In particular, it takes advantage of in-play betting, and especially microbetting on the outcomes of individual points and games. Since there is a delay of seconds between when the point is played live and when it is broadcast on television, a fast bettor can place bets after they know the result of a given point – but before the bookmaker does; something that could obviously potentially cost bookies many millions of dollars in unfairly garnered payouts.

This can be utilized most clearly in betting on who will win a given game, as a bettor who knows that a server is up 40-15 in a game can bet at much better odds than were set when the score was just 30-15, for example. But even without that kind of instant advantage, courtsiding can be used more subtly. A bettor might get a bet on a set or match in after a player breaks serve, which would significantly change the odds in their favor.

Of course, such bets violate the integrity of sports betting, as one side has information about the game that the other could not possibly obtain. That’s why the state of Victoria in Australia passed a law against the practice last year – one that carries a sentence of up to ten years in prison.

Others Could be Involved

According to police, this arrest was not the result of an isolated incident. Victoria Police deputy commissioner Graham Ashton noted there are others involved, and police say that the man they arrested was part of a larger gambling syndicate, possibly headquartered in Eastern Europe.  Australian media reported that the man was an employee of Sporting Data Limited, a private sports betting company based in Surrey.

Sporting Data fired back quickly at the arrest, accusing Victorian authorities of misusing the new law. Dobson appeared at Melbourne Magistrate’s Court toward the end of the week, received bail and will be back in another week to face charges; prosecutors say he used an electronic device in his shorts to transmit the scores before TV delays could be broadcast. Two other unnamed British men are also being investigated for similar charges.

But Dobson’s defense attorney, Sazz Nasimi, said in court that his client was just sending data to an international sports book to help them set odds throughout the progressing tennis match.

Sporting Data did admit that Dobson and others provided that data – which is a known breach at most sporting venues these days – but justified it by saying none of these employees placed any bets themselves. The company claimed the move was necessary so that it could obtain  “the most up-to-date information” and stay competitive in “the tightest and most competitive environment there is,” outlining the cut-throat nature of the global sports betting industry these days.

Experts in the integrity of sporting events say that courtsiding is the latest tactic employed by the same criminal groups that have been accused of match fixing in the past. That’s because the scheme tends to be much easier to pull off, particularly in areas where authorities are very much on the lookout for signs of match fixing. For events not being televised, some fraudsters have also bribed the employees charged with sending score updates to bookmakers in order to create a longer delay.

“It’s pretty tricky to try and identify it. Quite often these people use very small devices which they conceal within their clothing, often having special pouches sewn into clothing. Then they’ll just simply press on a series of buttons under their clothes. So [it is] very difficult to pick up,” Ashton said.

While many nations do not have laws specifically outlawing courtsiding, most major sporting competitions have rules that allow organizers to eject spectators who they believe are engaged in the practice. One nation where it is illegal is the UK, where the England and Wales Cricket Board says that 15 people were ejected from games a total of 23 times for suspected courtsiding last summer.

Meanwhile, Dobson has been forbidden to attend any more of the Open while he awaits his next Melbourne court appearance.