N.F.L. Data Deal: A Bet on Gambling?


Last winter, the National Football League began lining up suitors to distribute what has become one of the hottest commodities in sports: live data from games.

Once limited to basic statistics, that data now includes everything from the bend in a soccer ball’s flight to a running back’s acceleration, measured by computer chips in his shoulder pads. Streaming from fields, courts and rinks, it drives not only game apps on fans’ mobile phones and computers, but also fantasy sites and professional scouting reports.

The N.F.L.’s courtship ended in April when the league dumped its longtime partner and signed a lucrative new deal with a company called Sportradar, which is based in Switzerland and little known in the United States. The N.F.L. deal was only the start for Sportradar: In August, the company began providing N.F.L. data to FanDuel, one of the two largest daily fantasy sports sites, and a month later struck a deal to distribute data for the National Hockey League. Then it signed up a roster of high-profile investors, including Michael Jordan, the basketball great.

What went unsaid in the whirlwind, though, was that the upstart is well known in another industry with an insatiable need for live statistics: online sports betting, which is almost entirely illegal in the United States. And that line of business offers a contrast as obvious as a fluttering referee’s flag to the policies of the N.F.L., whose public opposition to all sports gambling is among the strongest of any major American professional league.

The N.F.L. deal, sweetened with an equity stake in Sportradar, underscores the league’s ambiguous position on the shifting ground of gambling in the Internet age, in which betting is increasingly woven into the culture of American sports but the nation’s legal structure lags behind. Indeed, Sportradar’s rise in the United States raises a question: Whether the company and its investors, along with the leagues, are positioning themselves for a loosening of restrictions on sports gambling.

For all its opposition to gambling, the N.F.L. is already deeply enmeshed in the daily fantasy sports games now facing rising legal scrutiny over whether they constitute gambling by another name. Almost every N.F.L. team has a partnership deal with the fantasy sites, and two of the league’s most powerful owners have stakes in DraftKings, the other top site. The league also has a partnership in the United Kingdom with DraftKings, which has a gaming license there.

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Sportradar, a company based in Switzerland that this year made deals to distribute data from N.F.L. and N.H.L. games.

On its website, Sportradar’s gambling arm, called Betradar, reports that it services “more than 450 bookmaker clients,” but it is the troubled legal status of some of those clients that has drawn attention in the industry.

A technique that exposes a website’s underlying coding indicates, for example, that one of Betradar’s clients is BetCRIS, which has perhaps the most extensive history of prosecution in the United States of any online gambling site; it has been named in at least five major indictments, and many of its agents in the United States have been convicted.

Sportradar’s business model has received a harsh public airing in the United Kingdom, where courts decided, in what is regarded as a landmark case, that the company was improperly copying sports data from a competitor and selling that data to betting websites. The N.F.L. was aware of Sportradar’s focus and legal record, according to the former chief executive of Stats, the Illinois-based company that had held the data contract with the N.F.L. and was negotiating to retain it.

“We brought this to their attention,” said the executive, Gary Walrath, who left Stats last month. “The league is very familiar with what’s going on, in contrast to what they say publicly,” Mr. Walrath added. He said that he outlined both Sportradar’s core business and the court cases, but that they seemed to make no difference to the league.

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Wired for Profit

In 2006, Congress tried to crack down on illegal online sports betting. Today, Internet wagering is thriving, and a new business that resembles gambling, fantasy sports, is winning millions of players and stoking controversy. The Times, with the PBS series “Frontline,” investigated illegal gambling in the Internet age.


As a result, Mr. Walrath characterized as “sheer hypocrisy” the often-stated antigambling stance of the N.F.L. “What Sportradar was looking to do there and in the N.H.L.,” Mr. Walrath said, “was to buy their way into the North American market for the day when sports betting becomes legal.” He said the N.F.L. explicitly asked about the ability of Stats to service gambling customers in various regions of the world, though without asking directly about the United States. (Stats provides live scores and statistics to The New York Times.)

In a response to questions, the N.F.L. said its agreement was with the United States arm of the company, Sportradar US.

“There is a strict prohibition on distribution of the N.F.L.’s official data feeds to any gambling-related activity or entity, globally,” the N.F.L. said. “Sportradar US does not generate revenue from gambling-related activities for any sport.” Sportradar is allowed to distribute official data only “to consumer facing, digital distribution publishers,” the N.F.L. said.

When asked whether it works with several online bookmakers that are known to be active in the United States, Sportradar said in a statement that it “does not comment on individual client contracts.”

But Sportradar said that it “has a strict policy to only provide data to licensed bookmakers” and obliges its clients “not to target customers in jurisdictions where betting is illegal.” The company added that it would terminate a client if it was “found by U.S. authorities to be engaged in illegal betting operations.” Sportradar US, the statement said, does not provide services to any bookmakers.

Though headquartered in Switzerland, Sportradar is controlled by a private equity firm associated with the vast business empire of Sweden’s Wallenberg family. Sportradar’s emergence highlights the rise of a sophisticated new industry, driven by the exploding demand for real-time data from casual fans and serious bettors alike, that produces second-by-second measures of performance by teams and individual players in dozens of sports.

“Every sports fan has a little bit of inner geek,” said Rob Phythian, who was the chief executive of a statistics company in Minneapolis that was purchased by Sportradar in 2013, and who stayed on until last summer.

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A Perform Group scout in London used a hand-held device to transmit basic events like goals in a soccer match instantly.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Exactly how the statistics are compiled and delivered during a game depends on how quickly, and for what purpose, a customer needs the data, analysts say. The quickest and most costly approach requires placing so-called scouts inside stadiums with hand-held devices that instantly transmit basic events like goals during a soccer match.

Those results can reach customers — generally online bookmakers, also known as betting websites — in less than a second, said Christian Marko, executive vice president for betting products at Perform Group, which has an exclusive contract to deliver statistics for the British soccer leagues.

Speed is essential for betting websites, which offer countless in-game bets on things like when the next goal will be scored. Once the event occurs, the information must reach the websites so they can close the wager immediately. Otherwise someone in the stadium, knowing the outcome, could quickly place a bet on a hand-held device.

A method that is slower but much richer in data involves analysts watching games on television and tapping furiously on computers. The entries for each goal may include whether the shot was a lob or a header and where it landed in the net. Mr. Marko said a separate arm of Perform delivered that product to media and entertainment companies.

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At the Leeds office of Perform Group, employees gather a wide range of statistics on the games they are watching and send them to media and entertainment companies.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

In the Sportradar court case, a British court determined that the company was using a much less costly method to acquire data: copying a competitor’s databases after they were delivered to various customers on the Internet and elsewhere.

The case centered on data that originated with the data arm of the British soccer leagues, Football DataCo. “Sportradar’s business model in part relies on extraction for nothing,” an appeals court found in 2013. That violated database rights protections, the court said.

“From a rights point of view, they steal data,” said Aidan Cooney, the former chief executive of a British company that handles data legally for soccer and other sports.

The court found that Sportradar was then selling the data to betting websites. A Sherlock Holmesian analysis helped settle the issue: Errors seeded in the original data emerged like clockwork in match trackers on the betting sites, the courts said.

The law firm that represented Football DataCo, DLA Piper, said in a statement that the copying and reselling by Sportradar took place from roughly November 2008 to February 2012. The firm said that its client “was very satisfied on the ultimate judgment.” After the finding of liability by Sportradar, the firm said, “the parties reached a confidential settlement.”

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BetCRIS.com, an online gambling site that has been named in multiple federal indictments.

Sportradar’s presence in the betting world is not hard to detect. Using the so-called developer tools of the browser during a recent soccer match between Manchester United and Bournemouth, a reporter for The Times inspected the site’s underlying HTML code and found that the live scores and match tracker for the betting service were being supplied by Betradar, the arm of Sportradar that works with gambling companies.

A representative of BetCRIS has said the site “does not allow U.S. located persons to open or maintain accounts,” but reporters for The Times have repeatedly logged on to the site from the United States.

The Times also obtained screen shots of roughly 200 lines of betting odds and other information that Sportradar provides for various sporting events. Each set of odds is attributed to a specific online bookmaker, including many of Sportradar’s publicly disclosed clients.

Also among those bookmakers are 5Dimes.com, PinnacleSports.com and BetOnline.com. Pinnacle Sports and 5Dimes have also been named in multiple gambling indictments, and BetOnline openly solicits bettors in the United States with the motto “Because You Can.” Sportradar declined to say whether these sites are among its clients.

Sportradar received a major endorsement in October, when it announced that three N.B.A. owners — Ted Leonsis of the Washington Wizards, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks and Mr. Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets — were investing in the company. The company had also begun working with Nascar racing in February.

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From left, the team owners Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks and Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets, have all invested in Sportradar.

Credit
Alex Brandon; Cooper Neill; Streeter Lecka

In the past, Sportradar officials have taken few pains to disguise their ultimate ambitions in the United States, where online sports betting, though almost entirely illegal, is remarkably popular: The American Gaming Association, an industry group, estimates that the illegal betting market for professional and college football alone will reach nearly $100 billion in 2015.

“We’re way behind in this country what they’re doing with gaming in Europe on mobile devices, which is not surprising given the legality differences,” Steve Byrd, Sportradar’s chief commercial officer, said in July.

Mr. Byrd added, “So that was fascinating to see where the future is for us as betting becomes more legal across the country.”

As logical as that move might appear to be, experts in the area warn that political realities make it far from certain. Every business with a stake in the matter, from Las Vegas casinos to corner convenience stores that sell scratch-off lottery tickets, has a political representative at the state or federal level, said Jeff Ifrah, a Washington lawyer who represents betting clients.

“These are all industries that are concerned that regulated sports betting is going to eat into their business,” Mr. Ifrah said.

Frank Hawkins, a former executive for the N.F.L.’s media group and now a partner at Scalar Media, which represents the technology company that created the chips in players’ shoulder pads, said he believes Sportradar wooed the N.F.L. simply to get a foothold for its statistics business in the United States. “I honestly think it has nothing to do with the betting,” Mr. Hawkins said.

But Geoff Freeman, the American Gaming Association’s chief executive, said the Sportradar deal was “one example of the relatively rapid evolution of the approach to sports and sports betting.”

“It bodes well for those in this country who are interested in seeing an expansion of sports betting,” he said.



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