U.S. anti-doping agency eyes sports betting role

The agency that spearheaded the takedown of Lance Armstrong has a new potential target: sports betting integrity.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is interested in monitoring the expanding sports betting market in the U.S., potentially broadening its role to help pinpoint unusual betting activity with the same type of statistical detection methods it already uses to flag markers suggestive of doping.

The possibility of a broader role for USADA -- which could be delegated the authority to serve as a central 'hub' for sports wagering integrity efforts -- took on a new level of importance after the formal introduction of comprehensive federal sports betting legislation earlier this week.

"If legalized sports gambling and potentially match-fixing situations continue to come to light, it would be important to have a regulatory body to put rules in place and hand down any sanctions necessary," said Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of USADA in Colorado Springs. "USADA would consider expanding our scope.

"We have had high-level conversations with several in the industry and folks on [Capitol] Hill."

USADA was created in 2000 and is recognized by Congress as the designated national-level drug testing entity for a wide swath of sports, including Olympic athletes in the U.S.

On Wednesday, U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York) introduced the Sports Wagering Market Integrity Act of 2018 -- that calls for a central "clearinghouse," where betting data from across the nation are analyzed to monitor suspicious betting. The proposed legislation does not specifically mention USADA as the designated group to handle the work. The anti-doping agency's top executive nevertheless pinpoints the shared focus.

"It's in the gaming market's interest as well as clean athletes' to have a fair, honest playing field," said Tygart, who has led USADA's integrity efforts as CEO since 2007. "If someone has an unknown advantage through doping, the gaming industry suffers from an inability to equitably set the odds.

"Cooperative relationships have to take priority in order for clean athletes and a corrupt-free gaming market to prevail."

Such a joint regulatory model would not be particularly novel, according to a global industry expert who also flagged differences between the two tasks.

"There are other countries where the national anti-doping agency has responsibility for gambling-related integrity," said Chris Dougan, chief communications officer for Genius Sports in Washington, DC. "While there is no doubt that their intelligence, investigation capabilities and experience would be useful to share with any national integrity platform in the U.S., the two issues require people with different backgrounds and expertise to effectively operate such hub."

It remains an open question whether monitoring of Tour de France betting markets could have ferreted out doping by individual bicyclists, like in the Armstrong scandal years ago. While the wagering handle on the world's premier bike race is tangible, an executive at a sports wagering operator who spoke with ESPN on background said bettors armed with inside information about drug-enhanced performances would probably have had to place unnaturally large wagers to reveal any potential doping fingerprint.

Also on Wednesday, new bipartisan legislation that would criminalize "doping fraud conspiracies" and require information sharing with USADA was also unveiled in Congress. There is fear that illicit doping could spill over into a gambling scandal.

"We're certainly concerned about the overlap between match-fixing and doping," said a Congressional aide who spoke with ESPN on the condition of anonymity. "Both are forms of sports manipulation and [some]one can easily imagine how one could be used in conjunction with the other."

Industry stakeholders see the blurring between doping and sports betting too.

"There are certainly similarities between anti-doping and sport integrity, particularly related to policy, investigations and adjudication," said Andy Levinson, senior vice president of the PGA Tour, in a statement to ESPN. "While the idea of USADA conducting integrity monitoring is not one that we have considered, we do believe that a national entity for integrity that will have visibility to gaming activity across operators and state lines would be the most comprehensive, effective system to protect the integrity of sports in the U.S."

The concerns are shared at the college level according to Tom McMillen, chief executive officer of LEAD1, a Washington, DC-based group representing the athletic directors at the major universities. McMillen, a former Congressman from Maryland, told ESPN that "maybe sports betting can be a new focus for [USADA] which, after all, is chartered with protecting sports integrity."

The nexus between anti-doping efforts and gambling has a long history. A detailed report commissioned by Major League Baseball and completed by former Senator George Mitchell over a decade ago cited a 1985 memo written by then-MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth that highlighted the "connection" between sports betting and drug use.

"I can certainly see scenarios where athletes are extorted into doing something that manipulates the outcome of an event because someone is holding evidence of performance-enhancing drug use over their head," said Matthew Holt, president of U.S. Integrity based in Las Vegas. "We make it a priority to consistently evolve and adapt the process we have in place to track, identify and monitor these threats."