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Are Basketball Games Fixed?

Former NBA official Tim Donaghy has caused quite a stir with his allegations that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers was fixed to ensure a seventh game. Even if his claims turn out to be unprovable there are plenty of people who will give Donaghy the benefit of the doubt, as fix or not, the game is widely recognized as the worst officiated game in recent memory.

The game was called so poorly it prompted a letter from Ralph Nader to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

In wake of Donaghy's allegations, a number of people have wondered about the integrity of basketball games and are asking if the games are really fixed. If you ask Justin Wolfers, a professor of business and public policy at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the answer is that it's highly likely.

Wolfers' Research

Wolfers published a paper entitled Point Shaving: Corruption in NCAA Basketball in American Economic Review in May of 2006, suggesting point spread shaving may have influenced the outcome of nearly 500 games over a 16-year sample period. Wolfers looked at point spread favorites of 12 or more points and concluded those teams tend to cover the point spread at a lower rate than they should. While that one statistic isn't enough to conclude there is something unusual going on, Wolfers also mentions the NCAA survey where eight out of 388 basketball players admitted to taking money in exchange for playing poorly or at least had knowledge of teammates who did.

Wolfers correctly states that it is far easier to fix a game with the favorite in a game with a large point spread than it is to get the underdog to fix a contest. A large favorite can win the game, while not covering the point spread, but an underdog would not only have to concede to losing the game outright, but would have to lose by a larger margin than the point spread. By the same token, a large favorite also is in a better position to fix a game than a small favorite, as the small favorite could easily lose the game outright while trying to win by a small margin.

During his 16-year sample period, Wolfers found that all favorites covered the spread 50.01-percent of the time, while favorites of 12-points, or more, covered the point spread 48.37-percent of the time. As his sample was for a 44,120 games, the deviation is actually larger than it may appear to be at a quick glance.

College basketball has had its share of betting scandals in the past, with Boston College, Arizona State, Tulane, and Northwestern, but if Wolfers is correct, there are plenty of more NCAA betting scandals that are going undetected each year.

Fixing Games in Other Sports

Those who believe that the fix is in do have some justification for their beliefs, as match-fixing has occurred in other sports. I touched upon possible fixing in the NBA in Are NBA Basketball Games Fixed? and Was Donaghy the First Official to Fix Games? and there is an excellent article on fixing in the world of cricket on the Top Betting Reviews website here.

Sports and sports betting are big business and when you have big dollars involved there are always going to be some unscrupulous characters not far behind.


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