By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - The Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) set up to tackle the threat of match-fixing is under-funded and struggling to cope with a rise in the number of suspicious betting alerts, British Members of Parliament said on Wednesday.
The London-based organization, established and funded by Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), International Tennis Federation (ITF) and Grand Slam Board to police the sport, survives on a $2 million per year.
It has only six full-time staff, TIU director Nigel Willerton told MPs at a Culture, Media and Sport select committee hearing, while he said the number of betting alerts had risen from 14 in 2012 to 246 last year.
Tennis was rocked on the eve of this year's Australian Open when a report by the BBC and online BuzzFeed News alleged that authorities had failed to deal with widespread match-fixing and that eight of the 16 players flagged up were playing in the first grand slam tournament of the year.
The game's governing bodies categorically denied the allegations, but have set up an Independent Review Panel (IRP) to investigate its anti-corruption procedures.
The review, which could take up to a year, may well look at whether the TIU is armed to tackle the threat of corruption.
A report published last week by the European Sport Security Association (ESSA), established by regulated bookmakers to monitor suspicious betting patterns, said 73 of the 100 events that raised concern last year involved tennis.
While being grilled by select committee chair Jesse Norman, Willerton, head of the TIU for three years, said his organization had to monitor 120,000 matches across the world each year and needed the "eyes and ears" of the tennis family to help flag up any suspected match-fixing.
Asked if his budget was adequate, he said: "In November, I mentioned to the Tennis Integrity Board that I would need to increase the personnel if the alerts kept going up, they did, so I secured funding for another investigator and analyst.
"And consider that is an adequate resource for the present."
Norman, who said that the TIU's annual budget was "extraordinarily low", pointed to the $14m the ITF makes selling data from low level Futures level matches to SportsRadar for online betting and the $100m annual turnover of the ATP.
Damian Collins MP, a vigorous campaigner to clean up soccer's corruption-plagued FIFA, described the TIU as a "fig-leaf" for tennis's governing bodies.
"I feel sorry for Mr Willerton," he said. "He's not quite a lone ranger but it's a very small team on a small budget."
Surprisingly, Willerton said he had not seen the names of the 16 players the BBC and BuzzFeed report said had been repeatedly "flagged up" to the TIU over suspicions that they were involved in match-fixing.
ATP chief Chris Kermode, who was also questioned, rejected suggestions that match-fixing was rife, saying only 0.2 percent of the matches played last year aroused any suspicion.
However, he said they would heed whatever came out of the IRP, especially with regards funding the TIU.
"We will spend whatever is needed to tackle this problem, whatever the review recommends we will honor," he said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Toby Davis)