The BBC reported on Friday that UEFA is currently investigating 40 matches played over the past four years as part of the UEFA Cup/Europa League competition that appear to have been fixed. Most of the matches took place during qualifying play and involved clubs from Eastern Europe. Fifteen of the matches took place in the last two seasons. The report indicates that both the halftime and full time scores appeared to be fixed. That is a large number of matches, and even though they involved low profile teams from countries like Macedonia, the UEFA Cup/Europa League is a high profile pan-European tournament. The article contains an interesting quote hinting at the financial incentives driving this behavior. UEFA head of disciplinary services Peter Limacher said of the clubs accused of match fixing: “They know they are not going to be involved later in the tournament and they are going out, so decide, ‘Let’s make a profit’.”
Economic theory tells us that successful contests, either at the horse track or on the football pitch, consist of relatively evenly matched opponents, increasing uncertainty of outcome and fan interest. Widespread match fixing reduces uncertainty of outcome and also erodes fans’ confidence in the legitimacy of the contest. It appears that UEFA may need to rethink the design of this contest, given the negative incentives that are being created in the qualifying stage. It also appears that some of the participating teams may be taking a relatively short-sighted approach to their financial decision making. Match fixing involves a trade-off between a short run financial windfall (whatever the club earns from fixing the matches) and a potentially large, permanent cost if the club gets caught fixing the match.