Matthew Holt was at his Las Vegas home on a recent Monday evening watching college basketball, as he often does, when a player from Oklahoma heaved in a "harmless" three-pointer as time expired in the Sooners' home game against Iowa State.
While the shot may have appeared meaningless to an outside observer because it didn’t affect the winner, Holt — and anyone who had money on the game — knew better.
Replays showed that the basket should not have been counted because the player in question did not release the shot before the final buzzer. But the officials allowed the basket, turning an Iowa State four-point victory into a 74-73 win. From a gambling standpoint, the Cyclones were favored by three points, which means they no longer covered the point spread. Adding to the drama was that the basket also changed the decision for the game's over/under, the second half spread, the second half over/under and a large majority of in-play bets on the game.
"That one hoop basically affected almost 95% of the bets made on the game," Holt said. "And it was very clear it should not have counted."
In essence, this is precisely the kind of situation that persuaded Holt to dream up and eventually launch his new company, U.S. Integrity, which provides game integrity and fraud prevention consulting services. With regulated and legalized sports betting growing at an astronomical pace in the U.S. ever since the Supreme Court abolished the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA)
back in May 2018, sports betting has come to the forefront in a big way. Point spreads are now common fodder for the mainstream media, and with that, instances such as the Iowa State-Oklahoma ending get instantaneous and vociferous attention.
"We knew that whenever PASPA got repealed, sportsbooks and leagues alike were going to need truly independent, conflict-free integrity services," the 41-year-old Holt explained. "And that integrity provider cannot be affiliated with any individual sportsbook, betting service or league."
So, back in fall 2017, Holt and U.S. Integrity Chairman Robert Phythian put together a business plan, got the company funded in early 2018, and were up and running by April.
Holt, who serves as president, and Phythian certainly had the background and experience to spearhead such a quick turnaround. Phythian has a long history in the sports betting/fantasy sports space, formerly serving as president of Sportradar US and OPEN Sports Network. He also founded Fanball.com and Fantasy Football Weekly, the first weekly fantasy sports magazine, way back in 1998. Holt, a Boston native, has worked in the industry his entire adult life, moving to Las Vegas the day after he graduated from Morehead State University in 2004 where he cut his teeth as an analyst at sports betting odds provider Don Best Sports, before moving on to a similar role at Sports Options. He also created his own sports betting site, OddsFather.com, which was bought by Cantor Gaming, and he eventually moved on to become vice president of business development at CG Technology, one of the largest sportsbook operators in Las Vegas.
Business has been brisk for Las Vegas-based U.S. Integrity since last spring. It has hired nearly 20 employees and inked deals with college conferences such as the SEC, Pac 12, Big West, West Coast and Ivy League, as well as the NBA, University of North Carolina and University of Pittsburgh. A growing list of seven sportsbooks have also become U.S. Integrity clients, but for regulatory reasons, Holt could not specify which ones.
"We've taken off like a rocket ship," Holt said proudly. "There are others legacy providers out there like Sportradar and Betgenius, but they also provide betting odds products and things like risk management services, thus there is an obvious conflict. And the same thing goes for the sportsbooks.
"Look, you wouldn't want the judge in a criminal case to also be the arresting officer. It's pretty easy to see why we wouldn’t allow these conflicts of interest in real-life situations, and that's exactly why we can't allow them in the integrity space.
Back in fall 2017, Holt and U.S. Integrity Chairman Robert Phythian put together a business plan.
"We don’t take bets, we don’t make odds. We strictly work in game integrity and fraud prevention, and that message is starting to really resonate."
Each week, U.S. Integrity continuously combs through data, monitoring any abnormalities in the betting market, analyzing statistics regarding officials, players and coaches, and looks for any correlation between suspicious betting patterns and any information regarding player availability and injuries that may have been "leaked" earlier than it should have been. It provides customizable dashboards for each of its clients, allowing them access to real-time and archived data as well as betting odds from up to 25 sportsbooks.
Holt and his team will re-watch any contests that were "tagged" as suspicious, which Holt says is about 8% to 10% of all games played. Each week, all clients receive an extensive report and U.S. Integrity conducts a conference call, discussing why any games were tagged and what was ultimately decided as a result of the all-encompassing research that was done.
"At the end of the day, it would be a shame if one of the leagues we are working with had a scandal and we were never able to catch on to it in any meaningful way," said Holt. "So we really make sure to cast a wide enough net that we're able to make a deep dive into any game that really deserves it."
Which brings us back to the controversial Iowa State-Oklahoma game. Immediately following the game, Twitter was blowing up with irate gamblers who laid the points with the Cyclones, pointing out how they got robbed. Media outlets such as Sports Illustrated jumped on the story, and Holt certainly heard about it from his social media followers.
U.S. Integrity immediately began investigating, starting with analyzing betting patterns to see if there was any suspicious wagers made on Oklahoma. Holt and his team quickly realized that most of the larger bets on the game were on Iowa State, so much so that the line moved from 1.5 to 3 before tipoff. Bettors continued to bet the Cyclones at halftime and in-play, meaning it was pretty clear that nothing fishy was going on since it was the Iowa State bettors that took it on the chin when the last-second basket was awarded.
But the plot thickened two nights later, when a very similar incident happened at the end of a game between Creighton and Villanova. With Villanova favored by 9, the game went to overtime. The Wildcats led 66-57, and as the clock ticked down to the final second, a Creighton player sank a running jump shot that he clearly released after time expired but which the officials counted, cutting the winning margin to seven points and cashing all tickets on Creighton for the game and second half, as well as pushing the total on the game over.
Incredibly, the official standing under the basket who made the decision to count the hoop was Roger Ayers, who was also part of the crew that worked the Iowa State-Oklahoma fiasco 48 hours earlier.
As expected, the game caused another immediate Twitter storm. U.S. Integrity was once again on the case and put together an official report outlining the details of each game that summarized the relevant wagering information and further investigated Ayers' role. Just like the Oklahoma game, the betting action leaned heavily to the side of the favorite, meaning the final shot cost most of the bettors on the game and, in turn, proved that there was nothing suspicious about the betting patterns.
As for Ayers, U.S. Integrity (USI) wrote in its report:USI was contacted by numerous bettors and media outlets seeking additional information with respect to these two contests and Roger Ayers. Ultimately, after consulting our statistics on Roger Ayers and viewing the games, we determined that we believe there was no nefarious behavior or attempts to manipulate the outcome:1. There would have been no way for Roger Ayers to predict that so many wagering implications would have depended upon a final buzzer-beating shot.2. Roger Ayers’ game statistics were consistent with his previous career tendencies.3. There was no correlated wagering activity to escalate.
Nonetheless, U.S. Integrity added Ayers to its referee "watch list," which tracks officials who have "displayed one or multiple inconsistencies with prior trends that USI has tracked and documented." The list also displays point spread results for the ref's games compared to the national average for all tracked officials.
"We determined there was no nefarious correlation between the events, but we're obviously watching this official very closely," Holt added. "Ayers is actually a highly rated official and he has never had any previous suspicious actions and he has never been investigated by us before for any reason. It makes it even stranger that he is one of the better officials and had two blown calls within days of each other."
To its credit, the NCAA also responded and announced that it will review all last-second shots for games in the upcoming tournament, regardless of whether or not they impact the outcome of the game.
"I thought that was a very modern, practical and proactive response from the NCAA," said Holt, who added that he won't be surprised if the individual conferences make a similar rule change during the offseason. "It shows they acknowledge and understand that there's a large percentage of viewers that are engaged in some type of activity, whether it's daily fantasy or sports wagering, and they have ulterior motives other than just watching the games for entertainment."
What's more, the mere fact that the NCAA actually acknowledged sports betting in an official statement is also glaring signal of just how far the industry has come in a short time, which, of course, has played a major role in U.S. Integrity's early success.
"This space is growing so rapidly," Holt added. "We're far, far ahead of where we thought we'd be at this point, but that's the case for the entire marketplace. We just want to keep improving and try to keep on the same pace as everyone else. If we do that, big things lie ahead for us and the entire industry."