On a Monday in May, when bettors typically would be targeting the NBA playoffs or an MLB matinee, the wagering world is instead fixated on an internet stream of a table tennis match between two Russians in an undisclosed location in Eastern Europe.
The camera angle is tight, almost as though it's shot from an iPhone perched in a corner of the bare-bones room that has blue tarps for walls. There are no announcers; the only sounds are the occasional reactions from the players or the scorekeeper, and the pitter-patter of paddles hitting the ball.
There are hundreds of matches like this one being streamed daily, in tournaments called Setka Cup, Win Cup and Moscow Liga Pro. The action is fast-paced, and competitors range in age from early 20s to mid-60s. Some are athletic and highly skilled. Others are out of shape and overmatched.
Money is pouring into U.S. sportsbooks on these matches -- hundreds of thousands of dollars in betting handle daily -- yet the matches are shrouded in such secrecy, their legitimacy is in question. And in at least one state, sportsbook operators have filed incomplete or incorrect information with regulators as they sought permission to allow bets on the action.
Official information is hard to come by: If bettors want to verify results on an official league site, learn who's running the matches or even know where the games are taking place, they're mostly out of luck. Event organizers, participants, oddsmakers and sportsbooks are reluctant to talk about any of it in detail. Table tennis's top governing bodies say they're not sanctioning the events.
Consider Liga Pro, a Russia-based organization that holds events for a variety of sports, including basketball, esports and table tennis. Sportsbooks are offering at least 100 table tennis matches labeled as Moscow Liga Pro or Russia Liga Pro to bettors every day, but the league's website hasn't been updated in weeks. Prior to the pandemic, the calendar, rankings, stats and results were updated regularly on Liga Pro's official site. The calendar, which also hadn't been updated throughout April, is now gone, and the league's formerly active social media accounts stopped posting in March. The most recent post on the table tennis page of its website was on March 30: "Take care of yourself and the health of your near and dear ones! Stay at home and observe the self-isolation regime!" It was followed by a graphic showing coronavirus precautions.
Those who could be contacted within Liga Pro wouldn't provide details to ESPN. Aleksej Ulanov, one Liga Pro organizer whose name and contact information appeared on the league's website, responded to a text message in Russian and said he wouldn't answer questions during the country's health quarantine, which he said will end "when the president says so." Another league organizer did not respond at all. Four players contacted over Russian social media didn't acknowledge the request for comment; one responded and asked for the questions, but never answered them.
Alexander Zaryanov, the contact for the Table Tennis Federation of Russia, told ESPN in an email that Moscow Liga Pro "is not included" in the federation and said the league had suspended play. Zaryanov also said that all sports in Moscow were currently suspended.
Based on rosters on the Liga Pro website, many of the participants from tournaments previously held in Moscow are playing in the matches at the undisclosed locations.
Marina Znamenskaya, sales and marketing manager with SportLevel, a company that provides data and livestreams and claims Liga Pro as a partner, said in an email to ESPN that the matches are taking place in China, the Czech Republic and Belarus. The locations are secret for a variety of reasons, she wrote, including to prevent fraud and hinder anyone from contacting the athletes.
"We have partners in each country who run these competitions and guarantee strict compliance with the standards of the competitions integrity policy," she wrote. "We interact with them on all issues, but we can't give their contacts" because of privacy agreements.
Liga Pro match livestreams, scoreboards and results can be found on bookmakers' websites and apps such as DraftKings in the U.S. and Bet365 in the U.K.
ESPN asked five major U.S. sportsbooks that are offering betting on matches listed as Moscow Liga Pro if they were confident in the integrity of the matches. William Hill U.S., the largest operator in Nevada, said it has not seen any irregular betting patterns on matches and views the league as similar to other lower-level leagues in sports like tennis and college athletics.
Rush Street Interactive, which runs sportsbooks in states including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said it received assurances from Sportradar, a prominent international sports data company, that it had seen no evidence of integrity concerns. Rush Street said it remains comfortable taking wagers on Liga Pro matches.
A company spokesperson from DraftKings said: "The decision to offer a betting market is a collaborative process between us, any third-party providers and the [state] regulating body in the jurisdiction in which the market is being offered."
MGM Resorts declined comment, and Caesars Entertainment did not respond to multiple inquiries from ESPN.
From a regulatory perspective, it's unclear who oversees Moscow Liga Pro, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. The International Table Tennis Federation, the sport's top governing body, has halted all of its sanctioned tournaments, marketing manager Jonny Cowan told ESPN. He also said he wasn't familiar with Moscow Liga Pro. The European Table Tennis Union also has canceled or postponed all competitions, according to an email from its president, Ronald Kramer. When asked if he knew whether Moscow Liga Pro was active, he wrote in an email, "I do not know, but I would be surprised if they are played." He said his organization does not have jurisdiction over the national competitions of its members.
In the U.S., each state has its own rules regulating what events a sportsbook can offer, requiring certain information about the league, the games and the governing body. When DraftKings requested permission in March from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to offer Liga Pro matches to bettors, the company cited the ITTF and the ETTU as governing bodies associated with the matches, according to records and Brian J. Ohorilko, a commission administrator. A similar submission by PointsBet states that Russia Liga Pro is "held under the auspices of the [Table Tennis Federation of Russia]," according to the records, which ESPN obtained through a public records request to the commission. That Russian federation has also denied overseeing the league.
William Hill simply listed the URL for Liga Pro's website as the league's governing body, according to the documents.
"We knew that they were not ITTF events," Ohorilko told ESPN on Wednesday. "I'm not sure if it was listed like that because the person submitting didn't do their due diligence. But we did."
Iowa gaming officials researched the sportsbooks' claims about Moscow Liga Pro's governing bodies but couldn't reach anyone in the league or a regulator, Ohorilko said. As such, the Iowa commission has allowed only limited types of wagering on Moscow Liga Pro on a probationary, or trial, basis until June 24, he said.
DraftKings and PointsBet declined to comment on their requests to Iowa regulators. A William Hill spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about its filing to Iowa.
ESPN also contacted gaming regulators in Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Nevada to request documents filed by sportsbooks supporting their request to offer table tennis. Requests to Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Jersey were denied because the information was deemed proprietary or confidential. Indiana officials have not responded to the request.
Ohorilko and gaming regulators in Nevada and Pennsylvania said they have not received any integrity complaints about table tennis. Dennis Mullen, director of sports wagering and paid fantasy sports for the Indiana Gaming Commission, said he could not disclose whether any integrity issues regarding Russian and Eastern European table tennis had been raised.
Gaming law experts said offering betting on third-tier leagues is suspect even in normal times.
"Obviously, these leagues are less credible. There's less sanctioning and governing bodies around them. The players themselves are under less scrutiny," said Matt Holt, president of U.S. Integrity, a Las Vegas company that monitors betting behavior for NCAA conferences, universities, and professional leagues and teams.
Liga Pro is not the only table tennis currently offered on betting sites. Leagues from Ukraine to Brazil are also holding events regularly but have stopped updating schedules or results on their affiliated websites or social media platforms.
The Ukrainian Setka Cup, for example, is a tournament organized by an international sportsbook primarily for betting purposes.
The president of the Ukrainian Tennis Table Federation on March 30 urged the stoppage of Setka Cup matches due to the pandemic, saying that anyone who played was subject to disqualification from future UTTF competitions. A day later, sportsbook PointsBet filed paperwork with Iowa gambling regulators stating that Setka Cup was being held "under the auspices" of the UTTF. As of May 23, the Ukrainian federation had disqualified 365 players for competing in Setka Cup matches. Federation officials couldn't be reached for comment by ESPN.
TTSTAR SERIES, a league based in Prague, also appeared on betting sites, but unlike some of the other leagues, it's still posting results and videos of matches on its official site. TTSTAR SERIES also announced specific COVID-19 safety measures and a plan to donate 10% of tournament prize money toward efforts to fight the virus, according to its website.
Gaming law attorney Greg Gemignani, who is also an adjunct professor at the International Center for Gaming Regulation at the University of Nevada Las Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law, said that, for an obscure sport like Russian table tennis, he would hope that U.S. bookmakers would do their due diligence to make sure it was legitimate. Sportsbooks, he said, are usually careful to maintain the integrity of their offerings.
"Everything you take bets on reflects on your reputation. If you're taking bets on stuff you shouldn't be taking bets on, not only are you going to get hurt financially, you run the risk of it being counterproductive reputationally," he said.
U.S. bookmakers rely on odds providers like Sportradar, the sports data company serving many American sportsbooks, to put them in a position to take bets on the obscure leagues.
Sportradar uses a video feed of matches to provide bookmaking clients with odds, live scores and results. Sportradar employees monitor the matches from video feeds, as well as the betting markets on the matches. Employees also attempt to communicate with anyone on site. The company calls it checking the "heartbeat" of the event. Sportradar, based in St. Gallen, Switzerland, did not answer ESPN's questions about Moscow Liga Pro or its knowledge of the league and its participants.
"We have not been provided with any evidence of integrity issues relating to these events," Sportradar told ESPN in a statement. "We are confident in the content that we deliver and the robustness of our procedures to ensure our clients can rely on that content for their own businesses."
Stats Perform, another international sports data company, has chosen not to offer certain lower-tier table tennis events to its sportsbook clients. Jake Marsh, head of integrity for Stats Perform, told ESPN there's a "heightened level of risk at the moment," especially with loosely organized, lower-tier events involving poorly paid athletes, as fixers have fewer sports to target.
Shawn Harnish, a 38-year-old experienced sports handicapper, said he first thought the increased betting buzz around table tennis was a joke, but he now bets it regularly, specifically on Moscow Liga Pro.
"The best way to describe it is if you picture what may be a Knights of Columbus KGB version pingpong tournament would look like," Harnish said. "I've really treated the whole pingpong thing as just staying sharp as far as my routine, doing it every day, looking at the numbers."
Betting limits on table tennis vary from sportsbook to sportsbook, ranging from $250 to $1,000 or more, but are generally smaller than the maximum amounts accepted on NFL games, for example.
"Basically, the only integrity going on in those leagues was done through limit control," said Holt, of U.S. Integrity. "But for [the books] it was a risk-reward: keep the customer and maybe they beat you out of $500."
When asked if that was a responsible move, Holt said it was a "pandemic move," making Russian table tennis "a controlled Wild West in the U.S."
"I don't want to say they offered anything irresponsibly," he said, adding that the offerings might become problematic if a bettor files a complaint with a government gaming regulator. "Try going to verify it now. It's going to be near impossible to verify."
Harnish said even if he lost a bet on a match that later was revealed to have been compromised, he wouldn't blame the sportsbooks.
"I'm not mad at the sportsbook, and I don't look at a book that's not offering it as being any more reputable at all," Harnish said. "We need to know what we're betting, yes, and we hope that it's on the up-and-up, but I just don't think it's [sportsbooks'] responsibility to do it."
ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.