This story is over 5 years old.


Why Sports Espionage is Nothing New

Spying in sports is nothing new. But the St. Louis Cardinals' alleged hacking of the Houston Astros is a type of information gathering we've never seen.
June 18, 2015, 12:10pm
flickr user elhombredenegro

The details sounded more Ian Fleming than field house.

Vengeful front-office employees for the St. Louis Cardinals hoped to get advantageous information, such as updates on trade negotiations, about their longtime rivals, the Houston Astros, law enforcement officials told The New York Times.

Read More: What We Can Learn From the St. Louis Cardinals Hacking Fiasco

And yet while the actual details of the alleged hacking weren't as exciting as the plot of a James Bond movie, the Cardinals case marks an important milestone in the sports industry taking corporate espionage clues from its counterparts on Wall Street. For years, spying techniques have been utilized to gather intelligence in industries like technology, financial services or pharmaceuticals, the benefit of snooping typically being for financial gain rather than historically national security-focused intelligence gathering.

Yet only now do we realize the extent to which espionage is possible in team sports, although the intersection of spying and sports is far from new.

The motivations for spying, be it the Cardinals or a corporation, are obvious and as old as sport itself. Information. Competitive edge. Money. Perhaps it's only surprising that given the billions of dollars at stake in professional sports that cases like that of St. Louis haven't come up more often.

"Intelligence operations are intrinsically part of baseball," Dr. Vince Houghton, a historian and curator with the International Spy Museum, said. "You don't have a physical, three-ring binder for plays. Players have iPads. That's great, but it opens you up to data breaches. Sports are a multibillion-dollar business where people are always looking for advantages. There's no reason to think that sports will be immune just because it's sports. They're a business and a target to cyber threats and spying. We're only going to see more of that."

Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was the supposed targeted victim of the alleged Cardinals hack. Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Long before lucrative broadcast deals and iPad playbooks, there was controversy over the use and alleged interception of hand signals. For well over a century, they've been used on-field to try and communicate plays without opponents understanding. But almost as instantly as they made their debut, they became fodder for cheating. In the Philadelphia Phillies' 1899 season, a player found a buzzer hidden near the player coaching third base, according to Christy Mathewson's book, "Pitching in a Pinch." The buzzer's wire led straight to the clubhouse where someone sat with a spyglass directed at the catcher, then buzzed the signals to the coach on third base.

Controversy erupted over the 1951 New York Giants victory when 50 years after the famed "shot heard round the world," The Wall Street Journal reported the Giants used a large telescope to steal signs that were relayed to the team's dugout and right field bullpen via a buzzer system. As recently as last year, Chris Sale, a starting pitcher for the White Sox, had alluded to the use of binoculars by the Detroit Tigers to capture signals. (Sale later backtracked on his allegation.)

Nor are the charges of trying to see on-field communications limited to baseball. In 2007, the New England Patriots paid a $250,000 fine to settle charges that representatives from the team had surreptitiously filmed the Jets signals on the sidelines. But unlike the current Cardinals controversy, the New England Patriots were charged violating football rules, not breaking the law.

Then, there is the player who actually turned into a spy. Moe Berg, a catcher and baseball coach in the 1920s and 1930s, later served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. As part of his work, Berg traveled to Europe to gain intelligence on resistance groups that the U.S was considering supporting and physicists involved with the Germany's nuclear programs, according to Berg biographer Nicholas Dawidoff in his book, "The Catcher Was a Spy." After the war, Berg struggled and mostly lived off support from friends and family members. Berg's card is the only baseball card on display at C.I.A. headquarters, according to Davidoff.

In sports where the quality of a competitor's equipment plays a premium, such as sailing or Formula One racing, trying to sneak a peek at the competitor's rig can provide a tremendous advantage. Elite sailing for years has relied on the spying of opponent sails, equipment and teams. That included Larry Ellison's Oracle Team, which was fined $15,000 for crossing the line between opposition research and violating established rules for how to go about it in 2013. Six years before that, Formula One racing was aflutter with charges that the McLaren Formula One team received secret information from the Ferrari team and that the McLaren team sent confidential information to the Renault F1 team.

"There's a distinction between knowing your competitors and the stuff that will get you in jail," George Chidi, an analyst with CI Radar, a Norcross, Ga.,-based firm said. Espionage flourishes where information is at a premium, he said. This is why industries like pharmaceuticals and technology, which flourish off intellectual property, as well as national security, have been ripe targets.

Given the amount of financial pressure that is placed on front offices to make winning—and lucrative—teams, cases like the Cardinals could increasingly find themselves in a similar position to those industries, Chidi said.

"The more competitive the industry, the more likely they are going to be engage in competitive intelligence," he said. "In baseball, you have 150 years of people trying to get back at each other. That couldn't be more true today."