No company is safe from attempted cyberattacks, but sports organizations are more vulnerable than most. Sports teams, federations, broadcasters, and sponsors are at risk due to the revenues, exposure, and data available—as well as the multiple entry points from distributed communications and operations.
Attacks are motivated by various malicious actors—such as financial hackers, nation-state actors, or competitors—using different techniques, like spear-phishing, ransomware, or distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
The threat is high from multiple threat actors, and sports organizations tend to lack cyber expertise. The most successful sports organizations have partnered with or entered into sponsorship agreements with specialist cybersecurity vendors, protecting their IT estate, revenue, and reputation.
Defenseless sports teams offer lucrative rewards
Financially driven attacks, where hackers steal revenue and data, are the most common across all industries. The sports industry is particularly vulnerable, due to the huge amount of capital generated by player transfers and fan engagement, which incentivizes cyberattacks due to the potential for lucrative rewards.
For example, the Italian soccer team S.S. Lazio was the subject of a spear-phishing attack when negotiating player transfers and during the subsequent financial transactions. Spear phishing involves targeting specific companies or people and usually pretending to be someone that the victim knows, coercing human error to steal user data for financial gain. In this instance, Lazio communicated with the Dutch team Feyenoord over email about the transfer of a player. Lazio then transferred two million euros to a hacker posing as Feyenoord, following a request via email. The actual Feyenoord team had no idea about the email and did not receive the money, which was transferred to the hacker’s account.
Sports offer an international stage for cyberattacks
Events and international bodies provide an international stage for hackers. This can be for white hat attackers promoting their own cybersecurity services, or malicious nation-state attacks in response to regulations and sanctions or those looking to further a geopolitical cause.
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In 2016, a Russian cyber espionage group named ‘Fancy Bear’ attacked the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and stole confidential medical files in response to WADA’s independent investigation of Russian athletes. The group stole athlete data from the Therapeutics Use Exemptions (TUEs) database—which records the details of athletes who obtained approval to use a prescribed prohibited substance—and released it on the internet.
The Russo-Ukraine war saw huge backlash from sports organizations, with athletes banned from playing and Russia banned from hosting events. This could increase the impetus for state-sponsored cyber-attacks.
Cybersecurity partnerships provide the best protection
Partnerships and sponsorships with IT specialists and cybersecurity vendors should be top of the agenda for the 2022/2023 season, due to a lack of in-house skills. Cybersecurity vendors have the necessary skills and products needed for cybersecurity prevention, detection, and response, and are able to provide visibility across the sports value chain, which has multiple endpoints. Intel and Oracle are the IT companies investing the most in sport sponsorship, with $549 million and $441 million in total sponsorship, respectively, according to GlobalData’s sports sponsorship database. Cybersecurity vendor Cisco is also active in the sports industry, partnering with the NFL to ensure end-to-end security for the Super Bowl LVI and with NBCUniversal to protect its Olympics coverage.
The most successful clubs, federations, and broadcasters will be those with strong partnerships with cybersecurity vendors, protecting them against the growing threat from multiple threat actors.