Major League Baseball's embrace of the billion dollar American sports betting business. Will it sully the game? Or could it save it?
David Purdum, reporter covering the sports gambling industry for ESPN. (@DavidPurdum)
On the rise of sports betting in the United States
David Purdum: “It's massive and somewhat complicated at the same time. So you have this giant legal sector that is growing, right? That came out of the Supreme Court decision. Prior to that decision in 2018, Nevada was the only state that was allowed to have kind of a full-blown, regulated sports betting market. And at that time, it was about $5 billion in bets that they would handle, Nevada sports books per year. To put this in context, it's comparable to how much was bet on the Dallas Cowboys. Since that ruling now, we have 21 states and the District of Columbia have launched legal sports betting markets. So we've gone from one, Nevada, to 21-plus the District of Columbia, in three years.
“We've also got another handful of states that are getting ready to launch markets. A lot of these are online as well. So from one state to nearly half the states in four years. Here's where it gets tricky. We still have this massive underground bookmaking business, right? People have been betting on sports ... since there were sports. A lot of the times they do it with an underground bookmaker and that really has not stopped, even though you have legal options this time in many states. So those estimates are how much is wagered annually in those underground markets. That's upwards of $100 billion.”
On how sports betting has changed the experience of watching a baseball game
Craig Calcaterra: “It's absolutely transformed almost overnight in a radical way. And it's not surprising why it's done that. ESPN, The Athletic, NBC, CBS, Barstool Sports, all have partnerships or are partially owned by, in Barstool Sports' case, by gambling companies. All the networks are pushing this. The on-screen graphics now have transformed from a lot of baseball statistics that we're used to seeing, to things like lines.
"If you go to the MLB app, which a lot of baseball fans use, at the bottom for the last several years there, are all these little tabs that you can click, you know, stats, standings, things like that. They replaced the standings tab with betting lines at the beginning of the season. And there was a big fan outcry and they changed it back. Networks have begun to emphasize specific elements of the game that are relevant to gambling. ... And there's this concept that they talk about, and they're right up front with it.
"A Sinclair executive ... talks about the gamification of sports. Challenging fans, even if you're not betting, challenging fans in games to answer questions, make quick picks, even if there's no money on the line. It's sort of conditioning fans to get used to doing these things, maybe with a mobile app, maybe with their laptops during games. And then there's one other factor that we [haven't] even talked about here. There are going to be rules that are changing in Major League Baseball that are going to maybe not, you know, be designed to encourage betting, but will definitely go along with betting."
You said there's some rule changes on the way for baseball. What are they?
Craig Calcaterra: “Last month, Rob Manfred spoke at a seminar, a sports business seminar, and he told a story about a conversation he had with the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver. And Adam Silver said, and this is quoting Rob Manfred. Rob, you've got to stop talking about the pace of the game, because the pace of the game is going to be absolutely perfect for sports betting. And Rob Manfred agreed. He goes, wow, Adam Silver was right about that. And what that speaks to is the biggest problem Major League Baseball has had for the last decade or so.
"And Manfred has made this like priority number one of how to fix baseball ... to increase the pace of play in the game. It's a slow dragging game. Playoff games last until after midnight. It's kind of a drag. But there's now a conflict of interest that Major League Baseball has. If it increases the pace of the game, if there are fewer moments between pitches, there are fewer opportunities for in-game prop bets, which is a huge, huge potential revenue source for Major League Baseball and its gambling partners.
"I don't think Major League Baseball is going to make its rules based on gambling. But at the same time, Major League Baseball always makes a point of making new rules and rules changes with all of its stakeholders. It talks about that all the time. We talk about networks. We talk about fans, teams, players, everything about our stakeholders. Well, gambling is a stakeholder now. MGM is a literal stakeholder in Major League Baseball.
"There's another rule right now that's new from last year. Relief pitchers now have to stay in a game to face three batters. It used to be you can bring a pitcher in for one batter, then you can take him out. That was kind of a drag on the pace. So Major League Baseball changed that, not for anything that has to do with gambling. They changed it for pace, and injuries and things like that. Well, here's a problem. That's good for gambling, that we have a three batter rule now.
"Because you now know, two batters ahead, that this pitcher is still going to be in the game. You have more time to figure out what your face-to-face matchups are, what the head-to-head stats are between the batter, two batters down the line and the current pitcher. Because, you know, that's going to be the matchup. You have a better chance to bet on that matchup.
"Major League Baseball has a new collective bargaining agreement coming up this year. They're going to look at that rule and a bunch of other rules. One of the stakeholders is going to be the gambling industry. Someone is going to be at that table, either literally or in the mind of Rob Manfred, who's negotiating. And that's going to be a factor. It's going to change the game in a lot of ways. They're going to be looking at what's good for their revenue sources, all of their revenue sources, when they make rules for baseball. And gambling is one of them.”
How to combat baseball's decline in popularity
Craig Calcaterra: “I think it needs to promote its younger players more. I think it needs to change the culture a little bit, and take off the stodginess of the game. Get away from that traditionalism, ironically enough, even though I'm arguing for traditionalism today. But really the speed of the game and marketing it, will be a much better way to do it. And hey, maybe gambling will help that a little bit. Maybe more people will see baseball because of it.”
From The Reading List
ESPN: "3-year evolution of American sports betting: From taboo to revenue" — "On May 14, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal statute that for 26 years had restricted regulated sports betting to primarily Las Vegas. Everywhere else, one of America's oldest pastimes — betting on sports — was relegated to the shadows."
Washington Post: "Opinion: Why I can’t wrap my head around baseball’s embrace of sports betting" — "The Detroit Tigers, with a 10-24 record entering Monday, haven’t been much fun to watch so far this season. Even the ads during their telecasts can be unsettling."
MarketWatch: "Have you noticed how much gambling talk there is on sports TV? How we got here" — "Until 2017, sports betting was a taboo topic on sports TV. During game broadcasts, announcers rarely mentioned a game’s odds with anything more than a wink and a nod."
Washington Post: "As sports gambling soars, what’s best for gaming might not be what’s best for the games" — "That we have reached a moment in American professional sports when a fan will be able to sit in the stands at a game and bet on just about anything — not just the winner and the loser but the next pitch or the next basket — is undeniable."
This program aired on May 21, 2021.