There has been a major shift in the conversation around sports gambling in recent years. For a long time, there was kind of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink aspect to even broaching the subject. Nowadays, sports gambling (legalized in some form in 33 states and Washington D.C.) is openly discussed to the point that we’ll see odds mentioned during broadcasts, something that was long taboo. Major League Baseball has joined the fray in terms of partnerships with gaming companies and specific mentions on broadcasts.
For some, this has been a long time coming and the era of honesty with gambling is a breath of fresh air. For others, baseball’s embrace of gambling is seen as sending the sport down down a harmful path. After all, this is the sport haunted by Pete Rose’s permanent ban and the Black Sox scandal. I’ve also heard worries from fans who don’t want to gamble that they’d rather just enjoy a baseball game without being hit over the head with gambling graphics and analysis.
For Major League Baseball, it’s a balancing act to satisfy both portions of its audience.
Regarding this topic, CBS Sports sat for a virtual interview with Casey Brett, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of business operations, to get the league’s perspective on as many issues as we could.
The main thing I took away from our discussion is that the league knows there is, so to speak, a needle to be threaded here. Gambling can be a feature that will greatly increase the audience and the entertainment factor for a sizable portion of the fanbase, but the league has to safeguard against turning off anti-gambling fans while also — and most importantly — avoiding a scandal that will stain the sport.
Integrity of the sport
What’s to stop today’s players from fixing games or even individual plate appearances (yes, you can bet on those now)? Harm to the integrity of the game should be the utmost concern and there might be some fans who believe that partnering with a gaming company inevitably leads to a gambling scandal that would rock the baseball world.
First and foremost, no MLB-related personnel is allowed to bet on baseball or softball, regardless of the level. Gambling on any diamond sport is strictly forbidden. For example, no MLB player is permitted to bet on the Women’s College World Series, even though technically softball is a different sport than baseball and it’s not directly related to Major League Baseball.
Those in the pro-gambling camp might wonder why an MLB player can’t gamble on college softball, but it’s just a line MLB doesn’t want to cross.
“It gets back to the idea that we’re conservative for a reason,” Brett told CBS Sports. “It’s just one of these things where even the implication from a public perception that this person is betting on a diamond sport, per se, is something that we don’t want. You’re a professional player; you should be able to control yourself and not bet on a diamond sport. It seems like it’s a slippery slope towards betting on something that you might be able to manipulate or have inside information on and it’s just not even worth it from an integrity perspective. So we draw that line and educate folks on it and still feel that it’s the right approach to it.”
The next logical question is how the league can even monitor this, what with the ability for people to add an app to their phone and start gambling away by pushing a few buttons. There are guardrails.
“We will always have concerns,” Brett said. “Keeping the integrity of the game is the most important goal of this entire enterprise for sports betting, full stop.
“Commercialization, fan engagement all come secondary to integrity because any scandal could be detrimental not only to our sport but sports in general. It’s something we’re hyper-vigilant on. We have what we feel is a really, really good system to start, but we’re continuing to invest even more time and effort into integrity.”
Part of that investment is a full-time integrity and compliance team. The league also works in collaboration with the sportsbooks to analyze data feedback and pinpoint anything that may look suspicious.
Suspicious, Brett said, can be as simple as “oh, that’s an interesting amount of betting on this event in this market, that seems a little odd.”
“They are required to help us with investigations and notify us if they feel like some sort of fishy information is happening. Like if a large amount of money was placed on this event that doesn’t make sense, they are required to exchange that information, he said.
“…Are we ever going to get comfortable? No. If we get comfortable, we leave ourselves susceptible. I feel like we’ve built a really, initially, good platform to protect the integrity of the game, and it’s solid, but we’re going to continue to invest in the space. I don’t think there’s ever any amount of investment that is too much to protect.”
I mentioned that one can be confident in a system while also still not getting 100% comfortable and Brett said that’s essentially where MLB lives with its gambling stance.
Let’s circle back to the part about “fishy information.” One might recall the Alabama baseball coach being fired after a gambling-related scandal. Without getting too deep in the weeds, this is an example of the guardrails put in place by the gambling community working. Some betting action was happening that caused the gaming companies to investigate and it ultimately led to a coach being caught and then fired. Not only does the case show how someone can be caught in this day and age, but it also should serve as a deterrent to others in the sport.
Something to keep in mind here is the gambling isn’t a mob-related thing like with the Black Sox scandal or even just an underground-type operation like with the Pete Rose ordeal. The online gaming companies are monster businesses. They are public-facing, too. A gambling scandal would greatly harm their business model just like it would any league involved, so it behooves everyone involved to do everything they can to prevent something like this.
The league and its partners both say they are dedicated to getting the message out regarding responsible gambling. In addition to game fixing and similar scandals, there are concerns with related issues like gambling addiction or exposing children to problem gambling. On this front, Major League Baseball has joined the Coalition for Responsible Sports Betting Advertising, a group of leagues (NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLS and more) with the following six goals:
- Sports betting should be marketed only to adults of legal betting age
- Sports betting advertising should not promote irresponsible or excessive gambling or degrade the consumer experience
- Sports betting advertisements should not be misleading
- Sports betting advertisements should be in good taste
- Publishers should have appropriate internal reviews of sports betting advertising
- Publishers should review consumer complaints pertaining to sports betting advertising
This isn’t the only venture on MLB’s end. There’s also the American Gaming Association and its Have A Game Plan initiative and Sportradar (a service designed to “protect sports against match-fixing and other integrity threats”), well as a collaboration with the National Council on Gaming.
“We’ve actually permitted incremental advertising if it’s responsible gambling focused, if it’s a public service campaign announcement,” Brett told CBS Sports. “We have incentivized clubs to put out more educational material. If they want to put up a jumbotron feature that is literally teaching people about the dos and the don’ts of how to gamble responsibly, we want that to be up on the screen. That’s important. That’s something that, if done right, can actually be a positive message for fans in general, especially with new states coming on board and fans not knowing how to go about it. It’s our job to educate fans on how to do this in a responsible way.
“For now, I think we’ve struck the right balance but we’re going to be pretty vigilant that we don’t take it a step too far.”
Now, the league isn’t saying every single fan is interested in gambling. It’s just a matter of trying to simultaneously appeal to as many fans as possible.
“To be clear, we realize that gambling isn’t something that every fan pursues,” Brett said. “It’s a growing size of our fan base that is participating, but there are fans that ultimately are never going to want to do that… At the end of the day, we want to integrate a great fan experience for every fan, regardless of if they’re a fan of fashion or betting or NFTs, we want to serve that fan effectively, in personalized fashion.”
Not every aspect of the sport has such a negative connotation and that’s why there’s probably more backlash here than with anything else the league highlights.
Still, the growth potential makes it all worthwhile from the perspective of the league. It’s a way to further engage existing baseball fans while also drawing fans from other sports who might only be interested in baseball for the ability to bet on it.
“We’ve seen a huge amount of crossover from other sports,” Brett said. “There was a sportsbook that was able to provide some information that actually showed that if you took a percentage of the audience that had placed at least one wager on MLB – you’d think it would be reflective of baseball fandom across the U.S. – it’s actually well above 95 percent [of their bettors]. The crossover is really interesting. It becomes something that, we’re starting to realize, betting is a form of responsible entertainment. If you like it, it can lead you to try it out. Like, ‘you know, I’m not a crazy fan of baseball, but I would love to be able to go to a game and place a friendly wager just to create some entertainment.’ It can spur new forms of fandom. We’ve seen that and it’s definitely something we’re looking to tap into in the future.”
Anecdotally, I’ve personally witnessed sports fans who will bet on a game just so they have a reason to watch and root for something. It’s not for everyone, but there are plenty of people out there who just want to have some gambling action on a game. The league realizes this and is trying to take advantage and grow the fan base in this avenue.
MLB also recognizes that even its own players can enjoy gambling unrelated to the sport.
“If an MLB player wants to bet on the NBA, as long as they’re doing it responsibly, as long as it’s not becoming a problem, we don’t want to necessarily discourage that,” said Brett. “It’s just, again, it’s a legal form of entertainment in a lot of states and as long as they’re doing it in legal fashion and it’s not leading to any kind of situation that could become a problem – we’re not encouraging it by any stretch – but just we want them to kind of be able to explore these entertainment outlets, no different than a fan. There’s lots of baseball players that are fans of the NFL and NBA and they should be able to engage as fans of those sports no different than how sports fans engage with baseball.”
What about those fans who don’t want to constantly see gambling talk, though?
Broadcast limits and personalized experience
One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen in the last few years is the influx of gambling talk on baseball broadcasts. Those uninterested in gambling might feel bombarded with betting talk. The league is aware of this and that’s why there are rules governing every single MLB broadcast. It’s a hard-and-fast rule of two drop-ins per game.
“To the question about the people who are looking at the linear broadcast, and sort of saying, ‘I don’t really like the odds there,’ we hear them,” said Brett. “And that’s why we’ve set limitations… Every offseason we have the opportunity to change those rules and limitations and we’ve kept it flat and I actually don’t think we’ve ever going to increase it moving forward. I can’t commit to that, obviously, but at the same time, I think we’ve hit a world where, for the linear broadcast, we’ve struck the right balance.
“There’s a linear broadcast, which is, unfortunately, one size fits all. We have to set limitations on gambling advertisement because we don’t want to over-gamblify that content. We want to still serve upwards of close to 50 percent of our fans that might actually be wagering on events in today’s day and age. We want to serve them in linear fashion like how we serve them in digital.”
One might look down the road and envision some type of a la carte option. Those who subscribe to MLB.TV know that you can select which broadcast to view. Let’s say it’s Angels vs. Orioles. Once a consumer decides to click on that game to watch it, there’s a menu screen that allows the person to pick either Angels’ home broadcast or the Orioles’. Perhaps we’ll get to a point where fans could select a gambling or non-gambling version of the broadcast, though that’s far down the road.
Still, MLB has its eyes on how the digital era makes it easier to integrate the gambling portion of the game without trying to stomp all over the experience for those who don’t want to see it.
“What’s really actually great about a lot of the transitions to more forms of digital engagement with our sporting info — a lot of streaming — there’s those opportunities for personalization. We’re working with the product team right now to create some of those personalizations,” Brett said.
“We don’t have odds on our [MLB.com] scoreboards. If you look at the PGA Tour or NBA — on their scoreboard pages online — there’s actually a toggle that if you want odds, you can actually display them. I think we’re going to get to a world where MLB adopts a lot of those same policies. From a product, an over-arching umbrella, we really believe in the value of personalization. We think that it gets to the point of every fan getting a great experience, regardless of how they engage with the sport. For people who want to opt into betting as one of the primary outlets in which they interact with our sport, we’d like to create a personalized experience for them that’s on an opt-in basis.”
Even with the linear — just think of this as a national TV broadcast — integration, there are ways to talk about gambling odds through the prism of game analysis. Think about it: if a gambler is wondering what the chances are that a certain player might hit a home run, discussing whether or not that player could hit a home run by sifting through data — ballpark, opposing pitcher, etc. — is absolutely a conversation a non-gambling fan would be interested in hearing. This is where MLB is looking to please both sides.
“We work with the broadcasters to try to have these odds references be contextual in nature,” Brett noted. “It’s not just odds for the sake of cuing some sign-up offer. It’s odds that we think will enhance the quality of the narration of the game itself.”
The day I spoke to Brett, I mentioned that I was looking at a Shohei Ohtani strikeout prop (I had over 7.5) for a game that night and he latched onto that as an illustration of how the broadcast could straddle the line.
“If you incorporate, ‘hey, let’s take a look at what the odds are for 7 1/2 [strikeouts] with Ohtani tonight,’ that can lead into some insightful commentary on the lineup, how Ohtani has pitched against the batter — whatever it is, there’s some real interesting storylines that can be teased out without making it feel like the odds are there in a less than intrusive way, he said.
“Both in terms of the caps that we’ve consistently set from a commercial advertising rules perspective and working with the broadcasters to try to make sure that the odds references are natural and fit the commentary of the game appropriately, I think we’re really trying to make sure that people don’t get to the point where they feel that it’s obstructive to the way they view the game. We have to address sports bettors. It’s a sizeable portion of our fan base now, but we’re trying to do so in a way that doesn’t over-gamblify the broadcast, keeps the game family friendly and does so in a responsible manner.”
MLB is further diving into stats that could appeal to gamblers without actually being gambling content. For example, the Apple TV+ broadcasts on Friday nights will often flash something like hit probability in the lower right corner of the screen. It doesn’t cover up any of the actual broadcast and it’s not necessarily a gambling number. Some might view it as a bit of a shortcut or work-around, but people can ignore it if they wish. Plus, casual fans might be interested to see when a player has a low probability and still gets a hit, for example. Meanwhile, gamblers could use the information to place a real-time bet.
“We still produce the games on Apple’s behalf. We thought that that was just a fun, innovation feature. It gets back to the same point of like, ‘listen, we know that our fans are interested in statistics and sabermetrics and we’re trying to think of interesting ways to surface that information in kind of an ever-present form that would provide insightful commentary, Brett said.
“We make decisions on what we think is going to make for a really interesting, engaging experience for baseball fans. If that in some ways incorporates some betting information as part of that, OK, but we’re not doing betting things just for betting’s sake. We’re trying to think about the interesting enhancements, innovations to the game and what’s best for the fans in general.”
Beyond the broadcast, some teams are now getting into the gambling action. A sportsbook is currently being built behind the first-base/right-field side of Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, for example. BetMGM is already set up near the center field entrance at Nationals Park. The sportsbooks, which are subject to the commissioner’s approval, can’t be inside the stadium; instead, you actually have to exit the sportsbook and then enter through a separate gate in order to actually access the ticketed area.”
MLB does not, however, view the extra work as a negative.
“It’s a great thing to have in a legalized state that allows it from a foot traffic perspective,” Brett said. “We view this as a nice complement in states that allow it and we’ll continue to at least work with clubs.”
In the past, I’ve heard fans wondering if there will ever be a world in which they could place bets inside the stadium, either via some kiosk or even a device in the seat areas. With the prevalence of betting available on personal devices such as cell phones, however, MLB feels comfortable outlawing such ventures.
“We don’t allow kiosks anywhere in our stadiums and that’s a rule that the commissioner is really firm about for good reason and I think that it’s something that — while I’ll never say never — I don’t foresee ever changing,” said Brett. “For us, if people are going to wager and it’s available on mobile, they’re just gonna bet on their phones.”
The rule of thumb, he said, is: “Are we creating a fan experience in the stadiums that is good for families and good for all fans? And when we do actually lean into sports betting, are we restricting to an adult audience and are we doing it in a responsible way?”
Not dissimilar from the rules on the broadcast, there are in-person rules as well that dictate the number of advertisements, restrict odds on the jumbotron and limit ad-reads from the public announcer.
More than anything else, Major League Baseball will continue to be in the business of mass entertainment and it appears the sports world in general is moving more and more toward gambling being a central tenant. With this comes a balancing act in terms of protecting against scandal, stressing responsibility and also getting out all the information the gambling portion of the fan base craves. The league says it is confident it can do this and knows it’s essentially a never-ending process.
Above all, the integrity of the game itself remains the most sacred of things in the business.