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Gambling Americans

Rick Burton, the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former Commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League asks whether gambling’s relationship with sport could switch a fan’s affinity for a sport, team or player to one of 50-50 outcomes

Americans, given their Puritanical roots, have traditionally avoided gambling. And following the 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox scandal, which generated lifetime bans for eight baseball players, major professional sports leagues in the U.S. have long positioned sports wagering as the greatest of all evils.

That’s not to say league commissioners and owners didn’t grasp how fans loved betting on games. But simply stated, stadiums or teams (think advertising or sponsorship) were not allowed to suggest a relationship with organized gambling existed. This ‘mandate’ even kept pro owners from moving teams to Las Vegas because Sin City’s reputation might influence perceptions of purity.

Has that ever changed!

Within the last five years, the NHL placed a highly-competitive team in Vegas, the NFL approved the Oakland Raiders moving to the Strip and more than 10 U.S. states have approved legalized gambling (with 20 more states rushing to pass similar legislation).

On top of that, entities like Major League Baseball have recently entered into official gambling partnerships. In MLB’s case, a lucrative deal was signed with MGM Resorts but only after similar sponsorship contracts had been signed by the NBA and NHL.

In November 2018, the New York Times reported MLB’s deal with MGM was worth $25m and came at a time when pro baseball’s attendance had declined in five of the last six years. The inference was simple: MLB needed gamblers to save itself and a casino sponsor was arguably an important lifeline.

For many, in this contemporary age, the idea of an official gambling sponsor barely warrants a second look. Baseball fans like to gamble. Even better, baseball has numerous data points and the game’s languid pace means betting on the next at bat or pitch is feasible.

But what could it mean if a sponsor was viewed as more than just a name on the outfield wall? What might happen if a league suddenly needed sponsors to create engagement concepts capable of turning around declines in attendance or fan avidity?

Jim Murren, MGM’s chairman, was quoted in the Times story saying, “It [gambling on games] will increase social networks. It will extend the viewership of games throughout multiple innings, regardless of the outcome or the score in that given period.”

It’s a great soundbite but peeling away the onion reveals interesting conundrums. Could in-game gambling switch a fan’s affinity for a sport, team or player to one of 50-50 outcomes? Might the game become a series of ball-strike-foul or hit-error-out moments?

Granted, gambling on outcomes is nothing new. And our digitally-enhanced future will continue to suit the short-attention span of millennials – which is supremely important since the Baby Boomers will die off soon. But is this a transformational moment where a sponsor (MGM) starts calling the shots if MLB continues stumbling? Could MGM coyly serve as investors to MLB owners looking to convert empty stadiums into massive ‘books’ where ball players are substituted for show girls?

This much is true: casinos don’t invest unless the odds favor the House. Baseball and Commissioner Rob Manfred know that. It’s just that baseball is a little light in the pocket. Funnily enough, MGM is willing to front MLB an easy $25-Large. On one of their side tables.

It must look good to MLB in the short term but what about those faces in the mirror the next morning? Or in 2025 when in-stadium gambling technology makes a huge leap forward?
As my Dad always said, “Never forget this fact. The House always wins.” And always wants a bigger piece of the action.

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