FORT MYERS, Fla. — Legalized sports betting is operational in 33 states and the District of Columbia, with three other states preparing to launch. The list includes Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Seventeen of the 30 major league teams play where sports gambling is legal. That number is sure to grow.
It seems inevitable that the Oakland Athletics will move to Las Vegas, joining the NFL’s Raiders and the NHL’s Golden Knights.
Legal sports gambling is a business opportunity for baseball, a huge one. But should it also be a concern?
The sport hasn’t had a gambling scandal since 1989, when Pete Rose was found to have bet on the Reds while their manager. He was banned for life, which made him ineligible for the Hall of Fame.
Rose had to commit a crime to gamble, seeking out bookies to make his bets. Now it’s a simple matter of using an app on your cellphone. A fan could sit a few feet away from the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park and bet on a game.
Players are repeatedly warned not to gamble. There are signs in every clubhouse and lectures given during spring training warning about the career-ending consequences of gambling.
But there’s a big difference between committing a crime and breaking a rule.
Nearly every ballpark has advertising for betting sites and/or casinos. The Red Sox have held their Winter Weekend event at the rundown MassMutual Civic Center in recent years because it’s adjacent to the MGM Springfield casino, a team sponsor that now has a sports book.
The Cubs and Nationals have sports books adjacent to their parks and other teams are planning for the same.
Are we to believe that all of the roughly 1,200 players signed to major league contracts at any one time will absorb the temptation all around them and resist the urge to bet?
That was my question to commissioner Rob Manfred.
“The integrity of the game has to be our foremost concern all the time. That’s what the commissioner’s office came into being about and it is our most important responsibility,” he said.
“I think that the MLBPA has worked productively with us in terms of making sure that we have rules that insulate players from the increased availability of sports betting. Hats off to them for recognizing that there’s a huge difference between what Joe the Fan can do and what a major league player or a front office employee can do.”
The Players Association did not offer details on its specific actions, instead issuing a statement from executive director Tony Clark.
“Players have long been aware of the prohibitions of gambling on their sport. Those haven’t changed,” it said. “Our paramount concern is ensuring the resources and expertise are in place to protect and support players and their families.”
Red Sox executive vice president for legal and government affairs David Friedman said the team follows MLB guidelines when it comes to gambling.
Team employees cannot bet on baseball and must adhere to a code of ethics that includes keeping private any information that can be used for gambling purposes.
MLB and other leagues have access to data at sports books should they suspect someone with direct ties to a team is giving information to bettors or there is an unusual spike in betting on a game or a particular player’s performance.
“We have the most up-to-date technology resources available to make sure that we know what’s going on in that gambling space,” Manfred said.
As part of the regulations governing sports betting in Massachusetts, leagues can influence what type of prop bets can be placed. For instance, something easily influenced, such as “which player will commit the first foul” in a Celtics game, wouldn’t be allowed.
The Players Association rightfully has concerns about security. Players could be subject to harassment at the park or out in public from disgruntled gamblers. There’s also the specter of gamblers trying to entrap minor leaguers.
“This is the world we live in. It’s legalized [in Puerto Rico] and for the WBC it was through the roof the last three weeks. You have to be careful,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.
“As an industry they do an outstanding job of protecting us. MLB was here two weeks ago and made a presentation. They brought up all kinds of situations. The players are educated.”
It’s an exciting time for baseball. The new rules should make for a better product, the international fan base is growing, and young stars are gaining wider recognition.
A gambling scandal could tear all that down. As a new season starts, it’s a bigger concern than ever before.