MLB Commissioner ‘A Little Devious’ About Getting Dragged Into Sports Betting

Sports betting’s path in the United States has run a parallel course with Major League Baseball for over a century. What we remember are the moments when they overlap.

Before the 1919 Chicago White Sox were scandalous pariahs and Kenesaw Mountain Landis was brought in to scrub the sport clean, owners allowed bookmakers to set up in well-situated sections to play their trade inside ballparks.

Before Pete Rose was an outcast, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1979 banned retired Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from greeting patrons at an Atlantic City casino. They were reinstated by a new commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, in 1985.

And before Shohei Ohtani interpreter Ippei Mizuhara allegedly stole $17 million of the Dodger star’s money to pay off illegal gambling debts, MLB followed other major pro sports leagues in taking on legal sports betting companies and partners, creating new revenue streams.

That’s why Commissioner Rob Manfred asserted recently that MLB had been “dragged” into the new sports betting paradigm and was largely scoffed at by anyone who’d been paying attention. Mays’ 93 birthday coming just a few days later served as a reminder of baseball’s fickle feelings toward gambling. Once, any association with any form of it would stain the game. Legal betting could become a way to entice fan engagement and enrich the league.

The complete Manfred quote at the 2024 Associated Press Sports Editors Commissioners Meetings:

“We were kind of dragged into legalized sports betting as a litigant in a case that ended up in the Supreme Court. Having said that, I recognize — probably better today than when we were involved in that litigation — that one of the advantages of legalization is it’s a heck of a lot easier to monitor what’s going on than it is with an illegal operation.”

Gaming Today spoke with Jacob Pomrenke, head of the Black Sox Scandal Research Committee at the Society for American Baseball Research, about how baseball’s relationship with betting has evolved.

MLB gambling history
AP Photos of Buck Weaver and Rafael Devers at Fenway Park. Brant James illustration.

Was MLB Dragged Into Legal Sports Betting?

JP: Certainly, that’s a generous interpretation of baseball’s attitude toward legalized gambling. They didn’t have much influence on the when and the how of the Supreme Court decision, and obviously if the decision had gone a different way, we’d be in a different place.

Baseball didn’t have a lot of control over that, but they certainly were well-prepared for legalization, and it was only a few months after the decision was made that they partnered with BetMGM as [official gaming and entertainment partner]. They were well-prepared for the landscape to change.

Interpreting the decision as “we were dragged into it” is a little devious. But the landscape has changed, and it behooves all the professional sports leagues to have a plan. Not only for gambling and the promotion of it and all that but also for the integrity side of things.

MLB’s Gambling Legacy Long, Complex by Gaming Today

Baseball wasn’t “dragged” to legal sports betting reality despite pained past

Read on Substack

 

Could and Would MLB Renounce Their Gambling Partnerships?

JP: I don’t see it going away entirely. I think the history of any type of regulation of vice, so to speak, especially in the United States, once it’s out of the bag, it’s out. And I don’t think there’s any way we’re going back to any sort of prohibition era as it relates to sports gambling.

But I do see, as we’ve seen in Europe, especially in England, that there will certainly have to be regulations. There will have to be more limits placed on the promotion of sports gambling. We’re currently in a Wild West era in the US. It’s everywhere.

There will be some regulations on how many ads can be placed and when and where, especially at the ballpark. Right now, they’re trying to take advantage as quickly as possible and make as much money as possible without much regulation. But at some point, they’re going to have to regulate it.

And that could be because of a scandal. It could be because of gambling addiction issues. There are all sorts of reasons that could expedite that process.

I do think the history of any type of regulation of vice, so to speak, especially in the United States, once it’s out of the bag, it’s out.

None of Which Being Willie Mays Shaking Hands at a Casino?

Willie Mays gambling
AP Photo

JP: The fact that Major League Baseball has embraced legalized gambling so quickly and comprehensively shows how much the landscape has changed. Because if somebody like Mays and Mantle can get suspended or banned for being a greeter, being employed adjacent to a casino operation, and now Major League Baseball, it seems they can willingly enter into many different partnerships with those same companies, and sometimes the same casinos. It shows how much the landscape has changed and how quickly it changed.

Because I think even 10 years ago, if someone like Willie Mays had been trying to do the same, somebody would’ve possibly reached out and said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that. Nobody in baseball should be associated with these companies.’ It’s changed very quickly. Again, I think they see dollar signs and revenue streams that didn’t exist before. And they’re trying to get all they can before that runs out.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Portions of the interview have been edited for style and clarity.

About the Author
Brant James

Brant James

Senior Writer
Brant James is a senior writer who covers the sports betting industry and legislation at Gaming Today. An alum of the Tampa Bay Times, ESPN.com, espnW, SI.com, and USA Today, he's covered motorsports and the NHL as beats. He also once made a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rode to the top of Mt. Washington with Travis Pastrana. John Tortorella has yelled at him numerous times.

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