2020 betting: MLB doubling down
When others around baseball asked the architect of MLB’s sports betting strategy whether last season felt like the first, second or third inning for the promising new business line, he often said it was none of those.
“I thought it was like the pregame,” said Kenny Gersh, EVP of gaming and new business ventures for MLB. “This was going to be the first inning.”
With the start of a truncated 2020 season finally here this week, MLB enters a betting landscape that has evolved dramatically.
At last year’s All-Star break, only New Jersey and Nevada had mobile sportsbook apps up and running. Now, mobile sports wagering is available in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Oregon, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., with Michigan and Tennessee set to join by year’s end.
Though MLB had its official-status sponsorship with MGM Resorts International in place, it wasn’t until October that it began to build out its portfolio of authorized sports betting operators — sportsbooks that pay to use the league’s official data feed as well as team and league marks. As of last week, MLB had eight sportsbooks signed on, including all but one of the leading operators, William Hill.
Nearly 20 months into its deal with data distributor Sportradar, MLB has integrated all aspects of its statcast in-stadium tracking system into its betting feed, allowing MLB-authorized sportsbooks to offer bets on any aspect of a game that can be recorded, such as pitch velocity.
And, beginning this season, MLB clubs will be able to sign sportsbooks as sponsors, so long as sports betting is legal within their broadcast territories. That means that along with the six clubs in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado and D.C., the New York Yankees and Mets and other franchises in border markets can avail themselves of the category.
Along with allowing ballpark and online advertising, the league has cleared clubs to sell a handful of 30-second spots during game broadcasts to MLB-authorized sportsbooks. Clubs also can air brief sports betting segments during pregame shows. MLB will not allow sportsbook integration during play.
“We’re trying to balance the desire of our sports betting partners to promote their products and our clubs and our media partners to generate some incremental revenue with the fact that it is a family-friendly game and we want to maintain that,” Gersh said. “We don’t want to overgamblify the sport.”
The Detroit Tigers recently became the first MLB club to announce a sportsbook sponsor, signing PointsBet, which will begin using the sponsorship to build exposure even though it is unlikely that Michigan will allow online sports betting by season’s end. More club deals are expected before Opening Day, though some may roll out quietly.
With ballparks empty, sports betting may provide one of the few sources of incremental revenue, at least for some clubs. In a sports betting world rapidly moving toward rapid-fire “in play” bets placed and resolved throughout a game, MLB finally gets its chance to show itself to be a beneficiary of that evolution.
“When we talk about the perfect sport for in-play and micro-betting, there isn’t a better sport than baseball,” said Sara Slane, a gaming consultant who advises sports and media properties. “You have a high volume of games and opportunities to bet within those games, but it’s still slow-paced enough to give operators the time to get the data feed to [set odds] and get it out to sports bettors. Baseball will be the true test to see the direct tie between in-play betting and eyeballs watching baseball. It will be a sort of litmus test for the success of true fan engagement through sports betting.”