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Keith Strudler: Betting On Pitches

I’ve said this before, but I am not a big fan of gambling – sports or otherwise. Every time I put money into a slot machine, I think about how much candy I could get for the same amount. Even winning feels more like a relief than a victory. So I’m not overly excited by the expansion of sports gambling opportunities in the US, just like I’m not particularly excited about new versions of the Whopper at Burger King or bigger roller coasters at Disney. But I also realize that puts me potentially in the minority of sports fans – about gambling, although probably Burger King as well.

Riding something of a national wave prompted by the Supreme Court’s overturn of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which opened up legal sports wagering nationwide, yesterday Major League Baseball announced an official partnership with MGM, the gambling behemoth that owns casinos nationwide. This comes in addition to MGM’s partnerships with the NBA, WNBA, and the NHL, making the entertainment corporation your one stop shop for arena based gambling needs. This partnership will allow MGM a unique presence during baseball broadcasts, streams, apps, and at stadiums. It will also give the casinos access to fairly proprietary baseball data that’s currently only available to the teams themselves. And baseball will have access to the millions of people in MGM’s database, as well as a multi-million dollar check from the casino – although nothing near what they get from other revenue streams, like television or sponsorships.

In the end, for MLB, this deal is about much more than making a few dollars or even getting an email list. This is about building interest in a sport that’s again seeing a rise in empty seats in the ball park. There are likely several reasons for this, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with baseball. And remember, it’s hard to know what constitutes a trend. But with gambling, baseball hopes that fans would find more reasons to pay attention during games. And the whole game, since the periodic play of baseball allows for gambling for the whole nine innings. Like whether a single batter gets a hit in the bottom of the 8th. Or the speed of someone’s pitch in the 7th. Given the pace of baseball and the time between innings, and even between at bats and pitches, fans would have ample time to place wagers on their phones to, as they say, keep it interesting. And for a lot of people it might, even if it does nothing for me personally. Which means that with the Supreme Court decision and partnerships like these, baseball and other sports could find themselves safely in the black until the next existential crisis comes.

But perhaps the story here isn’t simply baseball’s fiscal viability. Perhaps it’s really the law of unintended consequences. By both legal interpretation and baseball’s acceptance of this new reality, their sport itself could change. Think of a sporting event, particularly a baseball game, as something of story, complete with a narrative arc, heroic archetypes, and all the other elements that often make sport both wonderful spectator fare and the foundation of countless books and movies. In making gambling an official, and now actually sanctioned part of the game, that storyline may change into a series of digestible moments. Instead of watching a baseball game for its narrative, perhaps fans may now instead consume it in fairly unrelated chunks. It’s kind of like music today. No one listens to the whole album anymore.

Of course, any realist – and baseball’s commissioner Rob Manfred is a realist – and lawyer as well – they’d recognize that fighting the short attention span of the general populace is like trying to eat an ice cream cone in the summer in Arizona – it’s just a losing battle. It’s the same reasons journalists have taken to twitter, even though the vast majority would much prefer you read the entire article instead of a convenient sound bite. If baseball had simply stood on ceremony, particularly given the court interpretation on gambling, they’d effectively idly sit by while others made money on their product. So at the very least, Major League Baseball is taking control of their destiny, both fiscally and otherwise.

That was the same thinking of the NBA and NHL. Of course the NFL, the grand champion of all American sports gambling outside the NCAA Final Four, has yet to formalize a casino deal. Individual teams like the Dallas Cowboys have. I’m certain that when football makes their move, this partnership with baseball will feel like penny ante. Which perhaps is why Major League Baseball is smart to cash in while they can.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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