With New Gambling Partnership, MLB Is Willing To Abandon Its Recent Priorities

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren speak to the media during an announcement between MLB and MGM Resorts International at the Office of the Commissioner on Tuesday, November 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

In the time since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalization of sports gambling, the professional sports world has nearly had to hold its composure about how excited it is about the opportunities that now lie ahead. The embrace from the big four sports leagues did not take long to be realized, as the NBA and NHL quickly leap into respective deals to partner their product with official gambling outlets.

This week Major League Baseball took its turn at the proverbial plate, announcing a multi-year deal to allow MGM to bring the game officially into the new era of sanctioned wagering. In the agreement, the MGM brand will be labeled as the “official gambling partner” of Major League Baseball, an alignment that still is seems odd considering the checkered (putting it lightly) past of the sport with ties to gambling.

The implementation of the deal is still a work in progress. Per mandate of the Supreme Court, each individual state must still vote to approve and create oversight for the practice within its borders. But many states have already set in motion the necessary steps to facilitate new gaming practices, with many more set to follow shortly afterwards. The lure of the potential new revenue is simply too much to deny; a lure that has spun an unprecedented amount of possibility in both the in-stadium and home viewing experience. Thus, the MLB has abandoned any previous notions of a one-foot-in-the-pool approach for this newly found inclusiveness of legalized gambling.

How will this page turn and manifest itself though? The upside is wide-spanning and could truly revolutionize the in-game experience – both within the stadium and beyond. There are a litany of free betting websites that will be able to provide unprecedented access to sports betting, odds, sportsbooks and fantasy sports in interactive ways that were unimaginable as recently as this past summer.

The future could hold in-season betting options, stadium suites with specialized casino-style options and even displays on the scoreboards to pull in the live crowd. For MLB itself, this could be especially enticing, as the league has steadily been asking how to best enhance the extensive – and sometimes tedious — experience of consuming a full game.

With pace of play concerns continuing to cast a large shadow on the MLB experience, the possibility of adding another interactive element is an extraordinary opportunity. It's one that even commissioner Rob Manfred could not avoid mentioning during an otherwise mundane announcement of the partnership:

For anybody who has followed the official agenda of the game over the last few years, that is a strange sentiment to see uttered by the commissioner. The part that sticks out most prominently here is the reference to ‘in between plays’. The structure of a baseball game represents an incredible amount of pause time between plays to allow for prop bets of all sorts. Regarding in-game options and live experience, Major League Baseball is in an extraordinary position to revamp its product via this foray.

Could baseball suddenly stop worrying about its pace of play initiatives? (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest argument for pace of play changes in baseball has been the amount of dead time between plays and for strategy allotments. It is why stepping out of the batter’s box has been cracked down on, visits to the pitching mound during a game have been capped, and more stringent plans were seemingly imminent – until now. Based on the additional statements Manfred made, it appears that suddenly he is no longer concerned with what has been one of the prime focuses of time in the commissioner’s chair.

Of course, there is a level of clear hypocrisy that exists with the sport’s interest in now monetizing its established Achilles' heel. But there is also the understandable excitement in the change of course, especially for Manfred, who is an employee of the 30-member owners of MLB. Aside from policing the balance between the interests of ownership and the players, a major component of his job is to ensure his employers continue to line their pockets to fullest extent allowable. And with the access to sanctioned gambling income now imminent, the potential value of their teams just skyrocketed. This puts Manfred in the clear position of needing to shift his focus from his previous agenda and towards the more lucrative one facing the league.

Perhaps it is opportunistic. Maybe it is as simple as making the most of an oddly favorable turn of fortune. Either way, after years of Manfred’s administration treating pace of play as the top threat to the future of the game, he now appears to view it as an asset due to the opportunity of monetization that has now been realized.

And honestly, it is hard to blame him. It is rare the outside world shows such a fitting fortune to a league in need. In comparison to the other big four North American leagues, MLB was most in need of a change of direction regarding the perception of its live product. As of 2017, the average live time of an MLB game was 3 hours and five minutes, up five minutes from the year before. This was despite a drop in amount of replays and the institution of the warm-up clock between innings.

The NBA and NHL, whom are the espresso of live sporting events at a two-and-a-half-hour average broadcast pace – without even considering the pacing of the game itself – are elite marathoners in comparison to baseball's amateur runner pace.

One exception to the rule, as is usually the case, is the NFL. Although the average NFL game contains only 11 minutes of actual action over its sixty minutes of game time, the intensity of the bursts makes up for the three hours of viewing time an average game requires.

Baseball finds itself in a purgatory place between keeping up with the times and tastes of viewers, as well as making necessary adjustments to trim the fat around its presentation. But the benefits of wholly embracing the gambling community are undeniable, especially in the case of raising viewership. As the fantasy football boom has shown, expanding interest in the entirety of a league can be garnered by the individualized focus that gambling – traditional, fantasy or DFS — can bring. And no league could use more of that sentiment, fabricated or not, than MLB.

More viewers equal higher advertising rates. The legalization of wagering on games also fosters previously impossible sponsorships and corporate interest. All in all, it is a cash cow that MLB would be foolish to not take advantage of from the first pitch at Opening Day to the final out of the World Series.

Yet in the face of opportunity, does it mean that the game will now look to scale back the periods of inactivity that were detrimental to the game as recently as a month ago? Does this mean that the league will now forgo the institution of play clocks, roster usage limits and clipped commercial times in an effort to make the most of the gambling opportunities that lie ahead? It is completely understandable that MLB would as the legal changes have opened up doors that were impossible to consider in the past, but it does make one wonder what else could be up for revised considerations in this brave new world.

What other dominos could be set to turn as well? Could the cases of Pete Rose and 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson be up for more considerate review now? Will a sport whose culture is so entrenched in the past be able to marry the world of yesteryear with the opportunities of the future? And since the door is now open, how far will it be allowed to swing? The players' union involvement could absolutely impact the upcoming collective bargaining agreement in unpredictable ways.

The winds of change are blowing as strong as ever within a league that has staunchly held on to its rituals and traditions with a stronger grip than any other of its peers. The defining moment of commissioner Manfred’s time over the game could be told by how he balances this opportunity moving ahead.

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