Major League Baseball is sending its most popular teams overseas next season, to one of the most established regulated sports betting markets in the world.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are slated for a two-game series in London on June 29-30, 2019. For the first time in the sport’s 150-year history, fans in the UK will be able to attend MLB games without crossing the pond.
They should be good games, too. The “Yanks” and “Sawx” are the most storied clubs in baseball, and their mutual hatred fuels a passionate rivalry. It’s the American version of Liverpool vs. Manchester United, except with more Cracker Jack and fewer bonfires.
London Stadium will serve as the host venue, with its seating reconfigured to hold 55,000 baseball fans.
MLB crossing the pond
MLB London announced the news this morning in a press conference with commissioner Rob Manfred.
“The stadium and the infrastructure in this city gives Major League Baseball every opportunity to put on a first-class event,” Manfred said. “We hope that this series will be the beginning of a relationship with London that persists, and a continuation of increased exposure for Major League Baseball here in Europe.”
MLB has held dozens of games outside of the US and Canada previously, including in Japan and Australia. This will be its first trip to Europe, though, and it apparently won’t be a one-off.
Manfred said that the league is “committed to playing in London in 2020,” with plans to “establish a long-term footprint in the city.” He did not rule out the possibility of a UK-based franchise in the future.
Watch the press conference here:
But people bet on sports in Europe!
It’s somewhat amusing to see MLB pursue a market where sports betting is so ingrained. Perhaps no other country is as comfortable with betting — especially in-game betting — as the UK. At the same time, MLB also partners with DraftKings, the daily fantasy sports site that also has a gaming license in the UK.
At home in the US, Manfred’s league is one of five waging all-out war on legalization. The four pro organizations (plus the NCAA) took New Jersey to court to block its efforts, spending who-knows-how-much money on the fight.
That fight may be coming to an end, though. The NJ sports betting case is in the hands of the US Supreme Court, and the upcoming decision could clear the way for state-based legalization. Many are predicting defeat for the leagues, and states have already begun to hear and pass sports betting bills.
As a countermeasure, lawyers and lobbyists for MLB have made the rounds in statehouses, arguing that betting poses an unspeakable threat to the integrity of baseball if they don’t get their list of demands. To hear them tell it, the game of baseball will break if more folks are allowed to bet on it without their supervision. Those in-game bets that are so popular in the UK? Those are the most nefarious, MLB argues.
Despite its testimony in state legislatures, MLB must not be too petrified about sports betting considering these efforts to bring games to the UK date back several years.
Leagues straddling the sports betting fence
The truth is sports leagues aren’t petrified about sports betting — at least not to the extent they’re claiming.
To be clear, there are some risks. The history books contain plenty of cases of betting impropriety and the manipulation of games for personal enrichment. The NBA (Tim Donaghy) and MLB (Pete Rose) have examples within their own leagues. Another betting scandal would be bad for everybody, including the leagues.
The benefits outweigh the risks by most accounts, though. Sports betting spawns fan engagement and advertising revenue, the proverbial food and water on which leagues survive. And as NBA commissioner Adam Silver will tell you, a regulated sports betting industry is easier to monitor than an unregulated one. That makes the games easier to protect.
You won’t hear the commissioners of the NFL and NHL side with Silver, but that doesn’t mean they disagree. Both leagues have maintained that even legal sports betting is a threat, but both have, at the same time, moved franchises to Las Vegas. Folks are betting on Golden Knights hockey games inside the arena, and they’ll soon be doing so for Raiders football games, too. And now the MLB is courting a betting-friendly fanbase in the UK.
The leagues aren’t against sports betting as a concept, they just don’t want to be left out of the profits. The NBA and MLB have suggested that operators pay them a “sports betting rights and integrity fee,” to help them protect their game. Seeing as those integrity fees could amount to billions of dollars in leagues’ pockets in a widespread US expansion, there will be no conceding the issue for now.