MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred charted an interesting new course in justifying integrity fees during an All-Star Week media tour.
Manfred pitched baseball as the supreme guardian of its integrity, a tack that would case the sport as deserving of money to protect itself.
In wide-ranging interviews with The National Press Club and The Dan Patrick Show, the commissioner credited European sports leagues with providing key advice to MLB on its legislative approach. He also expressed the most evolved perspective on mobile wagering we have heard from any league official.
Let’s go deeper into what Manfred discussed this week …
What do those guys know anyway?
Manfred spent time in both interviews advocating for MLB as the best-positioned entity to protect the integrity of the game:
“We will never delegate responsibility for those integrity issues to state regulators, whatever their expertise in the gambling area may be,” Manfred said at The National Press Club. “We have our own expertise and no one is more motivated than the commissioner’s office in baseball to make sure that there is no threat to the integrity of our sport.”
The commissioner took that a step farther with Patrick, taking a quick swipe at state-level gaming regulators:
“We need laws — whether they’re state laws, federal laws, whatever — that allow us to protect the integrity of our sport. That’s our job. We’re not going to delegate it to some regulator in New Jersey or whatever, with all due respect. We care more about it. It’s what we’re about.”
Debating which stakeholder in legal sports betting cares most seems a fool’s errand because everyone loses if integrity is breached. Nevada gaming regulators for decades have protected a sports betting business integral to the state’s casinos. Casinos cannot expect bettors to wager in an environment where they question if outcomes are rigged.
MLB lost its best chance at integrity fees when New York sports betting legislation failed in June. Its arguments for a cut of legal sports betting money mostly have fallen flat with legislators thus far. Manfred appears to be road-testing a new approach.
Manfred did not offer any details on how MLB can better protect integrity than anyone else in the realm. Assuming such details exist, they would bolster an argument that appears more strawman than strength right now.
Which one is it?
Patrick pressed Manfred on the reasoning behind the push for dollars led by MLB and the NBA.
Patrick: “Where do we stand with gambling? It feels like everybody wants to get their piece and then once they get their piece, we’ve settled that. Then all of a sudden, we have gambling.”
Manfred: “The way I think about it is this: it’s a challenge and an opportunity. On the challenge side, there’s been a lot written about us lobbying but the fact of the matter is, we talked to sports in Europe when we realized this was coming. They said the single biggest mistake you can make is not being active in trying to determine what the legal framework’s going to look like from an integrity perspective.”
That statement stands in stark contrast to what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week about his league’s involvement:
“We were asked our view on that legislation — it wasn’t something we were promoting. My preference all along has been to have consistent federal framework, but to the extent states were asking us our opinion, we were offering it.”
The NBA and MLB formed a lobbying alliance earlier this year and pitched model legislation in a half-dozen states. Their interests might not align completely, but these are two opposed viewpoints on how the leagues approach sports betting legislation.
Manfred echoed Silver, as well as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in his preference for federal sports betting legislation. No legislation has been introduced following the repeal of PASPA despite Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) saying he would do so.
“The challenge for us is to make sure that whether it’s a uniform federal scheme — which we think would be the best, certainly the easiest to operate in — or 50 state schemes, those laws develop in a way that allows us to protect the integrity of the sport,” Manfred said.
Who needs windows?
Manfred fielded a question from Patrick on in-stadium betting with an eminently informed and enlightened answer:
“That is the easiest answer in gaming because all this gaming is going to be mobile. Once you know that, you don’t have to answer questions about, are there going to be kiosks or windows or any of those things the fact of the matter is you’re going to be able to do it on your phone and you can’t stop that whether you’re in the ballpark or out of the ballpark.”
Betting windows or kiosks exist within professional sports stadiums in Europe and the United Kingdom. They came about in an era predating the proliferation of smartphones, where most legal sports betting action is headed.
Team owners and league executives do not want fans spending time on the concourse unless they are buying beers and jerseys. Standing in line to bet on the third-quarter line makes no sense for anyone and it’s encouraging that Manfred sees it.
Why would we do that?
“We know, you know — you don’t even need research, but there is research — fan engagement can be improved through gaming. People are more interested in the sport, they consume more of the sport. You want to take advantage of that opportunity without letting gaming become too intrusive. Gaming can go over the top. You kind of saw it in the DraftKings/FanDuel wars, right? That’s an example of it. We want to find that sweet spot where fans consume more of our game without the gaming becoming overwhelming.”
Manfred also expressed skepticism of integration into the league TV product — especially notable because of MLB’s deep involvement in its own TV distribution via its mobile and online platforms.
“Look at some European broadcasts of soccer — there’s been a lot of commentary about this surrounding the World Cup — on the uniforms, actual betting information in the broadcasts. We like the engagement piece but we want to be very careful to make sure that our product maintains a certain pristine quality.”
Silver talked about these issues in his press conference last week. Both commissioners seem to be in the early stages of considering product integration, which could provide both profit and punditry depending on how it is done.