Opinion: Bigger Threats Exist Than Spring Training Betting

MLB Taking Its Eye Off The Ball With Ask For Spring Training Betting Ban

Spring training

Recently, Major League Baseball (MLB) has taken to requesting that the gaming regulators across the country take spring training bets off the board.

MLB has argued these events are not conducive to sports betting, which may or may not be true. There are certainly problems with taking wagers on glorified practice where players are often working on specific aspects of their game rather than trying to win.

But betting on these games is taking place; it is taking place offshore and illegally. US-based legal books have offered low limits on the spring training games, as they did on the Oscars.

These low limits take much of the profit-making incentive of match-fixing out of the game. By having a legal regulated market that is performing under normal market conditions, it can serve as a baseline for identifying irregular line movements elsewhere.

In fact, taking the spring training games off the board could increase the risk of a fixed spring training game going undetected.

How match-fixing happens

Like an avalanche pouring down a mountain, match-fixing is often something that takes place with a series of conditions.

It rarely just happens out of the blue. Declan Hill identified three conditions that facilitate match fixing:

  • Low wages
  • Appearance of corruption or integrity issues surrounding the league
  • Vast illegal gambling markets

The first (such as low-level minor leaguers) and third are obviously present. Judge the presence of the second for yourself. Eliminating legal options for wagering and thereby giving a monopoly to illegal books exacerbates the problem.

Where to start

In order for high-level match-fixers to make money, they first need to predetermine the outcome of an event or an event within a sporting event. They then need to begin to get down as much money as possible, without drawing the eye of regulators or bookmakers (not in on the fix).

High-level fixers are sophisticated and run multimillion-dollar operations, which operate on a global level. There are simply not large enough limits US legal sports betting to make it worthwhile for a sophisticated enterprise to fix a spring training game.

With approximately only a couple hundred legal options to place a bet in the US, the level of sophistication to fix a game where a player might play two innings and to place max wagers at 200-plus sportsbooks without attracting attention is virtually impossible.

The costs associated with attempting to fix a spring training game in the US would likely be better invested in a savings account.

Why do players fix games?

Motivations for match-fixing vary. Certainly some athletes are susceptible to bribery and will act on a financial motivation to fix a match.

This is how many college athletes succumb to match-fixers. We have previously seen that it does not take much to fix a collegiate game at the NCAA Division I level. As part of the investigation into Gary Manni and the Toledo fix, players were bribed with small payments of up to $500, as well as small payments for necessities. That was all it took to get players to fix games.

Fear can motivate as well

Other match-fixers use threats of violence.

Henry Hill “joked” about how hard it would be for Boston College player Rick Kuhn to play with a broken arm. According to the story, Hill told player Jim Sweeney: “How would your honey feel if she came home to see you wearing a bracelet with your [genitals] hanging from it?”

Simply because Hill made payments to the players, it did not mean that the bribery was not accompanied by extortion.

The Boston College example, like the Toledo example, illustrates the vulnerabilities of collegiate athletes, particularly those looking to make a few bucks. Match-fixing conspiracies are often fluid events moving among bribery, extortion, and blackmail.

The call is coming from inside the house

But the far greater threats faced by professional sports leagues are their employees themselves.

Players, coaches, trainers, and referees are all parties to inside information, with capabilities to impact the outcome of games. Anytime a player is not performing at 100 percent, they are effectively manipulating the outcome of an event.

This may be strategic. For instance, a player might be conserving energy for a future event, but these decisions have an impact on the integrity of the game, as well as the betting markets.

Lone-wolf fixers?

Another threat facing sports leagues is the individual insider acting alone, as in the Tim Donaghy situation, when a bettor with inside information places bets on games in which he can influence the outcome.

(We speak only of Donaghy as a bettor and have no opinion on allegations he actually fixed games).

Had Donaghy simply continued betting on his own, without involving others, it would have been nearly impossible for the leagues to detect the betting. Individual actors performing at a subpar level are nearly impossible to stop.

It is one of the few ways that a regular season professional sporting event in America, on par with an MLB game, could be fixed.

Keep an eye on the posse

Other ways games are fixed come from players’ proclivities and associates. There are maybe a dozen people on earth who have the money necessary to get a Tom Brady-esque quarterback to fix a game.

But some things are more valuable than money, and this is how professional sporting events could be vulnerable. Drugs, gambling addictions, and undesirable associates are all greater threats to fixing professional sporting events.

All these match-fixing activities are extremely high-risk. The idea that a criminal mastermind would risk the consequences associated with extortion to fix a match that they can arguably make at most a couple hundred thousand dollars is unlikely.

While not an insignificant amount of money, there are much more cost-effective ways to come up with that sum.

What To Make Of This

Spring training is glorified practice. The players play for a few innings, and many will never see a major-league field from anywhere but the stands. If that betting on that interests someone, have at it — or go buy some lottery tickets because that is the same level of skill that goes into picking winners, or totals of a spring game.

Someone attempting to fix a game would likely not be doing it for the money. It would simply be to damage the reputation of a team, or league, or person.

In order for match-fixing to be worth it, fixers need to be able to get their money down and spread across as many books as possible. It would be virtually impossible to make it worth fixing a Spring Training game.

In the same way the MLBPA argued before Congress back in 1998 that no one is going to fix a fantasy sports contest, there are just too many moving pieces that need to be controlled to make it feasible.

Keeping bets in illegal markets, though, makes it all the more difficult to identify a fix, even on the minuscule chance anyone would seek to do it.

John Holden
- John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.
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