As we approach the 100th anniversary of the infamous Black Sox scandal, Major League Baseball is again grappling with the issue of betting on games.
Ever since eight players on the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball for conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, the game has been unyielding in its opposition to betting–just ask Pete Rose.
But times have changed, and a Supreme Court ruling last year cleared the way for any state to legalize betting on baseball and every other sport. Like it or not, all professional sports and the NCAA have to deal with this new reality.
Their biggest fear is that with large amounts of money riding on the outcome of games, gamblers will be tempted to bribe players and others to fix games. This is a particular fear of the NCAA, a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that relies on unpaid student labor to thrive.
Because of the nature of the betting, baseball is a harder game to influence than basketball and football, which attract a lot more betting dollars anyway. Unlike the point spreads offered in other sports, baseball bettors bet into a money line that requires their team to win the game in order to cash a ticket.
Let’s say the Giants are playing the Dodgers in L.A. The 10-cent money line posted in Vegas might look like the following:
Giants +120, Dodgers -130
The Dodgers are favored in this game. If you agree with the bookies and bet LA, you would risk, say, $130 to win $100. If you bet the underdog Giants, you would risk $100 to win $120. (It’s called a 10-cent line because of the difference between 120 and 130. You’ll see 15- and 20-cent lines early in the season, but the 10-cent line becomes the standard around June 1.)
The betting line is determined largely by the starting pitchers–if a healthy Clayton Kershaw started this game against any Giants’ pitcher other than Madison Bumgarner, the Dodgers would be much bigger favorites. A gambler would probably have to bribe one of the starting pitchers or the home plate umpire to tilt the game his way, something unlikely to happen unless we’re talking about really big money.
But so-called proposition bets tied to a particular game can be manipulated by others. For example, the number of hits or errors, wild pitches or passed balls–all totals you can bet on–is influenced by the official score keeper. To forestall any problems, MLB has promised a clearer set of rules governing these decisions and more rigorous oversight.
Just to make sure, MLB has hired Sportradar to use its proprietary algorithms to look for statistical anomalies and other suspicious activity. Starting this season, teams will have to submit their starting lineups to the commissioner’s office at least 15 minutes before game time, presumably to thwart people with inside knowledge about the star slugger being scratched from the starting lineup.
More problematic in sports betting is the ability to influence point spreads, which determine who wins and loses football and basketball bets. This is a particular issue when one team is a heavy favorite. The casual fan may not care if a 15-point favorite wins a basketball game by 14 or 16 points, but it’s a big deal to gamblers, and something that can be manipulated.
What the professional leagues and NCAA don’t seem to realize is that the people who will take a big hit if a game is fixed–the sport books–are hyper sensitive to suspicious activity and are quick to act on their suspicions. That’s how the last major betting scandal in sports–the one involving the 1993-94 Arizona State basketball team–was exposed.
ASU had a tournament-bound team then, led by point guard Stevin Smith, the leading scorer in what was then the Pac-10. But Smith had a sports betting problem–he kept betting on the losing teams–and owed a bookie $10,000.
Smith was offered the chance to erase the debt and make some money–all he had to do was shave the winning margin in games where Arizona State was heavily favored. This isn’t hard to do for a point guard. A few errant passes or ill-advised shots, being a step slow guarding a shooter–any of these actions can make the final score closer than it should be.
The plan was put into action Jan. 27, 1994, when Oregon State, a 14.5-point underdog, visited the Sun Devils. The bookie and his associates bet $500,000 in 30 different Vegas sports books on the Beavers. ASU won the game by just six points–Smith had a bad shooting night–and they repeated their success a few days later, this time betting $1 million on Oregon to cover the spread.
That’s when the antenna of the sports books went up. First, nobody bets that kind of money on Arizona State games, and it was being bet by people sports book personnel didn’t recognize. The betting line on the Oregon game moved sharply against the Ducks, but that didn’t slow down the betting–a red flag to professional gamblers.
The managers of several sports books compared notes and concluded the fix was in. They notified the NCAA and the Las Vegas office of the FBI. It took awhile, but the betting operation was exposed and several people went to prison. ASU coach Bill Frieder lost his job and never coached again.
The sports books, which operate on narrow margins, will make sure the NCAA and professional leagues stay on the straight-and-narrow. They have too much to lose if the games aren’t legit.
As long as we’re on the subject of betting, here are a couple of examples of why it’s difficult to beat the bookies, and why there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
–If you scanned the college point spreads March 2, two games jumped out at the knowledgeable bettor: Houston, which had one loss and was overpowering every opponent, was just a 7.5 point favorite against Central Florida, and Nevada, loser of just two games this season, was a “pick” against Utah State.
Both of those betting lines looked like trap games and, sure enough, a lot of bettors were trapped. Both Houston and Nevada lost.
–The Phoenix Suns, which have the worst record in the NBA, swept their season series with Milwaukee, which has the best record in the NBA.
The Book of Metrics has become the new bible for baseball general managers, who have been unwilling to spend big money on free agents because the stats tell them they can sign players who are almost as good for a lot less money.
One exception to this trend is the Philadelphia Phillies, who signed prized free agent Bryce Harper to a 13-year deal worth $330 million. While they were at it, the Phillies traded for big-ticket catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura, and signed fading outfielder Andrew McCutchen to a three-year, $50 million deal.
If these signings work and Philly wins big, guess what’s going to happen: Forget about metrics, open the checkbook!
Things are getting so bad for the Los Angeles Lakers, Snoop Dogg offered to sell his box seats for just $5.
LeBron James has proved that while teams need great players, basketball is still a team game. Magic Johnson has yet to work any miracles as president of basketball operations, and coach Luke Walton is being set-up to be the fall guy for the team’s disappointing performance.
Here are three quick fixes to the Lakers’ problems:
–Walton should take the hint and go after the UCLA coaching job. It wouldn’t take much to achieve success in the sorry Pac-12 conference.
–Jeanie Buss, who seized control of the team from her brothers after their father died, should fire Johnson and bring in her old boy friend, Phil Jackson, to run the team.
–James should be encouraged to take his talents elsewhere.
As long as we’re on the subject of hand wringing and angst, let’s discuss the Golden State Warriors. The concern being expressed for the team’s fortunes now are the same as the ones expressed a year ago, when Golden State finished the regular season 7-10. Like last year, the Warriors will be fine when the playoffs start.