Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA), gave this progress report late last month prior to the Super Bowl:
“A year ago, we were discussing 11 legal sports betting markets, with prospects for 15 more as the year would go on. Today, there are 20 states plus the District of Columbia with legalized sports betting, reflecting the steady growth since the Supreme Court overturned PASPA nearly 20 months ago, a tremendous success by any measure. I’ve worked in Washington for a long time, and I am hard-pressed to come up with another example where something has moved this quickly through statehouses all over this country.”
Miller added that Fan Duel recently reported that when their books opened in New Jersey, nine out of ten of their acquired sports book customers had previously bet illegally. “That’s real progress against our longstanding goal: shut down the illegal marketplace by enabling consumer protections that only exist in the regulated market.”
Expansion this year is already in the bank: “We already know that seven jurisdictions with legal but not yet operational sports betting—Colorado, DC, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina and Tennessee—could all be operational by the start of the next NFL season in September,” Miller said.
So what could possibly go wrong? Or better yet, how should the gaming industry be thinking about potential barriers to getting the most out of the sports betting opportunity?
To which I would say, how about those Astros?
Before we get into that, let’s acknowledge what strange times we live in. Everything is rigged, rigged, I tell ya; the economy, elections, even the 2017 World Series. Disbelief is nothing new. As historian Yuval Harari put it: “Are we living in a post-truth era? Yes, but that’s because we’re a post-truth species. Fake news is as old as lies, half-truths and prejudice. But the spread of mistruth and propaganda has become an industry unto itself, fueled by the power of social media and the breakdown of what used to be called the gatekeepers of information.”
Sports has long represented an escape from messy reality, but they too have been marred repeatedly by scandal or the whiff, real or imagined, of the fix being in. For instance, when I was a kid (dating myself here) and the Jets shocked the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III, suspicion that was never supported by a shred of meaningful evidence was in the air. Earl Morrall’s failure to spot a wide open Jimmy Orr waving his arms in futility 37 yards behind the nearest defender and all by his lonesome in the end zone became the Super Bowl’s version of the grassy knoll. Years later, Morrall would tell Orr at a golf tournament, “Jimmy, I just didn’t see you.”
As legal sports betting grows, the industry will have to be ever vigilant as it walks along the knife blade of technology. For instance, in its 2020 iGaming Report, iovation found bonus abuse to be the number one reported fraud by its iGaming customers for the third year in a row, rising a whopping 72 percent from 2018 to 2019 to the point where the bonuses lost all value to operators. “Gambling bonuses often include giving a new player house money to gamble or existing customers incentives to play more,” the report said. “Bonus abusers then use multiple accounts with different e-mail addresses in order to claim the same bonus sometimes hundreds of times, which is often against gambling operators’ terms.”
Technology, as we now know, was at the heart of the Astros 2017 real life Field of Schemes movie. As Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy put it, “It’s almost as if (the hitters) knew what pitches were coming. Because they did.” Major League Baseball’s findings brought forth all sorts of reactions from fans, including a rare alliance of feeling between Yankee and Dodger fans whose teams fell to the Astros in the 2017 postseason and a lawsuit from a DraftKings user who alleged that the cheating distorted fantasy wager outcomes.
There’s not much the gaming industry can do in such cases other than hope that the sports leagues not only police their product but come down hard enough on the offenders to create a deterrent with some teeth. In the case of the Astros, MLB, in my view, should have gone further than it did and stripped the Astros of their World Series title. That would have left much more of a mark than a $5 million fine, some lost draft picks and replacing a GM and a manager.
Then again, I’m a Yankee fan.