How gambling can help make baseball America's pastime again

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

The ability of the human mind to conceive of different ways to gamble is truly wondrous. We bet on cards and wheels and dice and machines and animals of all manner and variety. We allow our economy to ever teeter on Wall Street’s risks. We wager on who shot J.R. and when actual people will die. We crave the exacta, adore the trifecta, worship the superfecta. Important men and women parley. Gambling men and women parlay.

Nothing stokes our love of gambling quite like sports. Sports exist for four reasons: to satiate our competitive fire, to challenge our physical ability, to rally our communities and to fulfill our unquenchable desire to juice an event by adding some action. Fantasy has become our reality. That it took until May 14, 2018, for the United States to finally reach a point at which legalized sports gambling around the country was a possibility is every bit as wondrous as our collective degeneracy in dreaming up things to gamble on.

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Because Americans – well, Americans may well love to gamble as much as anyone, and that the country needed a multi-billion-dollar underground economy to swell for decades felt particularly un-American. Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that took away Nevada’s monopoly on legal sports gambling served as the first step to this brand-new world where our sports gambling options will be as plentiful as our minds allow.

Want to bet on whether a pitch will be a ball or strike? It’s coming.

Care to wager on the exit velocity of a batted ball? Some state will make it happen.

Need that 7-1 game between two teams 30 games under .500 on Sept. 1 to matter? In this new world, where a $50 billion economy is set to blossom, every pitch, every swing, every moment that seemed meaningless otherwise matters.

Perhaps no sport stands to benefit as much as Major League Baseball. Its essence is its numbers. Its dataset is so rich that the game has been fundamentally altered over the last decade on account of it. This is the second wave of that sabermetric revolution. The first benefited executives and teams that took numbers and translated them into victories. Now, the power of analytics will appeal to the masses, for whom gambling is going to be so accessible and commonplace that their desire to find an edge will germinate from piles of digits. Thirty teams, 15 games a day, 162 games a year, 300 pitches a game. It’s a gambler’s paradise.

Perhaps no sport stands to benefit as much from Monday’s Supreme Court sports gambling ruling as Major League Baseball. (AP)
Perhaps no sport stands to benefit as much from Monday’s Supreme Court sports gambling ruling as Major League Baseball. (AP)

First, of course, the scope of the law must come into focus. Congress could enact nationwide laws. The likelier outcome is for it to kick the responsibility to the states, which would cause the sort of free-for-all that could take baseball from a fringe sport for bettors to a main attraction.

Even if it doesn’t have the ease of a point spread like football and basketball, baseball’s granularity – its ability to be broken down into plays and sub-plays and other branches still of that same play – is a gambler’s dream. Baseball isn’t a sport past its time. It’s Keno for sports: the constant feedback, the instantaneous dopamine rush, the desire not to wait for the end of the game but to see something now, now, now.

All these years of baseball frowning upon gambling, it turns out, was nothing more than a smokescreen. Because of Pete Rose, because of the Black Sox, because of the ever-present threat it wanted the world to believe exists, MLB needed to put up that façade. In the meantime, it partnered up with daily-fantasy operators and worked behind the scenes to forge an agreement with the NBA to seek a so-called 1 percent “integrity fee” to … well, the leagues argue they want to be as vigilant as possible in protecting the sanctity of their game, but the truth is obvious: 1 percent of a $50 billion industry is $500 million, and $500 million annually is some rake.

Strong salaries for player tend to be all the integrity they need; the cost of bribery for a millionaire exceeds nearly every gambler’s bankroll. This is nothing more than a cash grab, the leagues calling shotgun on their piece of the pie before others start to understand its enormity. Peel back the lawyer speak and commissioner Rob Manfred’s position always has been clear. He doesn’t see gambling as a panacea but instead an insurance policy. Good economy, bad economy, people gamble. So long as people gamble on baseball, they’ll watch baseball. And the more people watch baseball, the better for the game.

The game will change because of it. A general manager or head of analytics will leave a team to take a job with a gambling outfit. The Ivy League brains that skipped Wall Street to instead work in sports may now see gambling as the perfect happy medium. If states do get the rights to set up shop, and one takes the leap to accept proposition bets, and the dream of tapping a phone to bet $1 on one pitch being called a ball or strike becomes a reality, surely the fallible eyes of human beings no longer will suffice to serve as the sole arbiter in scenarios where hundreds or thousands or even millions of dollars are at stake.

In other words, the advent of a robot umpire calling balls and strikes is closer thanks to the new gambling law.

Look beyond the Oxford Economics financial modeling that says legalized sports gambling in the U.S. will add 200,000 jobs and $22 billion to the GDP and realize that gambling is changing. Point spreads, brackets, squares – there will be a place for each, for the person who simply wants to dabble. For an increasingly large audience that wants more, whether it’s with baseball or football or even esports, Monday unlocked the Pandora’s box.

It will start at a betting window in New Jersey and spread to other states in the Northeast and evolve exponentially through our devices, and then it’s over, the gambling we once knew. There are infinite places where it goes, where our minds take it, because our capacity to gamble is limitless. Baseball has the rare opportunity to rebrand itself from a game with limited betting today to one that not only will embrace a new generation of gamblers but serve as its paragon of possibilities.

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