Evan Kaplan said he gets at least two calls a week from agents looking to clarify what major league players can and can’t do as brand ambassadors for legal mobile sportsbooks, deals that have the potential to broaden their clients’ portfolios.
“Agents are champing at the bit and begging to get in,” Kaplan said.
As the managing director of the for-profit branch of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLB Players Inc.), Kaplan helps kindle new revenue opportunities for major league players. He had spoken with representatives of Charlie Blackmon’s ACES agency, so he was aware of a new deal between MaximBet and the Colorado Rockies’ veteran outfielder, announced last week, that was the first of its kind between an active player and a sports betting operator.
Emerging market for regional stars?
So far, only two active North American professional athletes have such deals with gambling outfits: NHL superstar Connor McDavid and Blackmon, one of the Rockies’ most popular players.
Kaplan said there may be more in the not-too-distant future, as agents, like teams and the league itself, look to cash in on the rush of marketing dollars in the relatively new industry. He said most of the queries he receives from agents involve potential endorsement deals with either CBD businesses or gambling operators, not surprising since the two previously verboten industries have grown alongside one another in recent years.
CBD is a chemical derived from the same plant that produces marijuana, though it does not cause users to get high. MLB players no longer are tested, but remain subject to discipline if they’re caught using THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
“CBD isn’t regulated, so we say, ‘Stay the hell out of it. You don’t want to get banged for what’s in it,’“ Kaplan said. “Then there’s gambling. They’re all looking to find their deals.”
Players can’t encourage betting on baseball
The stakes remain high for players to get it right, as MLB hasn’t changed its stance on betting on baseball or even offering advice to other gamblers looking to win on the sport.
Though others have made the parallel, the new collective bargaining agreement, which allows such brand ambassadorships, would do nothing to help the causes of, say, Pete Rose or Joe Jackson. Those ex-players received lifetime bans for betting on baseball and conspiring with baseball gamblers to fix scores, respectively.
The distinction really isn’t all that complicated. At every visiting and home clubhouse for every affiliated team in the U.S., players can view the gambling rules on conspicuous signs entering the room. Betting on baseball or getting involved with those who do still spells disaster for players.
“Can a player sign up for Bet.com and get 300 free dollars to bet? Yes. Can they help with promotions and do events with gamblers, meet face-to-face? Yes, so long as they’re not getting in front of the guys and saying, ‘Bet on this,’“ Kaplan said. “It’s all tied back to the integrity of the game. It’s the same approach and restrictions that the teams have.”
MLB bends with the times
Kaplan said that clearing the way for active players to sign brand-ambassador contracts was among the first items the MLBPA and MLB checked off the list when they were in CBA negotiations during a lockout that spanned more than three months. Considering the talks were all about dividing up the revenue pie, depriving the players of their share of an emerging source of dollars likely would have been a non-starter.
“If the teams can go and have a partner, why can’t the players in this space? MLB didn’t fight on it. As soon as we opened, it was one of the early topics they got resolved,” he said. “They said, ‘Yeah, this is fair and it’s the same for the players as it is for the team and the league. Just protect the integrity of the game.'”
From a historical perspective, MLB certainly has come a long way from the days when it banned retired greats Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle because they took jobs as goodwill ambassadors for casinos in the late 1970s and early 1980s — bans that were later lifted by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
Major League Baseball itself has four authorized gaming partners: FanDuel, DraftKings, FOX Bet and BetMGM. Teams in states with legalized gambling — including the Chicago Cubs (DraftKings), the Washington Nationals (BetMGM), and the New York Mets (Caesars) — have secured their partnerships with gambling operators, all of which will include in-stadium retail sportsbooks when they are completed. The Yankees are the latest team to jump on the gambling wagon, having just beefed up their deal with FanDuel.
Will opportunities evaporate?
The rush to secure brand-ambassador deals by agents isn’t surprising when you consider the lack of marketing opportunities available to MLB players relative to those in other sports. Because baseball fans skew older and because MLB players don’t get as much face time on TV as, say, NBA stars, baseball players have long lamented their lack of major endorsement deals.
Gambling operators tend to have hyper-local focus as they navigate each state’s unique set of gambling regulations, so they figure to offer more such deals to regional stars like Blackmon in the future, depending on how well things go in Colorado. The question the operators are asking themselves is how much they get out of such arrangements.
One benefit could be offering high rollers the opportunity to meet Blackmon or other players.
“Players can go in and have events, they can bring their whales for meet-and-greets and for autographs and pictures,” Kaplan said. “But just like the agents, they’re trying to figure out how much value is added and why they would want to work with us.”
As the gambling industry matures, there’s a pretty good chance operators will zero in on marketing strategies that work best for them. Deals like Blackmon’s could dry up once market shares become relatively stable and operators reduce initial marketing spends. In the meantime, MLB players, like a lot of other people in pro sports, are scrambling to get their share of the action.