Heard much about pace of play during baseball’s collective bargaining negotiations?
If not, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been paying attention. The issue apparently has yet to come up in the 88 days since Major League Baseball locked its players out. Considering Rob Manfred was practically single-minded about speeding up play in his first five years as commissioner, does that strike anyone else as a bit odd?
Granted, the two sides haven’t made enough progress on core economic issues to delve much into on-field issues before Monday, despite it being MLB’s deadline to reach an agreement before starting to cancel regular-season games. But they’re apparently deep into conversations about the structure of the playoffs, limits on optioning players to the minor leagues, and other issues that aren’t entirely monetary, so wouldn’t you at least expect a mention or two of the speed of the game?
It’s not like Manfred has already fixed it. Come to think of it, has he fixed anything? The average game in 2021 lasted 3 hours and 10 minutes, an all-time high. At the critical moment owners have to address the issue for the long term, with their partners across the table … crickets.
Four springs ago, Manfred said of his desire to cut the length of games, “I hope it’s an issue we’ll be able to find common ground with all the constituents in the game moving forward, because it is, after all, the fans that make the engine known as Major League Baseball run. They are our most important constituency.”
Has Manfred forgotten about all that? Hardly. It’s more accurate to say he’s been convinced to stop talking about it as he and the owners he works for (and, make no mistake, they are his only constituents) continue to try to fortify their investments at any cost.
If you’re here, you probably know what’s about to come next. Yeah, it’s all about legalized sports gambling. Slow games might not fit the technology-driven lifestyle of the average American, but they offer sports gamblers an opportunity for even more action. New York Yankees President Randy Levine commented on it recently:
“It’s quintessential fan engagement,” Levine said. “I think baseball lends itself really unlike any other sport to mobile sports betting. You can bet on what’s the next pitch: Is it a fastball? A curveball? How fast is it going to be? Is it going to be inside? Outside? Will the batter hit a single, a home run, or strike out? Will it go to right field? Left field? There are endless possibilities for somebody to be engaged.”
Rob Manfred on Sportico Live: "Sports betting is a massive opportunity for fan engagement."
He said Adam Silver told him to stop talking about pace of game, because baseball's pace of game is perfect for sports betting (meaning wagering between pitches and innings).
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) April 27, 2021
In-game wagering could lead the way
Here’s why Levine and others are so obsessed with in-game wagering and other forms of sports gambling: In an era in which we’re promised constant stimulation, who is going to stay tuned to a 13-4 Braves-Marlins game? Even many diehard fans of the teams would look for something else to watch. But not the person who just bet $25 that A.J. Minter gives up a run in the sixth inning at +400. Not the person with Minter on his or her fantasy squad. Talk about fan engagement.
Where the NFL and NBA can promise constant, clock-driven action to keep fans from switching channels, baseball can offer the opposite: plenty of time between activity to place the next wager. (Hey, middle reliever I’ve never heard of, throw over to first base as much as you want: It will give me time to bet on whether you’ll throw a strike if you ever actually throw the ball to the catcher.)
In-game wagering is an opportunity baseball can’t afford to mess up. With multi-billion-dollar deals with regional sports networks drying up, owners are increasingly frantic to find growth opportunities that allow them to project healthy future revenue to other investors and potential investors. One company, UK-based Genius Sports, has projected that, by 2031, in-play betting will yield over 80% of the NFL betting handle. Presumably, that number could be higher for baseball.
Teams scramble to get on gambling train
Owners clearly decided to go all-in on sports gambling. The league already has a partnership with DraftKings that could provide some cool content, including alternate broadcasts for gamblers, whenever they actually play games this season..
Teams like the Yankees that are located in states with legal sports betting have been forming or discussing partnerships with operators. Those in states without legal sports gambling are showing signs of getting antsy, worried that they’ll be left at a marginal disadvantage in securing the long-term revenue streams gambling could provide.
How does the players’ side feel about the rapid on-rush of sports gambling around the country? Unlike the owners, they’re probably mostly indifferent, other than having some curiosity about the benefit it can provide them if it is a bankable source of growth for the game. Frankly, if they studied it harder, they might find they have more leverage than they thought.
One source suggested earlier this winter that security would become an issue in these discussions, with some players concerned about irate gamblers potentially following through with social-media threats.
They haven’t had a chance to bring up ancillary issues like player safety, because they’re too busy trying to keep the owners from squeezing an even larger slice of the revenue pie. Tony Clark and his side certainly don’t want to take another clear ‘L,’ after the way the 2016 and 2020 CBA talks went. It’s doubtful they’ll spend much time in these talks trying to slow down the gambling train.
That means that Manfred and the owners have a clear runway for one of their primary goals: making baseball the most robust in-game wagering sport in the country. Now, if they can only get out of their own way and allow the players to feel they’ve made some gains (or, at least, have avoided sliding back), maybe they can make everybody happy by growing the pie rather than fighting over what’s left.
Gamblers, after all, are like everybody else. Take away their fun for long enough and, eventually, they’ll find somewhere else to get it.