Of the 21 states that currently allow legal sports betting in some capacity, 10 have some sort of prohibition on betting on collegiate athletics. And in Virginia, the next state set to legalize, there will be a ban on wagering on Virginia state teams and college prop bets. Governor Ralph Northam has until the end of this week to sign legislation that passed out of the General Assembly in March. When Washington Governor Jay Inslee in late March inked a measure that will sports wagering at tribal casinos in the state, it was also with a ban on betting on local college teams.
Legal sports betting vs. ‘protecting’ athletes
But why are some states arriving at the prohibition while others have no such reservations? As was pointed out in a Connecticut hearing earlier this year, if the state opts to ban betting on the University of Connecticut, what will stop bettors from driving to New Hampshire, which does not have a ban on college wagering, to place their bet?
The answer is that nothing will stop them, yet college administrators continue to ask lawmakers to prohibit betting on college sports altogether, or at the very least, on local teams. The scenario has played out across the country, with those in academia asking for a ban to “protect” their student-athletes from the ills of gambling, and operators on the other side, pointing out that in a legal environment, those same student-athletes would be better protected than they are now.
“From our perspective, we view legalizing and regulating sports wagering as a positive step toward protecting the underlying integrity of the individual sports,” said Cory Fox, legal and business affairs counsel for FanDuel. “With pro sports, it seems to be accepted that this is a good way to protect the integrity because we have a window into the betting. This extends to college sports, (they, too) would be better protected by having the ability to see the types of wagers made on these sports and detect abnormalities.”
For lawmakers, it’s not always quite that simple.
ICYMI: Ohio State wants state lawmakers to ban betting on the Buckeyes, college sportshttps://t.co/07wYoJJezn
— Darrel Rowland (@darreldrowland) October 19, 2019
In Illinois, it came down to politics for Representative Mike Zalewski, who championed sports betting into law.
“We did a panel with ADs, and the sentiment was ‘we don’t want it all’,” Zalewski said. “The pushback from lawmakers was ‘we do want it from a revenue standpoint.’ So, we tried to figure out a middle ground.
“We offered ‘what about not Illinois teams?’ And we got a half-hearted yes, so we ran with it. I figured if the areas with universities started picking off lawmakers one at a time, I didn’t need this headache.”
In the end, the new Illinois law bans betting on Illinois teams and college events that happen in Illinois, which means, for example, in 2022 when Northwestern hosts an NCAA Men’s Basketball Regional, betting on the event in Illinois will not be allowed. In neighboring Michigan, when Detroit is a First- and Second-Round site in 2021, betting on the event — and Michigan teams — will be legal in the state.
In states like Georgia or Louisiana, in which there are sports betting bills in the legislatures, a prohibition on betting on college sports will, at some point, mean no betting on College Football Playoff games. The Peach Bowl in Atlanta and Sugar Bowl in Louisiana are both in the rotation.
Ban doesn’t keep fans from betting the home team
But as is likely already clear in Illinois, that doesn’t mean local fans won’t bet on (or against) local teams. In Illinois, sports bettors can drive to the Indiana or Iowa borders or take a ferry to Michigan and place a bet. All three states allow state-wide mobile and betting on all colleges, though Indiana and Iowa both ban college prop bets.
In Louisiana, those bets could be placed in Mississippi, which currently only allows on-site betting, but the closest Mississippi sportsbook is less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans.
The argument that athletic directors make when testifying at sports betting hearings is that prohibiting betting on local teams will protect their student athletes. At Purdue in Indiana, the passion for protection is so fierce that it formally banned sports betting by those affiliated with the school last October. Among the other schools with similar policies are Villanova and St. Joseph’s, both of which are private schools in Pennsylvania.
A new ban identifies two more potential categories of college sports betting corruption: professors using inside information and promising better grades for point-shaving. Purdue looks to ban staff, faculty from wagering on Boilermaker sports https://t.co/aLYc2mvpxU
— Jodi Balsam (@JodiBalsam) September 24, 2019
“We really value the student-athlete experience and emphasize the student in ‘student-athlete,’” Associate Professor and University Senate Chairperson Cheryl Cooky told Sports Handle at that time. “I think it’s a different ethos, a different culture, a different philosophy than you might expect at a big-time Big 10 member.
“A faculty member … raised some concerns about our ability as a faculty to really be able to educate, mentor, and advise our students (in this new environment), and conversely, for a student-athlete to feel like they can fully trust in the academic spaces they move in.”
But that reasoning doesn’t make a lot of sense, according to lawmakers across the country.
“I’ve heard from some in the past, and this wasn’t any of my institutions in Michigan, but they’ve said, ‘this could lead to more corruption, it could lead to wanting to rig a game,'” said Michigan Representative Brandt Iden, who sponsored the Michigan sports betting bill that is now law. “Just because they are student-athletes doesn’t make them more or less susceptible to that. Betting on sports in general, there is always going to be that fear in any marketplace that it’s going to be rigged. Doesn’t make it any more or less probable if it’s limited in your state.”
Handicapping the market
Or from Representative Shawn Fluharty in West Virginia: “The professor that is betting on sports is already betting on sports prior to the legislation going forward. I think it goes more toward the NCAA, where the players are playing for free, and now that games are being bet on and there is more money out there, and maybe the students that will part of it. The NCAA needs to rework their policies.”
Both Fluharty and Iden shepherded sports betting into law in their states, and neither ever seriously considered any kind of ban on college sports. They are both avid sports bettors, but were also looking at the bottom line for their states. In Michigan, carving out Michigan and Michigan State would likely have taken a big bite out of potential tax revenue. In West Virginia, there are no pro teams and like much of the South, the sports fans in the state pin their hopes on the locals, in this case West Virginia University and Marshall.
“It wasn’t on the table,” Iden said. “I just think, again, it comes back to limiting the market. I’ve heard the arguments, and when you can bet on a quarterback then there’s more chance that he can be corrupted, and that’s just not the case. It’s interesting to hear the debates and see how things shake out” in other places.
Fluharty is more direct. Operators will tell you that cutting out any kind of betting, whether it’s colleges, props or even, say, tennis, not only allows the black market to continue to thrive, but also leaves money on the table. Fluharty was quick to do the math, and while lawmakers there discussed the possibility of a college prohibition, it was quickly abandoned.
“Why go forward with sports betting and cut out what is probably the most lucrative part of it?” asked Fluharty, the key sports betting sponsor in the Mountaineer State. “Lawmakers kind of act like no one bets on sports right now, but if I want to bet right now, I can pull out an app and it won’t be taxed or regulated and I might not get paid, but I’ll take my chances.
“To carve out your local schools and prop bets, it makes no sense to me. The data — this really should be a data-driven decision — but I think that in politics emotion gets into it. And that happened with sports betting.”
Operators always on hunt for cheaters
FanDuel’s Fox said operators work in tandem with regulatory agencies and sometimes other state offices to look for the possibility of cheating. The companies hunt for “abnormalities,” which could indicate a bettor with a gambling problem or a rigged game.
Operators, for example, would note unusual activity around a certain game as potential tampering. Fox posits that given the amount of eyes on big-time games in this place in time, it’s much tougher to rig a big-time college basketball game than it was in 1994, when Arizona State basketball players were point shaving. It was bookmakers who uncovered the scandal.
A Look Back
6'0 Arizona St PG Stevin (Hedake) Smith
2X All-Pac10 & member of Arizona St 1994 point shaving scandal. Smith was in debt to a bookie for 10K in which he was told to win a game by 6 pts to clear his debt he scored 39 pts on 10-3s for the W. Learn more @TheLastBet44 pic.twitter.com/B2GX12KyIy
— ALL-MET ELITE (@all_metelite) September 22, 2019
“You can look for a lot of money bet on short odds, that’s sometimes an indication that something is wrong, or conversely a lot of money on long odds,” Fox said. “The amount of money that patrons are trying to bet on a certain event, if it’s out of line with what the bettor usually bets or out of line with everyone else” it’s usually an indication something is amiss.
With all the talk of integrity surrounding the legalization of sports betting, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with a point-shaving scandal or something similar in the current climate. But athletic directors say they are worried about prop bets, or in-play betting, particularly on individual players. For example, allowing a bet on if a player will make or miss a free throw, if a particular basketball player will make or miss his next free throw, or how many passes a quarterback will complete in a single game.
To that end, at least two states with legal sports betting — Indiana and Iowa — already prohibit prop betting on college sports, and should Virginia Governor Ralph Northam sign sports betting in this law, there will be no betting on Virginia colleges or prop bets on individuals.
In the end, betting on colleges will still go on, and the “not-in-my-state” attitude will do little to stop it.
“I’m excited (Virginia) carved it out because that gives us the opportunity for (bettors) to cross the border and use our casinos and buy food, etc., so I welcome the flawed Virginia law,” West Virginia’s Fluharty said.