Let’s pretend for a moment that legal bookmakers offered odds on whether the Major League Baseball season will start on time.
They don’t, by the way, mostly because they fear the availability of potential insider information, with all the lawyers, media members, and employees of MLB and the players union who could be privy to labor talks. But if you could get a line on a timely start to the MLB season, it would pay to shop around.
“If i had to put a price on it, I would make starting on time the favorite,” said Johnny Avello, director of the race and sports books at DraftKings. “Nobody wants a lockout, that’s for sure. These guys have plenty of time to settle this out. Sometimes it does go to the 11th hour, but it’s one thing to take a stand now. They’ll start moving closer together as we get closer.”
Not all bookmakers see baseball starting its season on its presumptive Opening Day, March 31, however.
“I would say no. Opening on time is certainly an underdog,” said Westgate SuperBook Vice President Jay Kornegay.
Talks getting underway
According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, MLB and the MLBPA were scheduled to have their first substantive talks on economic issues beginning Thursday. Owners locked the players out when they couldn’t reach a deal for a new collective bargaining agreement by Dec. 2, and multiple reports indicate they have made no meaningful progress in the six weeks since.
Baseball’s lockout has come at an awkward time in many regards, including when it comes to the league’s relationship with sports gambling. Long staunchly anti-gambling, in part due to its painful brushes with the illegal side, MLB has done a 180-degree turn three-plus years after the Supreme Court struck down PASPA.
Major League Baseball formed a partnership with DraftKings and both parties announced future plans for integrating betting-related broadcasts on MLB.tv’s streaming platform. Teams are eager for the future revenue sports betting can provide, particularly as the multibillion-dollar TV contracts start to dry up.
DraftKings spokesman Stephen Miraglia said the lockout will not impact the arrangement with MLB or the operator’s readiness to get the alternate broadcasts up and running.
“Our teams are so laser focused on providing the best in real-money gaming and entertainment that if the commissioner told us games would start tomorrow, we’d be ready,” Miraglia said.
Big changes by Opening Day
The landscape has changed dramatically since the end of the World Series, most recently with the massive launch of online sports gambling in baseball-crazy New York last weekend. Some form of sports gambling is legal in about 30 states and there is traction to approve it in many others. Many insiders think baseball has a great opportunity to excel in in-game betting because of its leisurely pace. Manfred himself said as much last year.
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
Meanwhile, the lockout has already sapped an early opportunity for fan engagement. Baseball’s hot-stove season might be the most robust of any of the four major sports due to its length and the lack of salary cap complications. With the lockout, the stove has been ice cold.
Over the years, Avello and Kornegay said, the handle on MLB futures betting grew with fans’ interest in where elite free agents would land and which teams would line up blockbuster trades. Baseball canceled its annual winter meetings, which have turned into major media events in the past decade or so, with ESPN, MLB Network and others covering it as a live event.
Kornegay said the MLB futures market at Westgate is down about 85% compared to a normal hot-stove season. Avello, too, said the MLB futures handle is down significantly over at DraftKings. Avello said his book took heavy action on the New York Mets to win the pennant or World Series after they signed future Hall of Fame pitcher Max Scherzer to a three-year, $130 million contract, but that it has ground to a halt since.
Aside from a $10,000 bet on the Angels to win the World Series (at 40/1), Kornegay describes the baseball action right now at Westgate as follows: “It feels like the futures pool has been closed.”
Wanted to ask a favor of the baseball fans who still follow me here and who also like to place an occasional wager. Has the lockout dimmed your interest in placing an MLB futures bet, eg., a team to win the World Series or pennant or to cover a season win total?
— Mark Saxon (@markasaxon) January 12, 2022
Waiting for the smoke to clear
This is about the time of year when Avello, Kornegay, and other bookmakers would begin formulating their over/under win totals for individual teams, but how can they with so many unsigned free agents, including superstars such as Carlos Correa and Clayton Kershaw? How can they when they aren’t even certain whether both leagues will have the designated hitter next season?
Adam Dazey is a Cardinals fan living in heavy Cubs territory in northern Illinois. This is when he would normally start checking the futures odds on his beloved Redbirds and other teams. This year, he’s sitting it out because there are too many variables.
“I will feel better about betting once I know what is being proposed so that I know what changes may be made, such as the DH in the NL, rule changes, free agency, etc.,” Dazey said. “Although a longshot, something like a salary floor would be a huge difference maker for most futures bets, so I just want to play it safe right now and wait until we get closer to spring training.”
Baseball still has a chance to benefit greatly from the legalization of sports wagering, but every passing day is a potential missed opportunity in a fast-moving industry.
Photo: Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY