One of the best parts of the sports year is upon us: Major League Baseball’s spring training. For many teams and their fans, it is a time of hope and promise, a rebirth of the joy of the sport. Part of the fun of spring training is trying to figure out who all the players are. Is number 82 going to be the next great relief pitcher? Has anyone heard of any of these guys on this afternoon’s split-squad roster? And for sports bettors, it is a glorious chaos, as it is virtually impossible to have any idea how any game is going to pan out. MLB wants to put an end to the chaos, recently asking the Nevada Gaming Control Board to ban wagering on spring training games. The NGCB took the request under advisement and ultimately declined it, seeing no reason to prevent people from betting on the games.
It is the fact that the games don’t matter that is giving MLB heartburn. In a statement, the league explained thusly:
Spring Training games are exhibition contests in which the primary focus of Clubs and players is to prepare for the coming season rather than to win games or perform at maximum effort on every single play. These games are not conducive to betting and carry heightened integrity risks, and states should not permit bookmakers to offer bets on them. Limited and historically in-person betting on Spring Training in one state did not pose nearly the same integrity risks that widespread betting on Spring Training in multiple states will pose.
The idea here is that because they are just practice games in which nobody will be critiqued based on wins and losses and managers use the games in order to evaluate players, it would be easy for a player or coach to manipulate the outcome in a way which would be virtually undetectable. For example, in a regular season game, a manager might make a certain substitution in order to win. Making an inexplicable substitution or lack thereof would be very noticeable, even if nobody thought anything was fishy.
In a spring training game, though, playing time decisions are usually made based on the need to evaluate players, not based on the desire to win the game. Therefore, what might be a ridiculous pitching change in the regular season would be perfectly normal in spring training. Nobody would care. Thus, if a manager wanted to try to manipulate the outcome for betting reasons, it would be much more difficult to detect in a practice game.
The NGCB replied, saying, “Based on our history and experience in regulating sports wagering, we are not inclined to prohibit our licensed sports books from taking wagers on MLB Spring Training games. We have a common goal to combat sports bribery and maintain the integrity of your sport, and are available to discuss ways we can work together in this effort.”