Gambling’s influence on Major League Baseball’s approach to minor league pay.

There have been multiple reports that Major League Baseball may be changing it’s approach to the pay of minor league players. The latest statement below seems to be a change from their historic stance of doing everything they legally can to not pay minor leagues a living/fair wage. (Previous pieces from Fangraphs about that here, here & here).

“We have received many questions regarding the decision of the Toronto Blue Jays to increase the salaries of minor league players,” MLB said in a statement to ESPN. “While each Club makes its own decisions regarding minor league salaries, the Office of the Commissioner is presently in negotiations with the National Association of Professional Baseball on the terms of a new agreement between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues to replace the agreement that expires in September 2020. The working conditions of minor league players, including their compensation, facilities and benefits, is an important area of discussion in those negotiations.”

You would be naive to believe that MLB is doing this for any altruistic reasons. The public pressure has been growing but this hasn’t gotten anywhere near big enough for MLB to change it’s approach. 

For me there is one new reason for the change and that is gambling. In the past year, two events have occurred which significantly change the landscape of gambling in baseball.

Firstly, in May last year, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (“PASPA”) as unconstitutional. This removed the federal law that banned states from permitting sports gambling in the United States (outside of Nevada, which was exempt).

Secondly, in December, MGM Resorts International struck an exclusive deal with Major League Baseball to become the league’s first official gaming and entertainment partner.

So, gambling on sports is not illegal at the federal level anymore, MLB will directly work with a betting company and gambling will be advertised during some games, bringing more legitimacy to gambling in baseball.

Currently there are limited betting markets for baseball, and most American sports, compared to other major world sports. The majority of online sportsbooks don’t offer things like ‘at-bat outcome’ markets. But the larger sites like Pinnacle and Bovada do have at-bat lives for bigger MLB contests.

With MLB giving MGM and MGM’s mobile applications free-reign over their up-to-the-second stats, next-gen stats (exit velocity, spin rate, etc), and expected win %’, we will more than likely see an opening up of these new betting markets which many US betters haven’t come across before. And more markets means more chance for abuse.

Sports all over the world have had issues with players, coaches and referees gambling on games and trying to affect the outcomes. Almost all baseball fans will know of Pete Rose and the fallout of his gambling but the modern influence of gambling on sport is generally not only at the top level but is also much lower down.

Tennis is one sport that has had a massive issue recently of tainted results due to gambling rings. These have taken place in the second and third tier of the sport. One of the latest busts identified 97 matches, in one year, which were compromised in those tiers, with 28 professional players linked to this one gambling ring. But of those 28 only one played a grand slam game – the highest level of the sport – last year.

The players involved in the match fixing are not the top players, who have financial security from their winnings and sponsorship deals. They are the players who are struggling to make ends meet while being a professional player. Younger players who are having to make decisions about how to spend their limited money while still hoping to improve themselves. They are being approached by former players and coaches with links to criminal rings and are being convinced or coerced into taking part.

Ask yourself, does baseball have a set of players that are struggling to get by, who could be easily influenced by money into amending the outcome of a game so that a betting ring could make a lot of money? Yes it does, in the form of minor leaguers.

Betting already exists on minor league games but with the league itself now promoting gambling the exposure for all players will increase. This in turn increases the chance of any player being approached about fixing a game. The increase in popularity of gambling will also lead to players who get into gambling debt and might need quick ways out of it. This is where gambling rings can strike.

Fixing a game with the help of just one individual, or a small number of players, would be very hard, which is why the latest development in betting will probably have a greater impact. Due to the discreteness of baseball it could fall foul to not only match fixing, which plagues tennis, but also spot fixing, which has plagued cricket.

Spot fixing is unrelated to the final result but upon which a betting market exists, it is fixed in an attempt to ensure a certain result in a proposition bet. Examples include something as minor as timing a no ball or wide delivery in cricket.

Spot fixing can influence the higher levels of a sport much more easily than match fixing can as it is easier to influence one small thing than a whole result. Cricket has had issues with spot fixing in the early 2010s, with players caught spot fixing on two of the biggest stages: a Test game between England and Pakistan and the IPL, which is the highest paid league in the sport. In both these cases it was young or poorly paid players that took part in the fixing.

While in-play spot markets do exist, they don’t exist on the majority of US sportbooks. Will markets like the number of walks/strikeouts in an inning become more readily available? Could you be able to bet on when the first wild pitch or passed ball happens in a game? If the answer becomes yes for any of these markets then baseball opens itself up to further chances of fixing occurring.

Imagine a world where spot betting on wild pitches exists. There is a financially struggling minor leaguer who is up in the Majors for a spot start in a double header as the allowed 26th man. His minor league salary is probably less than $30k a year. He knows he is going straight back down the next day but he will make about $3.5k for that day on the Major League roster.

How much does it take for this player to throw a wild pitch in the first at-bat? How much higher does a player place their current financial situation compared to their future one. You could easily put the wild pitch down to nerves and think nothing more of it. But a criminal ring could have made a vast sum of money on that one bet and the player could have received an amount similar to months’ worth of wages.

MLB has opened up a new, potentially lucrative, revenue stream with gambling but it knows that this could lead to the integrity issues that I have detailed. If minor league, or even major league, players are found to have fixed aspects of the game there will be a big cultural backlash. Maybe even to the scale of the steroids era where the focus falls on MLB allowing gambling into the game and less on the players caught fixing.

In order to mitigate this, MLB has seemingly shifted their stance on minor league pay. Knowing that these players are at high risk of influence they want to increase the pay and conditions for minor leaguers to lessen that. MLB is happy to spend this money, to decrease risk, because they will generate more than enough additional revenue from gambling to cover the increase in wages.

For me, any decision MLB makes about this will be a capitalistic one and right now there is a capitalistic reason to pay players more. It is great to think that minor league players may get the chance to earn more so they can concentrate solely on becoming their best. But sadly, I believe there still will be some players who get caught in the illegal side of betting thanks to this change.

Do you agree with my thoughts? Is MLB looking out for MiLB players for the right reasons? Should we care if they are doing it for the wrong reasons?

Thanks to those who helped me with the research on the US betting markets for baseball.

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