The series of recent betting-related scandals in U.S. professional and college sports is set to test public perceptions of sports integrity and underlines the importance of athlete education programs, according to league officials speaking at last week’s SBC Summit North America.
The past few weeks have seen four Detroit Lions and one Washington Commanders players suspended for violating National Football League (NFL) betting policies, before the high-profile firing of Alabama University’s head baseball coach amid an investigation into irregular bets placed at a BetMGM sportsbook in Ohio.
The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission last week acknowledged an ongoing investigation into potential betting violations by individuals affiliated with both the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.
On Wednesday (May 10), Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids suspended winger Max Alves pending an investigation into allegations in his native Brazil that Alves was paid around $12,000 to deliberately receive a yellow card in a September 2022 match against LA Galaxy.
These high-profile integrity incidents are not the first and will not be the last to afflict the rapidly expanding U.S. sports-betting market, agreed a panel of league and betting executives speaking at the SBC summit in New Jersey.
All panelists quickly answered "yes" when asked if further such incidents should be expected to come to light in the future, partly because of the closer collaboration of gaming regulators, leagues and betting companies in detecting and reporting suspicious activity in the regulated market.
“People here in the industry might appreciate that these stories are a sign that regulation is working,” said Leo Villalobos, sports betting and compliance counsel for Major League Baseball (MLB).
“But as a fan, they might be saying, ‘What is going on? Legal sports betting is going off the rails.’”
A key question for the next chapter of U.S. sports betting will be how these integrity-related incidents are portrayed in the mainstream media, according to Villalobos, who appeared to allude to the recent series of negative articles in the New York Times regarding sports wagering regulation.
“We’ve also seen what impact stories from the mainstream media can have,” he told SBC delegates.
Villalobos said MLB has already doubled its education efforts around sports-betting integrity, expanding a program that now reaches not only teams, players and officials in the major league, but also 120 minor league clubs as well.
It is a similar story with the National Basketball Association (NBA), according to Alex Roth, NBA senior associate counsel for league governance and policy.
Formal training is offered at least annually, but the NBA’s program involves various other touchpoints that aim to establish a culture of integrity and promote awareness of the league’s rules related to sports betting and fantasy sports, she said.
“You’ve got to hammer all of these rules, all of the time,” Roth said.
Current and Future Challenges
Scott Sadin, chief operating officer of independent monitoring service U.S. Integrity, told SBC delegates that the recent exposure of suspicious bets on Alabama college baseball “was an illustration of how different stakeholders across the ecosystem can work together efficiently to identify an issue that warranted further attention.”
Still, the league officials acknowledged several current and future challenges when it comes to integrity monitoring and reporting.
One is the natural tension between leagues and sports-betting operators in terms of how much data the other party wants to obtain around player or betting account information, said Villalobos of MLB.
“There’s always going to be friction when it comes to these solutions because a lot of it involves sharing data, and there are a lot of privacy concerns,” he said.
The “fragmented” nature of state-by-state regulation is another factor that warrants further attention, even if that is unlikely to change, said the NBA’s Roth.
“I think it does affect how clearly we can see the markets,” she said.
Another challenge on the horizon is the anticipated growth of micro-betting markets for specific plays within a game, which theoretically could raise concerns related to so-called spot-fixing.
“I’m hopeful we can toe the line there between integrity and innovation and fan engagement,” Villalobos said.
If sports integrity remains a challenge for major professional leagues, then it is surely a greater one for college sports and the National Collegiate Athletic Administration (NCAA) due to the nature of thousands of impressionable student athletes being involved in games.
The rapid expansion of legal betting markets means colleges are “having to come to grips with sports wagering in different ways than we have in the past,” said Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) that represents 12 Division I universities and which last year became the first NCAA conference to agree a betting data distribution deal.
Education of college athletes on NCAA betting restrictions and related issues of responsible gambling is fundamental and “cannot be a one-time conversation,” Steinbrecher told SBC delegates.
But in terms of integrity, Steinbrecher noted how legal sports wagering has led to greater transparency, pointing to the weekly report he now receives with betting information regarding all MAC events that enables officials to then review whether any particular games require closer scrutiny.
“I would suggest that regulation seems to be working pretty well right now,” Steinbrecher said.