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MLB and state gambling commission meet for sports betting talks

The Washington State Gambling Commission and legal representatives from Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Seattle Mariners met recently to discuss sports betting in Washington State. 

The floodgates opened for legally sanctioned sports betting after the Supreme Court ruled in Murphy V. National Collegiate Athletic Association that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA) violated states’ rights. Excluding a few states, PAPSA effectively outlawed sports betting nationwide. 

The substance in sports betting legislation varies state by state. As it presently stands, eleven states have legalized sports betting while twenty-four others — Washington among them — have pending legislation. 

The bill introduced in Washington last session sets stringent limits on sports betting, authorizing sports betting only at tribal casinos. 

In a presentation to commissioners, Major League Baseball Senior Counsel Marquest Meeks and Mariners General Counsel Fred Rivera conveyed recommendations from the MLB on how to “set the foundation for a safe, robust, and transparent sports betting market.” Undergirding these recommendations is the mutual interest of both leagues and regulators to protect the integrity of professional sports from risks associated with sports betting that have arisen in the past.

The foremost risk associated with sports betting is the potential incentive for players, coaches, or referees to alter the outcome of competitions for financial gain. 

“Any event where the ultimate goal is not for players to win or lose based on their merits, we don’t think betting should be permitted,” said Meeks. 

Ensuring that players, coaches, referees and other related parties act in accordance with the spirit of competition, rather than the spirit of personal enrichment, is a primary concern due to the deleterious history native to sports betting. 

Early on in his presentation, Meeks pointed grimly to the recently passed 100 year anniversary of the Black Sox Scandal, an incident which resulted in commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis laying down lifetime bans on “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and seven of his White Sox teammates for fixing the 1919 world series.

Given the new terrain upon which leagues and regulators must operate in America, Meeks emphasized the importance of looking to mature betting markets in Europe as precedent for constructing a regulatory scheme. From that precedent, the MLB listed five pillars as “foundational” to any sports betting market.  

Between each pillar, the throughline expressed by Meeks was a desire for cooperation between the leagues and regulators. The ability to foster such cooperation could rest in each side’s willingness to draw clear distinctions between the scope of authority for the regulator, in this case the Washington State Gambling Commission, and the operator, in this case professional sports leagues.    

The importance of defining the role of each side in concrete terms was highlighted during one exchange in which Commissioner Bud Sizemore responded to a proposed “opt-out right,” which would give the MLB the right to make a deferential request to regulators to prevent wagers on certain events, activities, or leagues: “This one I have a little difficulty with… it sounds like you want to be both a regulator and an operator, and that might be a little awkward in implementation.”

Rivera made clear that each of the terms presented by the league are negotiable, while Meeks emphasized that the league’s opinion regarding the permittance of certain types of bets should be allowed a degree of deference given that leagues are likely to know their sports best: 

“The statutory and regulatory structure has to reflect the fact that the leagues are partners in this process because as a baseline, you cannot offer bets without us putting on the actual games.”

The next Washington State Gambling Commission meeting is scheduled for Nov 14, 2019. HB 1975 passed in the Commerce & Gaming committee but stalled after being referred to appropriations.