With the World Series starting Friday, Major League Baseball is about to complete its quickest season by total game time since 1985.
A pitch clock changed how the game is played, and most people liked the results. But how about sports gambling? Less time between pitches had the potential to limit in-game sports bets.
Leonardo Villalobos, MLB counsel for sports betting and compliance, is happy to report that wasn’t the case. In-game bets placed in regulated US markets actually increased as the time between pitches decreased.
Villalobos participated in a panel at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas earlier this month, where he provided an update on the status of sports betting in baseball.
In-game sports bets double with pitch clock
MLB rule changes required pitchers to deliver their pitch within 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners on base.
The goal was to decrease bloated game times, which had ballooned over 3 hours long. But it left less time for people to conduct micro-betting on results for the next pitch or at-bat.
Villalobos admitted he was concerned about the pitch clock’s impact on in-game betting entering the season.
“I wish our executives were thinking about sports betting that much when making decisions, but they’re not,” Villalobos said. “The goal was to speed up play, limit dead time where nothing is happening and create more action on the base paths, and I think there’s been a huge success.”
The pitch clock substantially quickened games, cutting 24 minutes off the previous year’s game length. Game times during the 2023 regular season averaged 2 hours and 40 minutes.
“You might have thought that would have undermined in-play betting, but I think from what we’ve seen in the limited data so far, it really didn’t,” Villalobos said. “… That’s a little surprising, but I think a great result for baseball in that the game became more entertaining, and those who do want to bet in those markets still can. Those markets are still viable.”
Villalobos attested that in-game betting handle doubled year over year.
“And the proportion of those in-play bets that were pitch markets remained steady,” Villalobos said. “So we actually didn’t see a drop-off in in-play or micro-betting based on the new rules.”
Responsible gambling on MLB’s mind
Villalobos noticed a shift in how the MLB considered responsible gambling this year.
“I think we’ve always been conscious about responsible gambling from a fan perspective,” Villalobos said. “But I think this year we’ve really started to think about it from our own player perspective.”
MLB players haven’t faced the same public issues this year regarding placing sports bets against league policy as the NFL and college athletics. But Villalobos said the league is looking into what it can do behind the scenes to support players, realizing that athletes might be more susceptible to having a gambling issue.
Last year’s collective bargaining agreement allows MLB players to serve as brand ambassadors with sports betting operators.
But sports betting operators and state regulators have been hesitant about the unforeseen consequences of moving forward with such partnerships between sports betting and athletes. The only active MLB player to take a marketing deal with a sports betting company so far was Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies with the now-defunct MaximBet.
Responsible gambling ambassadors?
Villalobos said he would like to see MLB players as sports betting brand ambassadors but with a twist.
“If operators want to use our players, I would love to see that in a responsible gambling focus. I think that could be really powerful for college athletes and people in general.”
He noted that Ontario, Canada, banned using athletes in sports betting advertising but exempted the use of athletes in responsible gambling messages, which he thought was a good idea.
Villalobos added that MLB caps the number of sports betting commercials during a game to six, or 10 including the pre- and post-game windows. He suggested allowing an additional two commercials if they focus on responsible gambling.
“Maybe moving forward we provide further incentives to encourage operators to use their advertisements for responsible gambling-focused spots.”