MLB Crosses the Pond

A close up image of an old used baseball, baseball bat, and baseball glove.

In June of next year, two Major League Baseball games will be played in London, as MLB looks to increase its exposure in Europe. Is this the future of sport? Does it mean that sports authorities will have to accept that betting is an integral part of their sport?

Wembley Stadium in London has become used to hosting NFL games. They are now a regular item on the sporting calendar. In the most recent game there, in October of year, the New Orleans Saints beat the Miami Dolphins 20-0.

Later this year, Wembley will host two more NFL games and, on October 14, an NFL game will be played at Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground for the first time, when the Seattle Seahawks take on the Oakland Raiders.

The NFL is committed to the UK until at least 2027, with a two-game-a-season deal already in place with Spurs. And now Major League Baseball (MLB) is set to follow suit, with two of its most popular teams, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, playing a two-game series at the London Stadium in June 2019.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said: “We hope that the series will be the beginning of a relationship with London that persists, and a continuation of increased exposure for Major League Baseball here in Europe.”

The Yankees and the Red Sox are two of the most celebrated teams in MLB; in UK soccer terms, it’s the equivalent of Manchester United vs. Liverpool being played in New York.

Betting on London

Clearly a London franchise, for both MLB and the NFL, is very much on the cards, but what is interesting about the MLB’s move is that it is staging a two-game series (and presumably dreaming of a franchise) in a city where legalized betting on sport is very much part of the game. But back home in the US, MLB is one of the sports arguing fiercely against legalized sports betting.

It is, inevitably, all about integrity. The MLB fears that legalized sports betting could bring the integrity of the sport into question. And in many ways, you can see their point: the MLB season consists of 162 games for each of the 30 teams – that’s a total of 2,430 games plus the post-season. Not all of those games can be crucially important and they can’t all receive the same legal of scrutiny from game’s authorities.

The similarities with cricket

I can see the MLB’s argument. In cricket, there have been plenty of reported cases, not of outright match fixing, but of “spot fixing.” With any number of in-play markets now available, including runs scored off an individual ball, small wonder that bowlers have been tempted to bowl a leg side full toss on the fourth ball of their fourth over if they know that “colleagues” betting online are primed to bet heavily on it. The parallels with an individual pitch, or series of pitches, in baseball are obvious.

How worried is MLB?

As mentioned above, MLB is fiercely opposed to legalized sports betting. Thomas Ostertag, MLB general counsel, said in 2012: “We think the idea that any sportsbook can be helpful to us is completely incorrect.” The same year, then-MLB commissioner Allan Selig said: “Gambling on a sport – on any sport – is I think the deadliest of all things that can happen. It’s evil, it creates doubt and it destroys your sport.”

Those are strong words but, come June 2019, the Yankees will be playing the Red Sox and you can bet that, at least in the UK, we’ll be betting on the games.

Does that mean that all sports will ultimately become international and that the legislators, however evil they may think it is, will simply have to accept that betting is an integral part of sport and deal with it?

Outgoing Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has already said that a European super-league in soccer is inevitable,

Can we see a situation developing where Manchester United plays its first team in the European super-league and its reserves in the midweek Premier League fixture against Watford? There is no question that the suits in the United boardroom would rather play Real Madrid, Juventus, and Bayern Munich than Crystal Palace, Brighton, and Huddersfield. A European super-league of say, 16 teams? 30 games a season, played at the weekend? TV coverage around the globe for every game…massive sponsorship from the betting companies…

It is an attractive prospect, and many people now see it as inevitable in all the major sports. June 2019 brings MLB to London; it will not be long before the Premier League goes to America.

 

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