Major League Baseball Hires Gambling Watchdog to Spot Cheating

The Fine Line Between Fantasy Sports and Sports Betting
  • SportIM's clients include soccer's English Premier League
  • Bettors in Nevada wagered $720 million on baseball last year

Major League Baseball has hired a London-based firm to help the league identify any suspicious gambling activity, which might in turn reveal any instance of cheating in the sport.

No specific event prompted the multi-year agreement with SportIM, but rather "an abundance of caution," said Dan Halem, MLB’s chief legal officer. "Given how important integrity is to sports, the price we’re paying is well worth it even if we have no reason to believe there’s any gambling going on."

Neither Halem nor SportIM Chief Executive Officer Mark Locke would say how much MLB is paying.

There is, of course, plenty of legal, regulated gambling on baseball. Bettors in Nevada wagered about $720 million on the sport in 2014, up almost 6 percent from the previous year, according to the state’s Gaming Control Board. It is the third biggest draw for the Nevada sports books, behind football (NFL and NCAA), with $1.7 billion in wagers, and basketball (same), with $1.1 billion.

The illegal betting market is estimated to be much larger. The amount legally wagered represents about 1 percent of what’s bet illegally, said RJ Bell, founder of betting information website Pregame.com.

SportIM uses data from the regulated and unregulated betting markets, looking for anything that falls outside of predictive standard deviation, which might suggest match-fixing. The company said it would report trends to MLB in real time, leaving it to the league to determine whether something is amiss.

It’s the first North American engagement for SportIM, which works with soccer’s English Premier League and other major European leagues. Earlier this year, it opened an office in Washington, D.C., with plans to work with leagues here.

The timing looks good. Owners and commissioners in major U.S. sports leagues seem increasingly resigned to the eventual legalization of sports betting. Last month, a trio of NBA owners -- Michael Jordan, Mark Cuban and Ted Leonsis -- invested a combined $44 million in sports data company Sportradar AG, which both markets its services as an integrity monitor, similar to SportIM, and data provider for global bookmakers.

“It shows that MLB has a strong grasp and understanding of the risk and the opportunities that are being presented to the market,” Locke said.

MLB officials began discussing hiring a betting monitor last year when former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Seeley joined the league as head of its investigations department, Halem said. All the major professional sports leagues are bolstering their investigation units, and last month, Japanese baseball offered a case study in why. Nippon Professional Baseball reported that three Yomiuri Giants had bet on MLB and Japanese high-school games, which is a violation of the NPB charter and Japanese law.

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