As sports betting expands, MLB executive eyes prop wagering as a natural fit

Baseball has never been a prime attraction as far as betting interest in local sports books, at least not in comparison to football or basketball.

But baseball executives aren’t ready to accept it’s going to stay that way forever. Kenny Gersh, MLB’s president of gaming and new business ventures, sees the sport — one that’s long inspired obsession over statistics, numbers and probabilities — as a natural fit for niche betting markets like proposition wagers.

“For the past however-many-years here in Nevada, it’s been pre-match betting on baseball with money lines and what the over/under is,” Gersh said Wednesday at South Point as part of a Vegas Sports & Information betting summit. “Baseball, I think, has a huge opportunity to do a lot of things in-play because of the way the game is set up. We have some of these little discreet events during a game that some of the other sports just don’t have.”

That doesn’t mean baseball fans will be able to log onto their MLB app during a game next season and bet on whether the next pitch will be called a ball or strike. Gersh stressed that change would be more gradual, though the league does have plans to unveil some betting-adjacent advances soon.

A non-wagering platform where fans can win prizes by predicting certain in-game outcomes is in development, according to Gersh. It could debut next season.

“The free-to-play game will allow people across the country, regardless of what state they’re in, to engage in a baseball game and allow us to show people what’s possible with our data,” Gersh said. “We can use that free-to-play game to talk about the odds of this or that happening as a storyline instead of a betting opportunity.”

Such a game may help bridge potential bettors to what could eventually become an array of live gambling opportunities. Similar offerings have already popped up.

In the NBA, the Sacramento Kings have introduced a free-play experience at the team’s arena where fans can win points to be redeemed for merchandise purchases. MLB itself already offers a smartphone app called “Beat the Streak,” which asks users to pick two players per day that will secure a hit.

The free-to-play game, presented in partnership with MGM Resorts, boasts a $5.6 million prize for the first person who’s able to extend his or her to run to 57 straight days, and therefore, eclipse Joe DiMaggio’s famous hit streak. One competitor stayed alive for 51 straight days in 2017, but that’s the closest anyone has ever come to winning.

Games like “Beat the Streak” don’t qualify as gambling, but more than a dozen states now have legal sports betting with the proliferation expected to continue. Because sports betting is regulated on a state level and stands without blanket federal guidelines, leagues are being forced to navigate the landscape creatively.

“Ideally, sports betting would be legal in the United States and there would be a framework in place,” Gersh said. “That’s not the way it’s developing here in the U.S., so we just have to take what we can get now.”

Betting companies aren’t currently allowed to buy commercial time during MLB broadcasts, but Gersh said he thought that would change over time.

Michael Teevan, an MLB spokesman, said individual franchises were allowed to enter into, “commercial relationships with sports betting operators,” last season, but no deals were set into place.

“For the 2020 season, we are revisiting the complete ban on advertising, but have nothing to announce yet,” Teevan said in an email.

MLB officials are cognizant of trying to keep baseball’s image as a family-friendly product intact as they introduce more betting content.

“We want to be careful and see what the reaction is,” Gersh said. “We don’t want to dive headfirst into something that would be difficult to walk back. We want families to be able to watch baseball together and not be inundated with baseball betting ads. The fabric of how you watch a baseball game, though, will change over the next three, four, five years.”