On a March day at the six retail sportsbooks open a year ago in Pennsylvania, you could have gambled on the NBA, NHL, PGA, NASCAR, and all sorts of more exotic sports in the U.S. and abroad.
As for an old-fashioned spring training baseball game taking place in sunny Florida or Arizona, you were shut out.
“Spring training games provide greater opportunity for the misuse of inside information,” MLB officials wrote last year to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and its peers in other states, requesting that preseason games be kept off the board.
Only the Pennsylvania officials concurred, saying they would study the issue. And now, upon further review in this new season, they have determined the games are ripe and ready for betting.
There was no public announcement about the change, but anyone walking today into one of the 12 physical sportsbooks or scanning the eight Pennsylvania online/mobile sites can bet the wide menu of spring games.
Bet at your own risk in baseball’s silly season
If someone somehow took a leap of faith on the Pittsburgh Pirates, with just one win in their first eight games, as a -124 moneyline favorite on FanDuel Sunday over the Toronto Blue Jays, they would have emerged richer from the Bucs’ 13-9 win.
Hey, that’s baseball — especially spring training baseball. Odds are that not a whole lot of people — even the most ardent Pirates fans — bet that game, however, in comparison to the wide array of other sports available.
“What we’re seeing is not very significant at this point,” Andre Barnabei, vice president of gaming at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, said late last week. “It doesn’t even begin to compete with what we saw last year with regular season baseball.”
He said the casinos receive periodic updates from the gaming board on what sporting events and types of wagers are approved for betting, and spring training games showed up on the list for the first time in February.
“We are certainly interested in offering any option, because we want to see what our guests enjoy,” Barnabei said. “It’s too early to tell [with spring training baseball]. The message about it isn’t really out there yet.”
Spring training games have long been available for betting in Nevada. New Jersey gaming officials had no hesitation in approving them in 2019, no matter what MLB said.
The rationale offered by the MLB’s legal office was that the Grapefruit League games are not used for competitive win-loss purposes by the team managers, but instead to get a look at lots of new players — many of them with no reliable track record — and for other tests such as pitchers tweaking their arsenals or deliveries.
It convinced Pennsylvania’s regulators to say, at the time: “In an abundance of caution, the PGCB thought it best to request that sportsbooks in the commonwealth refrain from accepting wagers on spring training games while we look at the arguments further.”
The regulators have more confidence in the market
That was then, this is now, as board spokesman Doug Harbach explained in an email last week.
“The limitations were proposed last year by the industry and the PGCB in what was a new and developing market in PA,” he said. “Things are different this year and everyone is in a better position to actively monitor risk management and potential integrity concerns. In addition, the operators are implementing limits, which makes it less likely that an individual would attempt to collude.”
No information was released on betting limits, but whereas sportsbooks would not hesitate to take a wager of thousands of dollars from a typical bettor on a regular season game, they might look askance at that for a spring training matchup.
Harbach also noted there are no prop bets available in the preseason. There will be no wagering on split squad games, either, or on games that involve individuals other than MLB players (e.g., the occasional celebrity or cross-sport athlete who makes his way into a spring training contest for an at-bat).
“We are limiting the available markets to moneyline, runline, and totals,” Harbach said.
On that moneyline, the Pirates were a +128 underdog at multiple sites Monday morning to make it two in a row against the Blue Jays, while the Phillies were +117 visiting the Braves. Bet if you like — just don’t be surprised by the unfamiliar names that end up in the box score as determiners of your fate.
Photo by Kim Klement / USA Today Sports