Last week, a good friend of mine traveled to Boston, MA to partake in the 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (“Conference”). According to its official website, the conference’s goal “is to provide a forum for industry professionals (executives and leading researchers) and students to discuss the increasing role of analytics in the global sports industry” and it has attracted icons such as Mike Leach, Larry Fitzgerald, Daryl Morey and Matthew Berry among others. The conference has grown steadily over the years and is regarded as a “can’t-miss” event in the world of sports analytics.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Murphy v. NCAA gave states and other governmental bodies the right to authorize sports betting. This in turn led some state legislatures to draft legislation that would legalize sports betting in their states. As sports wagering has grown at an exponential rate in states where it is legal, there are more and more discussions on different policies that must be enacted in order to maintain fairness and integrity. With the Houston Astros scandal and sports betting being the talk of the Conference, a hypothetical was asked among the patrons: Do leagues have a responsibility to bettors when the integrity of the game is challenged? For example, should sportsbooks/leagues reimburse bettors who bet the Yankees to win the 2017 ALCS?
At first thought it sounds like a great idea. There is conclusive evidence that proves the Astros players knowingly cheated during the 2017 playoffs. Thus, any bettor who had the Red Sox, Yankees or Dodgers (the three teams the Astros beat that postseason) should be reimbursed. While the numbers undoubtedly say the Astros benefited from their illegal actions, are we 100% certain the Red Sox, Yankees or Dodgers would have beaten them if the Astros hadn’t cheated? To that, I believe there is still uncertainty which would make it impossible for sportsbooks to reimburse fans who bet against the Astros and I, myself, am a die-hard Yankees fan. Additionally, based on the evidence it looks as if the Astros cheated for the majority of the 2017 season. Are sportsbooks supposed to refund anyone who placed a bet on a game in which the Astros were participating in and won? What about the games in which the Astros lost? Do sportsbooks allow fans to keep their money over a game that was inherently ‘rigged’? Additionally, baseball in general has been tainted the past 20-30 years over player’s alleged steroid use and there are still many players who juice today. Steroid usage is strictly prohibited by Major League Baseball (“MLB”) and players who engage in the illegal activity would be “challenging the integrity of the game.” Would sportsbooks have to refund those fans who bet on MLB games in which there were players who were doping? When it’s all said and done it is a completely ridiculous notion due to the unpredictability of sports in general.
Sports have been entertaining the masses for years due to their randomness. In essence, sports are truly a game of chance. Yes, there are players and teams that are vastly more talented than others, however in the grand scheme of things anybody can beat anybody on any given day in the world of sports. Just look at all the monumental upsets that have happened just in the last 15 years. In 2008, the New York Giants (+14/+475) shocked the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl which cost the Patriots an undefeated season. In 2007, Appalachian State (+42.5) upset the Michigan Wolverines in the Big House which many consider to be the greatest upset this century. While there wasn’t foul play in either of these games, it goes to show that there are no sure bets in sports. Even the heaviest of favorites can fall prey to the underdog. Ultimately, sports are a game of chance and bettors are aware of this fact each time they enter a sportsbook to place a bet.
Lastly, sportsbooks are essentially just third-party vendors. They share no ties to the sports leagues in which they offer fans odds. Therefore, they have no duty to ensure fairness or integrity to the fans who place bets. Now, in a few years if leagues themselves ever wish to offer odds to fans then I believe they would need to ensure there is no foul play in their games. And if there was found to be any then there would need to be reimbursement options for fans who placed bets. Leagues can control what occurs in their games. Sportsbooks have no control because they have no direct relationship to any professional sports leagues. Until the leagues themselves offer fans odds, then bettors ought to understand there is a great risk in wagering on sports due to the unpredictability of athletic games and should assume all liability.