One thing became obvious if you watched March Madness: the NCAA wants to get loose balls and foul calls correct, especially in the last minutes of a game. Watch Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and other sports, and you’ll see similar efforts by officials.
In recent years, there’s been a trend to add new rules to the popular sports we all love. One of the reasons for those changes has been to “get calls right.” With more at stake from these sporting events and with 33 states having legalized sports betting, is sports betting having an influence on those decisions?
Replay and officiating changes in pro sports
NFL’s expanded replay slows games but delivers better outcomes
Among the four major professional leagues in the U.S., the NFL was the first to implement instant replay. Now, the league has arguably the most sophisticated system for reviewing plays. Not only are scoring plays reviewed, but catches can be reviewed, as well as changes of possession and whether or not a player stayed inbounds. Every NFL game has dozens of cameras trained on every inch of the field to monitor play. Each officiating team has two members assigned solely to replay procedures, backed up by a crew of league officials in NFL offices to review tape.
The NFL isn’t merely reviewing plays in order to ensure every play is right: it also realizes how crucial each game is to each team, their fan base, and the NY sports betting industry.
The NFL is the most-bet sport in the U.S., and every year the Super Bowl attracts more bets than any single sporting event in the country. Last February, the American Gaming Association estimates that $16 billion was wagered on the Super Bowl, which is roughly twice the total from 2022.
All that’s to say: the NFL is immensely popular with bettors.
After initially shunning the sports betting industry following the landmark U.S. Supreme ruling on sports betting in 2018, the NFL has acknowledged the importance of sports betting to a segment of its fans. The league has official sports betting partners, many of the teams have similar deals, and some teams, including the New York Giants and Jets at MetLife Stadium, have retail sportsbooks on site or nearby.
MLB toying with automated strike zone
For the 2023 season, MLB has rolled out more new, impactful rules than in any season in its history. Baseball now has these new rules in place:
- Teams are barred from employing the defensive shift.
- A pitch clock is now in place, ranging from 30 to 15 seconds, which is intended to speed the pace of play.
- The bases have been enlarged to encourage base stealing and also provide safety for fielders and runners.
- Pitchers may only disengage from the rubber twice during an at-bat. They also may only throw to a base to defend against a runner twice. On a third attempt, they must be successful, or the result is a balk.
“Our guiding star in thinking about changes to the game has always been our fans,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred when the league announced the changes last offseason. “What do our fans want to see on the field?’ We’ve conducted thorough and ongoing research with our fans, and certain things are really clear. Number 1, fans want games with better pace. Two, fans want more action, more balls in play. And three, fans want to see more of the athleticism of our great players.”
That’s true: baseball has been too slow for years, and the increase in non-action plays like strikeouts, walks, and home runs has drained the sport of excitement.
But baseball is also cognizant of the fact that it must do all it can to get things right. At the last owners meeting, the topic of an automated strike zone was broached. For years, TV broadcasts have included a “pitch tracker” that shows the strike zone for each batter. That technology has brought umpiring to a new level of scrutiny. There are YouTube channels dedicated solely to examining the strike zones and calls of every umpire.
Last postseason, when home plate umpire Pat Hoberg had a perfect game of calling the strike zone, it was big news. In 2021, a phantom check-swing that was called a swing ended the playoff series between the Dodgers and Giants in a controversial fashion. The resulting furor seemed to kickstart talk about “robot umpires.”
Given the increase in scrutiny of umpiring, it seems likely that MLB will eventually add a system for electronically calling balls and strikes. There’s too much at stake not to get each ball/strike and safe/out call correct.
NBA using replay more than ever
You may have noticed that the NBA has expanded its replay rules. For the 2021-22 season, the league allowed coaches to challenge plays that determine possession. The NBA’s competition committee has already allowed officials to look at judgment fouls like blocking/charging. IT’s reportedly also considering allowing more coaches challenges and expansion of replay in the final minutes of games.
NCAA no longer cringes at sports betting
There was a time when the NCAA built a moat around its sports to keep betting away. A few isolated betting scandals in the 1970s and 1980s scarred the NCAA and led them to lay the hammer of discipline down on offending programs. But, with the landscape of sports in America changing, the NCAA has become flexible.
Some schools actually have deals with sportsbooks as official sports betting partners in states where the activity is legal. Athletes are allowed to enter into endorsement deals with sports betting operators under NCAA rules, though some states have passed laws prohibiting it.
The NCAA’s biggest sports, football and basketball, have added limited replay to their games and increased an emphasis on officiating late in games, as we saw with replays in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.
Leagues doing more to ensure officials’ stats are accurate
Another way that sports leagues are reacting to sports betting is to make sure their statistics are accurate and unimpeachable. Major League Baseball was a pioneer in establishing a statistical service that analyzes everything in the game, starting in 2005. The league authenticates everything and every action in their games. Every statistic is entered in real-time by a league official at each game, and the data can be licensed to partners, including sportsbooks.
Other innovations like StatCast, a revolutionary tracking technology that gathers information from every pitch and every play, allows MLB to own its data. Other leagues, notably the NBA, have established similar statistical services. Notably, in 2019, controversy arose surrounding Russell Westbrook and his rebounds and assists to achieve a triple-double. One of the factors of such controversy is whether a bettor wins a player prop bet. Leagues want to avoid any uncertainty over official stats and certainly don’t want any bad publicity regarding bets on their sport.
Photo by: Michael Caterina/AP Photo