Ninety-nine years after the Black Sox scandal threatened to destroy Major League Baseball's credibility and almost three decades after Pete Rose ruined his career with his gambling ties, the game is entering a potentially lucrative, exhilarating, mysterious and messy new frontier.
The recent Supreme Court ruling clearing the way for legalized sports betting across the United States has forced the governing powers in all major sports to begin to take a harder look at the benefits and potential pitfalls of a changing landscape. Commissioners, lawyers, lobbyists, security personnel and participants from across the spectrum are preparing to embrace a new reality as individual states determine their level of engagement.
"This is really a key moment now for baseball and the other sports leagues," said Bryan Seeley, MLB's senior vice president of investigations, compliance and security. "It's pretty rare that you have a huge industry that gets unlocked almost all at one time. The conversations about this and the decisions that state legislators and regulators are going to make in the next year and the next few years are going to have significant effects on our game. It's really important that we get this right."
In a time of change, questions abound. Legal sports betting could be a financial boon to sports leagues while significantly affecting the viewing habits of fans. Between the lines, players could face ethical choices amid concerns about their safety with so much money at stake. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, told ESPN.com that players are determined to be involved in the discussion in an atmosphere defined more by "assumptions and insinuations" than definitive conclusions.
"As a result of the complexities involved here, there is more uncertainty than there are answers at this point," Clark said in an email. "Interestingly, there has been no discussion to date even about the myriad regulatory, safety, and fairness concerns that have arisen in other sports when gambling becomes prevalent."
The Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling spawned some inevitable hot takes. Numerous fans flocked to Twitter and wondered if legalized betting might pave the way for Rose's return to baseball or revive his dormant Hall of Fame chances. It's been 29 years since Rose was banned by then-commissioner Bart Giamatti for misconduct related to gambling, and two and a half years since commissioner Rob Manfred denied his appeal for reinstatement.
The answer on Rose is an unequivocal "no." Just because 30 or more states are considered likely to offer legal sports betting in the next five years doesn't mean baseball will rescind its anti-gambling rules. MLB players, umpires and team or league officials and employees are prohibited from placing bets on baseball -- legal or otherwise -- or from wagering on any sport through an illegal bookmaker.
"There's a difference between it being legal under the laws of the United States and the states and being permitted under our rules," Seeley said. "Betting on baseball is absolutely prohibited under our rules and will continue to be prohibited. We are going to have to take a fresh look at our rules and see if there are holes we need to fill or scenarios that might not be explicitly covered where we need to write new rules. That's something we'll engage in. But just because betting is legal doesn't mean that people affiliated with our game can bet on our game. They absolutely cannot."
Based on various estimates and accounts, Americans spend between $60 billion and $150 billion annually on illegal sports gambling. After the Supreme Court's decision, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban observed that franchise values for major sports teams doubled overnight with the advent of legal gambling.
Even if that estimate is exaggerated, as Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta suggests, MLB owners could reap a windfall -- and players are naturally going to monitor the economic fallout to make sure they get their slice of the increased revenue.
Baseball and other sports have encountered some early resistance in their efforts to charge a "sports betting right and integrity fee" to gaming operators. MLB, the NBA and professional golf have formed a coalition to lobby individual states to approve the fee, and they were initially asking for a 1 percent cut of gambling proceeds. They have since reduced that proposed fee to 0.25 percent in several states.
While it's unclear how much money would be generated from the fee, or how it would be disbursed, Seeley said MLB expects to spend more on gambling-related security measures over the coming years.
"We're going to have increased costs," Seeley said. "There's no question in a world of vastly increased sports betting, we're going to have to do more education of players, umpires and official scorers. We're going to have to do more investigations and look into potential corrupt conduct or rumors of corrupt conduct. And we're going to have to do a lot more monitoring of betting data to look for abnormal betting patterns or spikes in betting for any indication of unusual activity."
Legal bookmakers, not surprisingly, want to protect their financial turf. Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino SuperBook, said the rights and integrity fee would place an extra burden on bookmakers who already work on extremely thin margins. Las Vegas casinos already pay a 6.75 percent gaming revenue tax, and that tax is considerably higher in other states.
In addition, Kornegay said, the Vegas sportsbooks already have sophisticated monitoring systems in place, because their credibility rides on every wager.
"Most of the integrity protection happens at the operation," Kornegay said. "We have a whole department that's dedicated to this. They audit us on a daily basis on both sides. Who's betting? Who are they and what are they looking at? We're paying for that to be done every single night.
"There's a middle ground here: We need a better relationship with the leagues and the NCAA. We need to work together to protect our product. The leagues always talk about 'integrity,' but nobody understands that we're concerned about the same things. If the games are so-called 'fixed,' who is going to get hurt? The bookmaker is going to get hurt. The leagues say, 'It would damage our reputation,' but people don't want to bet on something they think might be predetermined. We can work together with the leagues like we've never done before and protect the games like never before."
Umpire Joe West articulated the need for greater security when he told USA Today's Bob Nightengale, "You really worry about the criminal aspect, guys getting hurt, getting their legs broken, anything really." Similarly, anonymous official scorers who sit in MLB press boxes will now make their calls with the knowledge that something more than history is riding on the outcome of a borderline call with a no-hitter or perfect game in progress.
Outraged fantasy football fans routinely assail NFL players on Twitter for underperforming, but their anger has yet to manifest itself in anything more than garden-variety venting. Against that backdrop, some gambling industry observers viewed West's comments as overly alarmist. But Clark said players share some of the veteran umpire's fears.
"We believe this is indeed a legitimate concern," Clark said. "As gambling interests expand in the world of professional sports, safety at the ballpark and even away from the ballpark becomes an enhanced concern for anyone who could affect the outcome of a game or even an individual player within a game. Based on our discussions with the other PAs, we're not alone in this concern."
The operative word is "engagement." All sports are hungry for viewers, and evidence shows that fans will stay engaged longer if they have more invested in the outcome of a game than a simple rooting interest. In-game betting has been popular in Europe for years, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver has extolled the concept in numerous interviews.
A Nielsen Sports study commissioned by the American Gaming Association found that adults who bet on the NFL watched 19 more games during the 2015 season than adults who didn't make a wager. In addition, 84 percent of adults said they're more likely to watch an NFL game that they previously weren't interested in when they bet on it, while 77 percent said placing a wager made games more fun and enjoyable.
MLB has already invested considerable time and effort toward keeping fans engaged through technology. Its MLB At Bat app lists 28 separate features that can enhance each fan's interactive experience. Now, the prospect of legal gambling adds to the equation. The same deliberate pace that has caused baseball's popularity to lag among a younger viewing demographic might be an advantage in attracting legal bettors.
While casual fans can readily embrace the concept of a three-point spread in football, they might have a harder time understanding the labyrinthine numbers posted in MLB betting lines. In addition, baseball's daily unpredictability makes it less appealing to gamblers. That Clayton Kershaw-Miami Marlins matchup on April 25 seemed like a sure thing on paper, but a lot of bettors took a hit when Kershaw and the Dodgers lost the game by a score of 8-6. Outlier results of that nature occur routinely over a 162-game season.
Conversely, baseball's reputation as a thinking fan's game makes it the perfect vehicle for the type of in-game, "granular" wagers that are so popular in European soccer. "The amount of different bets you can think of is only limited by your imagination," Seeley said.
Some in-game wagers don't require all that much imagination. Will the teams combine to hit more than four home runs or strike out more than 20 times? The more adventurous fan might want to bet on how many baserunners reach in the fourth inning, or whether Justin Verlander will throw a first-pitch strike or ball to the next hitter, or Mike Trout will reach base safely in his next plate appearance vs. Chris Sale. When Oakland's Sean Manaea carries a no-hitter into the fifth or sixth inning, fans could hypothetically wager on whether he'll see it through to the finish.
Statcast potentially adds to the level of engagement. Will Giancarlo Stanton hit a ball with an exit velocity of 110 mph or more in today's game? Will the longest home run in the game exceed 420 feet?
"If it's the sixth inning and you're drifting off and you want to turn on 'Bar Rescue,' you'll be more likely to keep watching if you plunked down a wager that something is going to happen in the seventh inning," said Brett Smiley, editor-in-chief of Sportshandle.com. "If you have an incentive to keep watching for another inning, that will ultimately increase ratings and keep them up."
Still, established betting practice suggests the appetite for off-the-wall bets will be minimal. While fans at Super Bowl parties might wager on the amount of time it will take Pink to sing the national anthem or which color hoodie Bill Belichick will wear on the sideline, Nevada sportsbooks don't even offer that type of "prop bet" because someone either controls or already knows the result. Similarly, bookmakers are likely to place strict limits on the amount of money that can be wagered during a particular pitcher-batter matchup.
"In Europe, the wagers are more team- or total-oriented, because you don't have much time," Kornegay said. "It's hard to place a bet on, 'What is Mike Trout going to do here?' because we're talking like seconds."
Nevertheless, MLB plans to be vigilant in policing conduct and educating players and umpires because the worst-case scenarios are so catastrophic.
"Granular bets pose significant integrity concerns to us," Seeley said. "Obviously, it's much easier to manipulate an outcome of a small event, like an at-bat, than it is to manipulate the outcome of an entire game."
Could the advent of legal gambling entice players to sacrifice their principles for a payoff? The average big league salary this year is $4.52 million, and the minimum salary is $545,000. Unlike NCAA athletes, Major League Baseball players appear to be well-compensated enough to be insulated from gamblers. A single player has a hard time controlling the outcome of the game, and his behavior isn't going to be influenced by someone worried about a $100 or $500 prop bet.
"For somebody to compromise their career and reputation, it would take a monumental amount of money -- far too much that any sportsbook would notice there might be something going on," Smiley said. "It would be detected and probably snuffed out. I just can't imagine why any pro player would want to go down that path."
It's not a well-worn path, so the questions must be asked and addressed. An entire industry has been unlocked. And it's imperative for baseball, the regulators and politicians, the bookmakers and the other affected sports to get it right.