In November 2018, not long after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal ban on sports betting, Major League Baseball and MGM Resorts International agreed to an all-inclusive multi-year partnership. The first-of-its-kind agreement involved the MLB brand, the MGM Resorts and playMGM brands, league and team sponsorships, promotions and data usage in gaming.
With benefits for each side, it reflected a new era of cooperation between America’s pastime and sportsbooks, two entities that were opposed not long ago. Today, not only do sportsbooks have a relationship with the league, but also with individual teams. As baseball concludes the first month of its season, it’s a good time to take a look at these alliances.
As an official sponsor of Major League Baseball, MGM Resorts can promote its brand and BetMGM gaming options across MLB’s digital and broadcast platforms including the MLB Network, MLB.com, the MLB At Bat app and additional fan engagement offerings to be jointly developed.
“We are pleased to partner with MGM Resorts International, an industry leader in the sports gaming area, to work together on bringing innovative experiences to baseball fans and MGM customers,” Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. said when the deal was announced. “Our partnership with MGM helps us navigate this evolving space responsibly, and we look forward to the fan engagement opportunities ahead.”
As an MLB-authorized gaming operator, MGM can utilize the league’s official statistics feed—on a non-exclusive basis—throughout its digital and live domestic sports gaming options. The league makes enhanced statistics available to MGM on an exclusive basis. In addition, MGM and the league will work together on comprehensive responsible gaming measures and work to protect the integrity of the game both on and off the field.
Under the deal, MLB intellectual property appears in MGM advertising and promotional campaigns. MGM will also have a presence at MLB Jewel Events, including the All-Star Game and World Series. In Japan, MGM will be an official partner at grassroots baseball events like the MLB Road Show. An interactive fan experience that celebrates baseball, the road show tours Japan giving fans an opportunity to participate in baseball activities including batting and pitching cages, baserunning stations, virtual reality and a baseball museum.
Baseball has two different arrangements with sportsbooks, according to David Hochman, the league’s business and technology spokesman. At the league level, MLB has only two exclusive official sports betting sponsors: BetMGM and DraftKings. A second type of agreement brings in authorized gaming operators (AGO).
Authorized Gaming Operators
The biggest difference between a sponsorship and an AGO is the promotional rights. “Sponsors can include the MLB logo and our marks in national commercials, sweepstakes and other advertising. They also have lots of marketing rights for our league events like All-Star Week and the postseason. AGOs can only use our marks and logos within their products,” Hochman said.
The sportsbooks have access to official league data, and the ability to work with clubs and rights-holders.
“Having a direct relationship with each sportsbook was important for two reasons: Each deal includes a set of integrity provisions and data-sharing requirements allowing us to continue to protect baseball as the legalized market grows; and it allows us to work closely with sportsbooks to enhance their product offerings that our fans engage with,” Hochman said.
These agreements are in addition to relationships between sportsbooks and individual teams.
The non-exclusive AGO program has been working well, said Kenny Gersh, MLB executive vice president of business development. “These agreements make it clear how important the integrity of baseball and use of official league data are to the health and success of the sports betting industry.”
- William Hill / Caesars
- Hard Rock
Buying Fan Engagement
For Major League Baseball—and for the NFL, NBA, and NHL too—fan engagement is what these deals are all about: more fans watching games on TV, online or on mobile devices, and more live bodies in stadiums.
“Just like other leagues, these relationships with sports wagering companies should drive more spectators and fans to engage and view MLB games on live TV, streaming or in person,” said Josh Swissman, founding partner with the Strategy Organization.
In baseball, it hasn’t quite worked out that way, at least not yet. Overall attendance at the ballpark dropped from 69.7 million in 2018 to 68.5 million in 2019. The next two years, 2020 and 2021, weren’t accurate barometers because of the pandemic. We’ll see what 2022 brings, but so far, the availability of sports betting has done little for live attendance.
But Casey Clark, senior vice president of the American Gaming Association, says sports betting is fulfilling the promise. “It’s clear that four years post-PASPA, legal sports betting is energizing the fan experience. From sportsbooks at MLB ballparks to content and marketing deals, sports betting operators, the league and clubs are working together to create unique ways to engage fans,” as in stadium sportsbooks coming to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.
“While the different professional sports leagues approached sports betting at different paces, they’ve all fully embraced the notion of sports betting today,” Swissman said. “The NFL and its teams may have more partnerships with sports betting companies than their MLB counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that Major League Baseball and its individual teams’ leaders aren’t thinking about how best to monetize these relationships.”
Two ways could include additional ticket and advertising revenue streams. “It appears that MLB and its teams are fundamentally approaching these sponsorships and partnerships the same way as other professional leagues,” Swissman said.
In June 2020, theScore became an AGO with MLB, inking a multi-year agreement that provides the company immediate access to official MLB data, league marks and logos for its mobile sports betting app, theScore Bet. “We’re thrilled to work with MLB, helping bring our fans an even deeper experience as we begin our multi-state expansion of theScore Bet,” said John Levy, founder and CEO of theScore. “We know our fans are eager to watch and bet on America’s pastime, and we bring them a best-in-class integrated media and betting offering.”
For MLB, the goal is to build on partnerships like theScore. “We’ve approached sports betting with a crawl-walk-run approach,” Gersh said. “As more states continue to legalize sports betting, we’ll keep working with sportsbooks to create the best products possible, while maintaining an opt-in experience for fans that may not want to engage with betting.”
Gearing Up for Legal Sports Betting
Not every partnership centers on sports betting, at least at the outset. In 2019, the Choctaw Nation of Southern Oklahoma signed a multiyear extension of a 2010 partnership between the Texas Rangers and Choctaw Casinos & Resorts (sports betting is illegal in Texas; legislation is pending in Oklahoma).
Under the agreement, Choctaw is the official and exclusive casino and resort of the Rangers. The agreement includes prominent signage throughout the former Globe Life Field, including signage in left field and at home plate and exclusive branding in the Rangers’ first base home dugout as well as numerous other assets.
“The agreement also includes a suite and several tickets that we use for our VIP guests and associates,” said Erica Kosemund, senior director gaming brand and partnerships for Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “Last year we extended our partnership with the Rangers to include a multi-year naming rights partnership for Globe Life Park in Arlington. The multi-purpose sports and entertainment venue, which previously served as the home of the Texas Rangers from 1994 to 2019, is now called Choctaw Stadium.”
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton praised the new era. “A new ballpark, a great team and two strong entertainment brands mean more fun and excitement for the fans and for the region. We’re committed to helping the Texas Rangers take America’s favorite pastime to the next level in North Texas.”
And if Texas and Oklahoma should legalize sports betting? “The Choctaw Nation is looking at all opportunities to grow its brand and sports betting is one of those avenues,” Kosemund said.
For Major League Baseball, success comes in multiple ways, but integrity must always be the focus of all parties, Gersh said. “Beyond that, a good metric of success for our league is the movement of betting activity from the gray and black markets to the legal markets.”