After MLB’s reckoning on sports betting offenders, what can leagues do to enforce the rules?

By Rustin Dodd, Stephen J. Nesbitt and Cody Stavenhagen

When Major League Baseball announced a lifetime ban for San Diego Padres infielder Tucupita Marcano on Tuesday, the particulars of his wrongdoing were laid out in specific detail: 387 bets placed at legal sportsbooks, 231 wagers related to MLB and 25 on the Pittsburgh Pirates, his employer at the time. He allegedly bet more than $150,000 on baseball.

Marcano was not a particularly savvy bettor; according to MLB, he won just 4.3 percent of his wagers, most of them parlays. But the copious facts released by the league on Tuesday —  the same day Ippei Mizuhara, Shohei Ohtani’s ex-interpreter, pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud — underscore a recurring theme as the sports world grapples with more blowback from the precipitous rise of legalized gambling in the United States.

In a majority of states, it’s never been easier to place a bet. But in a world of legal online sportsbooks and smartphones, it’s also never been easier for leagues to track the betting and, as they see it, protect the competitive integrity of the sport. In addition to Marcano’s lifetime ban, MLB announced year-long suspensions for Oakland A’s pitcher Michael Kelly and three minor leaguers — the Padres’ Jay Groome, the Philadelphia Phillies’ José Rodríguez and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Andrew Saalfrank. All four were found to have placed bets on MLB while in the minors.

The announcement came, according to MLB, after an investigation that included interviews and cooperation from the league’s sportsbook partners, a process that offers a window into the monitoring system in place at legal sportsbooks. That system includes outside firms like U.S. Integrity, a monitoring service that works with major sports leagues and sportsbooks.

“As betting becomes more acceptable and widespread, having these players getting in the sports betting market is dangerous,” said John Wolohan, a sports law professor at Syracuse. “It’s really uncomfortable for the leagues. That said, the leagues are in bed with the DraftKings and the FanDuels of the world anyway, and casinos, so in some ways they’re taking the money and hoping things don’t blow up in their face.”

While leagues like MLB increasingly court gaming partners, they have attempted to implement safeguards to deter athletes, coaches and team or league employees from gambling on their respective sports.

When a bettor — any bettor, for that matter — logs into a betting app, their location is immediately pinned by integrity analysts within a matter of feet. Global positioning is one way of ensuring no athlete can place bets from within a team facility without being caught. There are other methods, too. Social media is monitored closely, and companies use real-time data and proprietary algorithms to monitor betting trends and flag any unusually large line movement. If a troubling trend is spotted, it is generally sent to a person on an investigative team who will look deeper into the matter.

If a case rises to a higher degree of suspicion, a monitoring service alerts both sportsbooks and the league. In some cases, sportsbooks have internal teams watching for abnormal line movement and betting behavior.

U.S Integrity is now part of a joint venture called ProhiBet working to use encryption technology that will prevent athletes, coaches and league officials from placing bets in the first place. In May 2023, the company launched a tip hotline to allow people within the sports world to report gambling suspicions.

U.S. Integrity did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

In the case of Marcano and the other suspended players, MLB said a legal sports betting operator alerted the league in March of past betting activities from accounts connected to major- or minor-league players, none of whom were found to have played in a game on which they bet. A person briefed on the league’s investigation told The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, “This information came to light as a result of a legal sportsbook’s new proactive measures to enforce their policies,” though they did not detail the changes.

Peter Bayer, a former A’s minor league pitcher, went public last year saying he’d been ruled ineligible by MLB since 2021 for betting on baseball. League investigators found that Bayer placed over 100 baseball-related wagers in 2020, including at least 12 on his organization, and accused him of attempting to obstruct the league’s investigation.

Bayer’s bets were first discovered by the Colorado Division of Gaming, which identified him as a prohibited bettor and reported his bets to MLB.

From the perspective of Dan Hartman, who was director of the Colorado Division of Gaming at the time, cases such as Bayer’s are a testament to the collaboration between regulators, law enforcement and leagues.

“We’re not gonna stop incidents like this,” Hartman said last year, but proper oversight allows leagues to address them.

A player placing legal bets under their own name may come with obvious consequences.

“Honestly, in the years I’ve been involved in this, I see it time and time again,” said Steve Paine, co-founder of the advisory firm Evolve Sports Integrity. “It’s those basic checks. You think, if they were trying to do wrongdoing, they’d go out of their way to really hide it — use pseudonyms and fake accounts. But they don’t. They just bet in their own name.”

Leagues and integrity companies, however, are also working to eliminate more complicated occurrences, such as an athlete placing bets through a friend or family member.

In 2020, an independent regulatory commission found former Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge guilty of giving his brother inside information about a potential transfer to Sevilla FC. In 2021, Atlético Madrid defender Kieran Trippier served a brief ban for allegedly tipping off friends to his transfer destination. More recently on U.S. soil, it was revealed one of the more than two dozen Iowa and Iowa State athletes penalized for gambling-related offenses used a FanDuel account under his mother’s name.

Last spring, Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon was fired just days after U.S. Integrity flagged suspicious wagering on an Alabama–LSU baseball game made in Cincinnati by a man named Bert Neff. The incident produced a black eye for the NCAA and has since led to criminal charges against Neff, but it also served as a prime example of the sports-gambling machine’s monitoring process working properly and swiftly.

“The system worked,” Louisiana Gaming Control Board chair Ronnie Johns said last year of the Alabama case. “We have to protect the integrity of sports wagering or the system will crater.”

It’s not difficult to imagine a scheme evading the system for some time. Especially if an account isn’t in the name of the prohibited bettor, or someone with the same last name, or if it makes only modest and unalarming wagers. But as time passes sportsbooks, regulators and betting-integrity companies are becoming more streamlined, sophisticated and savvy to new ways bettors are trying to game the system.

“I think it’s always going to be a bit of a cat-and-mouse scenario,” Paine said. “People who are trying to place bets that they’re not supposed to place, they’ll always look for methods to try and disguise that — whether it be betting through family members, or betting through using other third parties, or trying to use technology like VPNs to make bets appear like they’re coming from another country. All of those things exist.”

But the technology used to monitor such activity is not rudimentary. There are ways to identify even those who attempt to find loopholes.

“If they’re using the same iPhone that they used to place the bets when they placed it in their own name two years ago, the companies can find links,” Paine said. “It’s not just the account name. It’s, ‘Was it your home router that you came through when you placed bets? Was it the same device?’ There’s lots of technical data points these sophisticated companies can use to detect fraud.”

A problem leagues face: These safeguards only apply to legally placed bets, not wagers placed through illegal sportsbooks, like in the case of Mizuhara, who admitted to stealing more than $17 million from Ohtani to pay off gambling debts. “Those you’ll never catch,” Wolohan said. “Or you shouldn’t catch, unless there’s a criminal investigation into the bookie.” Mizuhara’s case stemmed from a criminal investigation into the bookmaker believed to be at the center of a Southern California-based gambling ring, Mathew Bowyer.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement Tuesday spoke to the importance of the league’s continued collaboration with regulators and sportsbooks.

“Since the (2018) Supreme Court decision opened the door to legalized sports betting, we have worked with licensed sports betting operators and other third parties to put ourselves in a better position from an integrity perspective through the transparency that a regulated sports betting system can provide,” Manfred said. “MLB will continue to invest heavily in integrity monitoring, educational programming and awareness initiatives with the goal of ensuring strict adherence to this fundamental rule of our game.”

Paine led the UK Gambling Commission’s sports-betting intelligence unit before co-founding a betting-integrity firm that advises the governing bodies of several European and international sports leagues. He recalled hearing an official for an international federation discussing the overarching gambling issue. The official, Paine said, mused that the league could do everything right, and be prepared for every possibility, yet still there would be a small number of bad actors who’d disobey the rules — no matter how robust the education, no matter how diligent the enforcement.

“You can’t prevent everything bad from ever happening,” Paine said. “But when it does, can you identify it? And can you tackle it swiftly, fairly and robustly? I think that’s the key. It’s unrealistic to think any sport is immune to this. Put the right safeguards in place. Take it seriously. Invest in it properly. Work with the stakeholders. And when bad stuff does happen, be prepared for it and tackle it. I think that’s what (MLB) have done here.

“No one wants a big news story like this, but they’ve identified it and dealt with it. I don’t see what stronger message they can send out.”

(Top photo of Marcano: George Kubas / Diamond Images via Getty Images)

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