MLB embraced betting. Now it’s smeared with gambling’s grubby underbelly

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Shohei Ohtani;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Shohei Ohtani</a>, right, and his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, were in Seoul for the start of the MLB season. </span><span>Photograph: Lee Jin-man/AP</span>

This is Major League Baseball’s worst nightmare. The face of the league, its one, true international star, who this past offseason joined one of its biggest teams on a $700m contract, is associated with allegations around an illegal sports betting operation.

The story so far: the Los Angeles Dodgers fired Ippei Mizuhara, the interpreter for Shohei Ohtani, the team’s two-way phenom, on Wednesday after an investigation revealed $4.5m in wire transfers sent from Ohtani’s bank account to a California betting organization that is now under federal investigation.

Mizuhara had initially sat for an interview with ESPN, saying that Ohtani had paid the money to cover his interpreter’s gambling debts. After 24 hours, though, Ohtani’s representatives switched course, saying Mizuhara had been guilty of “massive theft,” and that the matter has been turned over to the authorities.

ESPN reports that two wire transfers sent in September and October totaling $1m show Ohtani’s name. Gambling is legal in most US states, but not in California. So far, no charges have been filed in the ongoing investigation into the California book. Mizuhara says Ohtani did not place any bets himself, and the Dodgers star is not subject to any criminal or MLB investigation.

Earlier on Wednesday, before the firing was announced, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had been in attendance at the Seoul Series, two games in South Korea to mark the start of the new season. Manfred trumpeted the league’s commercial growth and its international development – there was a passing nod to the Oakland Athletics moving to Las Vegas, less than a decade removed from the stigma of gambling keeping all of the major US professional sports leagues away from The Strip. Less than 24 hours later, those three pillars of the Manfred legacy had combined and combusted.

There are many unknowns to this story: how did Mizuhara have access to Ohtani’s account? How did he gain a $4.5m line of credit with bookmakers? What will the fallout be for Ohtani, one of the most famous people in Japan and one of the few MLB players familiar to non-baseball fans?

What we do know, is that this is a terrible look for MLB which, like all US professional sports leagues, has rushed to embrace legal gambling. While Mizuhara’s problems stemmed from bets with an illegal bookmaker, this week’s fiasco is centered around a man with a clear gambling problem at the same time that MLB is embracing legal betting.

Last year, MLB announced a partnership with FanDuel that will “bring fans’ viewing and wagering experiences closer than ever before.” Integrated, real-time gambling is coming to a sports streaming service near you soon. It’s not just MLB: on Tuesday, the NBA announced it would integrate real-time wagering into its streaming service, NBA League Pass. With the click of a remote, you wager on who grabs the next rebound, who misses the next free throw or who will win the third quarter. Needless to say, there are worrying signs that gambling addiction in the US is on the rise. “Calls to gambling helplines in most states in America are up, by sheer numbers,” Timothy Fong, co-director of the gambling studies program at UCLA, told the Guardian in December. He added that “more and more younger clients” – aged 25 and under – are seeking treatment.

Around one in five (19%) adult Americans placed bets in 2022, according to research by Pew. Six percent of those placed bets on gambling apps – and 53% of those bets are placed in-game, according to CRG Global. Betting in-game juices viewership figures, and keeps those viewers hanging around for longer, allowing leagues to negotiate stronger TV rights deals, the backbone of any league’s riches.

No league has embraced the in-game market more than MLB. Given baseball’s stop-start nature and the volume of MLB games – 2,430 in the regular season compared to the NFL’s 272 – there are more bets to be placed and just enough time between pitches to click an app before a user can think through the consequences. For many Americans, betting has become a daily ritual – and no sport feeds that dopamine rush as intensely as baseball.

Broadcasts these days do not merely tease gambling; it’s omnipresent. You’re not there to watch the sport, to see who wins, you’re there to track your app, monitor your daily fantasy lineup and play catchup if your early innings bets have turned sour. Local broadcasts channeled through cable affiliates are drenched in gambling talk. There are lineup cards in partnership with FanDuel. Pitching matchups presented by BetMGM.

A sport ostensibly governed and run by data wonks is not trying to deliver information to its audience; it’s trying to coerce viewers to part with their money, and MLB doesn’t seem inclined to stop any of it. Whereas leagues like the Premier League, based in England, have taken steps to curb the visualization of gambling, in baseball it’s ever-present. Fears over the league’s long-term commercial viability – with an ageing fanbase and collapsing regional broadcasters – has driven the game to clutch gambling as a life preserver.

And, in economic terms, it’s worked. As baseball has become increasingly beholden to the gambling barons, interest in baseball has risen among younger demographics. The idea is basic: Take a sport tailor-made for in-game betting, place access to games and sportsbooks in the hands of young people through smartphones, and watch your ratings and revenue soar. It doesn’t appear to matter that one out of 10 US college students is a pathological gambler, according to an analysis from the University of Buffalo.

For those at the ballpark, in-play betting is still viable: beyond the apps, seven MLB stadiums have a licensed sportsbook or sportsbook lounge. The sport no longer invites you to wager. It doesn’t just expect it. It’s a dictum: if you’re following along, you better have some juice on the outcome.

It’s no wonder, then, that given the landscape, baseball would reach this day. One of the most famous events in the game’s history is based around a game-fixing scandal. More recently, in the legal gambling era, we’ve seen cockamamy schemes from Iowa baseball players and Brad Bohannon, the former Alabama college baseball coach, to try to cheat the system and the game. When you invite in the gambling vultures, few sports are so ripe for the danger of addiction, corruption and wrongdoing than baseball.