The NCAA’s stance against gambling on sports by its athletes and those working in collegiate athletics is summed up simply by the slogan on the posters the association provides to its member schools: “Don’t bet on it.”
The rules have been unambiguous for decades, forming part of the fundamental guidelines in place for half a million amateur athletes. But with sports betting now legal in more than half the states and millions flocking to once-worried professional sports leagues, college conferences are also beginning to explore ways to make money.
The Mid-American Conference was the first to step in, licensing the rights to its data and statistics to a company called Genius Sports, which will in turn sell it to sportsbooks.
Expect others to follow, but the extra income will come with increased responsibility. And at a time of sweeping change in college sports, with athletes now able to make money off their fame and the viability and necessity of the NCAA in question, legalized and easily accessible gambling represents new ground on which to navigate.
While the NCAA doesn’t block these kinds of commercial deals, actual sports betting is still a violation for those involved in college sports.
“They were able to turn around the other way before and say, ‘Oh, it’s all happening here. But the second you get paid directly by sportsbooks, that also comes with some responsibility,” said Matthew Holt of US Integrity, a firm that works with professional sports leagues and college conferences to monitor gaming irregularities. .
Holt said college sports are particularly ripe for potential scandals due to a lack of transparency regarding player availability, the explosion of sponsorship deals for athletes involving boosters and the possibility for unpaid gamblers to essentially bet on themselves with ease.
Holt said regulated sports betting in the United States was on track to bring in $125 billion this year.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament brought in $20 billion in wagers this year, Holt said, and more money is wagered on an average college football Saturday than the typical NFL Sunday.
While all major professional sports leagues have financial deals with online sportsbooks, college conferences have been slow to get in the game. MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher says it’s impossible to ignore the changing reality.
“What we have done, in fact, is to take sports betting out of dark corners and put some sunshine into it and more transparency. And more eyes on it. It’s positive, it’s not negative,” did he declare.
Coming this coming season, those weekday MAC football matches could be more enticing than ever for gamers, with the help of Genius.
The MAC and Genius declined to disclose financial terms of the deal. Navigate, a Chicago-based company that does research and data analysis for professional sports leagues and college conferences, estimated the deal to operate legal sports betting could be worth between $1 million and $1.5 million. per year.
Using publicly available information on legal sports betting and data licensing deals made by professional sports leagues, Navigate projected the Southeastern Conference could earn between $15 million and $20 million a year with a deal. similar to that of the MAC.
The projection for the Big Ten is between $13 million and $15 million, and between $5 million and $10 million for the other Power Five conferences.
Genius, which is based in London, also provides a layer of protection for its partners, including the NFL, through data analytics and relationships with sportsbooks, said Sean Conroy, Genius Sports vice president for North America.
The NFL’s partnership with Genius was key to revealing information that led to the league’s suspension of Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley for betting on NFL games, Conroy said.
In conference meetings earlier this month in Arizona, Holt warned athletic directors and league officials from the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 about the differences between college and professional sports that make college more vulnerable to corruption.
First, college conferences do not require teams and coaches to disclose injury status and player availability for games. The NFL, on the other hand, publishes an injury report three times a week.
Holt said that by hiding injury information, a college coach unwittingly makes those in the know — from coaching staff to team leaders to players — targets to be bribed for a betting advantage .
“So I think the college space, if it’s going to open up this category for revenue and monetization, needs to take responsibility for stepping up in injury information and availability reporting,” Holt said. .
Second, with college athletes now allowed to make money for sponsorship deals, Holt said there should be limits on individuals betting on athletes they also pay.
“Let’s say Tommy’s Used Car Shop gives the college quarterback $100,000 a year and a NIL (deal),” Holt said. “Well, the owner of Tommy’s Used Car Shop shouldn’t be able to bet on this university. It’s a conflict of interest. He has direct influence over the player.”
Holt said the professional leagues are doing a good job of identifying “influencers” and imposing restrictions on them with sports betting.
Third, and perhaps most problematic, is the ease with which athletes can bet on themselves. Many online sportsbooks allow users to make prop bets, betting on individual performance in a particular game. Can a quarterback throw at least three touchdown passes? Will the point guard reach six assists?
Instead of being paid to influence the final score of a game, as has happened in the point-shaving scandals involving athletes at schools such as Boston College, Toledo and San Diego, athletes can simply manipulate their own statistics.
Even with the increase in NIL opportunities for college athletes, the vast majority are making money, if at all.
“And it’s easier for the fixers to approach those players because they don’t have to ask the player to fix a game,” Holt said. “Hey, not only do we hope your team wins, but we hope you play well. Don’t get nine rebounds.
Holt said that with US Integrity’s advocacy, three states have made individual betting on college sports events illegal.
“The other 30 said, ‘Thank you for that wonderful information, Matt, but DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars, who have great lobbyists, they wanted it and they won,'” Holt said.
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