Can Legal Sports Betting Juice College World Series? MLB Traditionalists Find Home In Omaha
The Greatest Show on Dirt began Saturday, but before that, 56 teams were eliminated between May 31st and June 10th. Odds are you have no idea what I’m referring to.
The Greatest Show on Dirt is what college baseball enthusiasts call the College World Series. The NCAA trademarked the slogan in 2008, long after it became popular, then briefly benched it before its comeback in 2016. You can find the moniker plastered around TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, where the final eight teams battle in a unique tournament format that lasts up to 11 days.
With games featured on ESPN, the slogan is used in promo videos and commercials, but unlike March Madness and the College Football Playoffs, you won’t find a player with the name recognition of Zion Williamson or Tua Tagalovia or a coach as recognizable as Tom Izzo or Dabo Swinney. Even the biggest of sports fans might struggle to name a team in the College World Series, which means you probably aren’t betting on it either. One Las Vegas oddsmaker hopes that will change.
Caesars Sportsbook swings at college baseball
Matt Lindeman is one of the few people you can find routinely tweeting about college baseball. Lindeman believes the niche sport has potential from a betting perspective. The Manager of Sports Trading at the Caesars Sportsbook in Las Vegas, Lindeman talks the talk on Twitter and walks the walk in his office.
Caesars posted odds to win the College World Series in February, already rare among sportsbooks, but with Lindeman’s lead, Caesars took it a step further this year. Shortly after the season started, the sportsbook began offering lines on regular season baseball games for the first time. Caesars would post a few marquee matchups, often games between Top 25 teams, every Friday.
“College baseball is the game MLB traditionalist so desperately miss. Small ball, base hits, late-inning drama. It’ll make you pull your hair out at times but it beats the hell out of the three outcomes,” Lindeman tweeted a couple of days into the college baseball tournament.
Lindeman has a point. Once America’s national pastime, Major League Baseball’s popularity is at an all-time low. In 2018, a Gallup Poll showed that only nine percent of Americans said baseball was their favorite sport to watch, the lowest number reported since Gallup began asking the question in 1937. The reasons for its decline are mixed, but one factor is the change of play style.
The analytics wave hit Major League Baseball far before it did other sports. Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, published in 2003, changed the way front offices, managers and players approached the game. Now a decade-and-a-half later, ditching small ball — stolen bases, hit-and-runs, sacrifice bunts, etc. — for big swings and walks, teams are playing more optimally than ever before. But that doesn’t mean more exciting.
Armed with launch angle and similar data, swings are tweaked to try to send the ball over the fence rather than to simply put the ball in play, and home runs and strikeouts are on pace to break MLB records this season.
The trends aren’t new. The steroid era may be over — we haven’t seen home run chases as we did with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds — but the record for the most home runs per game was set in 2017. The league is on pace for 6,591 home runs, 486 more than the current record of 6,105, and the 2019 season has the lowest ground-ball percentage on record so far. Batters are also on pace to set a new strikeouts milestone for the 11th consecutive season.
Sure, there’s technically more offense, but the road to those runs isn’t via high-leverage situations that require thoughtful strategy from managers on both sides of the chalk. Instead, the result is long plate appearances in less exciting games.
It’s one reason why at least nine college baseball managers, including five that lead their teams in Omaha this week, are paid more than 11 managers currently coaching in the major leagues.
Decisions and authority have transitioned in the big leagues as GMs and analytics experts have risen to the top of teams’ power structures. In college baseball, the big money decisions remain in the dugout.
Baseball viewership declining
Of all the leagues, Major League Baseball is failing to reach a young audience.
Baseball has the oldest viewers of the five major sports. According to the 2017 Nielsen ratings, the average age of baseball viewers was 53 compared to 47 for the NFL and 37 for the NBA. Reacting to that report, The Washington Post wrote, “Young people are not getting into baseball as fans as they once did: For the first time, the ESPN Sports Poll’s annual survey of young Americans’ 30 favorite sports figures finds no baseball players on the list.”
From exploring rule changes that shorten games to embracing online sports betting, MLB is on the search for a solution. In lobbying for “integrity fees,” the MLB has touted in-game betting as a way to boost fan engagement.
If MLB viewership stands to benefit from sports betting, could college baseball prosper in the era of legal online sports betting as well?
Since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn PASPA in May 2018, the 1992 federal ban on sports betting, already 14 states (and Washington D.C.) have legalized or launched full-fledged sports wagering in their borders.
It looks like some baseball traditionalists, the ones that Lindeman speaks of, at least supplement their baseball watching diet in June with the college product.
Despite MLB’s optimism, it’s unclear whether sports betting will significantly increase MLB viewership. According to a Seton Hall Sports Poll that surveyed 676 people across the United States in April, only 19 percent of those polled said they would follow baseball more closely if sports betting were legalized in their state.
Some may find that number disappointing, but survey director Rick Gentile told Yahoo! News that it’s still not a bad number for leagues.
One way to look at this, according to a study conducted by the Center for Survey Research at East Carolina University, is that it’s only 7 percent less than the percentage of people who gambled on the Super Bowl in Mississippi and New Jersey.
If you build it, will they come?
In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character Ray famously heard a voice tell him, “if you build it, he will come.” Ray subsequently builds a baseball diamond at his Iowa farm, and legendary baseball players emerge from the cornfields to play ball.
Lindeman is trying to build it at Caesars.
With data and information scarce, creating lines for college baseball games takes more thought and hours than everyday MLB lines.
“It requires quite a bit more work,” Lindeman said. “I had to manually pull the stats from most team websites before the tournament and probable starting pitchers are not always easy to find. This does make for a softer market, which is certainly more fun for bettors.”
Unfortunately, so far bettors are not emerging miraculously from behind the rows of corn to get down College World Series action at Caesars.
“Honestly these markets are not popular at all. I could almost count the number of bets we’ve taken on CWS games on two hands,” Lindeman told RotoGrinders two days before the first pitch was thrown in Omaha. “It just doesn’t have the same draw as professional sports since media coverage is lacking throughout the season. It’s picked up each weekend of the tournament, but the handle is still minuscule relative to other sports.”
Most of the bets placed come from number chasers who see the line off or moving elsewhere. At least one new potential opportunity exists for Caesars to gain some eyeballs for college baseball betting: As part of a widespread post-PASPA media embrace of legal sports betting, ESPN struck a deal with Caesars Entertainment in May to develop programming for bettors, and also integrate Caesars odds and branding into ESPN programs, or put another way, millions of eyeballs.
Lindeman believes one of the most appealing aspects of college baseball is its unique tournament set up. Like March Madness, the postseason begins with 64 teams. Starting with Regionals, the tournament features four tiers and alternates between double-elimination brackets and best-of-three series.
“I think the sport has potential to take off – especially the first weekend of the tournament when teams are hosting regionals. It’s non-stop action for 3-4 days, and the swings can be crazy with late-inning meltdowns from some teams.”
48 teams are eliminated at the end of Regionals, and 16 teams move on to Super Regionals where the higher seeded teams host eight best-of-three series.
“Tournament format is very similar to that of basketball and provides three days of non-stop action. Unfortunately, the exposure/coverage just isn’t there right now.”
By the end of it, eight teams advance to Omaha for the College World Series. With teams split into two double-elimination brackets, the final stage mimics Regionals. The winners of each side meet for the best-of-three series to crown the College World Series champion. In total, the winners could lose up to four games and still end up piling on top of the pitcher’s mound in the final college baseball game of the season.
“Hopefully the sport starts to see increased exposure in the regular season so more people will take an interest in it.”
Even sports bettors have doubts
Professional poker player and DFS pro Matt Smith, better known as SamEnole on Twitter and as DraftKings’ first Millionaire Maker winner, is skeptical that the College World Series will ever gain real popularity.
“I love college football and college basketball, and I love MLB, but I really don’t pay attention to college baseball at all until the postseason when the games start to matter. The regular season is the most meaningless of any sport,” Smith told RotoGrinders. “FSU had its worst season in like 40 years and still made the Tournament and found a way to get to Omaha.”
Smith’s own alma mater made it to the World Series this year, but he rarely watches the event unless Florida State is in it or if he has a “random bet or future” in play. He also doesn’t think college baseball’s tournament format can captivate viewers.
“Omaha is awesome, but it will never resemble anything close to March Madness. Even the most casual fans get enthralled with March Madness because they can fill out a bracket and have a team to root for in every game. Then a percentage of those people will bet the games also. With the double elimination format in Omaha, there’s no possible way to do any sort of bracket contest for it.”
Other sports bettors I talked to enjoy college baseball and think it’s a more entertaining product than MLB, but are hesitant to bet on it like they do other sports.
“What keeps me from betting it is access to regular season viewing. I get to the College World Series or super regionals and want to play those games, but I just don’t want blind action. I want resources, etc., to handicap the games,” said one source who wished to remain anonymous.
The source has small futures tickets on Michigan and Texas Tech that he placed during the Super Regionals, but says he actually watches College World Series games even when he doesn’t have action on them. Ironically, he bets on MLB daily but never tunes in.
Excitement in Omaha
There might not be much excitement inside Caesars’ Sportsbook this time of year, yet, but there’s plenty of it at TD Ameritrade Park. Tuesday is the fourth straight day of double-headers. The first games taking place at 2pm ET followed by night games at 7pm ET.
Of the final eight teams, Michigan and Auburn made it to Omaha at +5000 and +3000 odds (based on Caesars’ opening futures odds to win the College World Series). On Sunday, Mississippi State scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth for a 5-4 come-from-behind win in one of the most exciting games of the year. Arkansas arrived in Omaha as +300 co-favorites with SEC rival Vanderbilt to win the tournament. Monday afternoon, the Razorbacks became the first team eliminated by giving up an early three-run lead to Texas Tech and allowing the Red Raiders to get ahead 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth.
College baseball fans will tune in over the next week, and only a few people will have money on the line. (Some of them actually in the fantasy realm, where the parlay-making site Prize Picks has posted figures for certain CWS players.) By the end of it, a new Division I champion will be crowned. You’ll hardly find anything to read, and you’ll probably only hear and see it on SportsCenter the night of the final game.
A small percentage will know who the College World Series Champion is the next morning, and an even smaller percentage will be able to name the College World Series MVP. But how many out there know the 2018 MLB MVPs off the top of the head?
Maybe there’s hope after all. College baseball can only go up from here, and when the time comes, you can bet Lindeman will be the first tweeting and posting lines.