News & Opinion

Golf bets on big payoff with gambling act

The most significant golf event of 2018 wasn’t what you might think. Another U.S. Ryder Cup loss? Brooks Koepka winning back-to-back U.S. Opens, a feat unmatched in nearly three decades? The return of Tiger Woods? Big-hitting Cameron Champ’s first victory?

Nope. The most significant golf happening will prove to be “The Match,” the pay-per-view exhibition between Woods and Phil Mickelson (“Next time, maybe Barkley should play,” Nov. 26).

I refer to it as The Flop. The golf wasn’t very good, the interaction and trash-talking were an epic fail, the promotion was amateurish and the delivery system broke, allowing some viewers to watch for free and causing some paying customers to demand – and get – refunds.

However, Tiger and Phil (you’ve been on a first-name basis with them since the ’90s) showed us the future of golf with The Match, and the future of sports: live, interactive betting.

It’s going to be big. Sports betting, in fact, will be bigger than ever.

“What’s been created is this proliferation of sports betting offshore to the tune of projections of $150 billion bet annually in the U.S.,” said Andy Levinson, a PGA Tour senior vice president for tournament administration. “Nevada accounts for only $5 billion of that. Sports betting has become widespread.”

Eight U.S. states allow sports betting, and more are on the way. It may go national. Wednesday, legislation was introduced in Congress to take federal control of sports gambling in America (“In the news,” Dec. 20). The federal government is usually the last to know anything, but even it can smell the money here.

Uncle Sam’s interest in sports betting isn’t about regulating the process. The feds want a piece of the action, a cut of that potential $150 billion. The bill was introduced by U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah. We finally found something that gets bi-partisan support: government funding. The sharks already are circling.

Rest assured that the bill’s passage will result in a piece of the action for Uncle Sam. No matter what the feds call it, there will be a gambling tax.

Sports leagues are interested in new gambling sources for the same reason. They want their cut, too, in what is called an “integrity tax.” The Schumer-Hatch bill, known as the Sports Wagering Market Integrity Act of 2018, doesn’t prohibit such fees, which means they could come about. At the very least, sports leagues like the PGA Tour want to monetize their proprietary performance data and statistics for gambling purposes.

There is irony here because until the past year, the PGA Tour has been staunchly anti-gambling, for obvious integrity purposes. Players on all PGA Tour entities, including the lower-level Latinoamerica, Mackenzie, China and Web.com tours, were required to take an online course and pass a test regarding the Tour’s strict no-gambling policies.

Here’s Rule 1 from the online course:

“A player may not:

“Bet or facilitate betting on any professional (or elite amateur) golf competition anywhere in the world.

“Fail to give best efforts or contrive the outcome of the competition.

“Associate with betting-related persons in a manner that might affect adversely on the appearance of integrity in the competition.

“Provide inside information (e.g. the health or form of a player) for the purpose of betting on a competition.”

Rule 2 says a player is responsible for his caddie, friends and family being aware of the gambling regulations.

Here’s one from the scenario-quiz portion of the course, a copy of which was obtained by Morning Read:

“You are hitting balls on the range when another professional approaches you. ‘Hey, I forget. Are we allowed to bet on professional golf?’ How do you respond?

“We can bet on anything. We are just not allowed to fix events.

“We can’t bet on any professional or elite amateur competition.

“We can’t bet on any professional golf.

“We can bet on any professional golf, just not a tournament we’re competing in.”

The second answer is the correct one, the course says, because, “Under no circumstances should you place a bet on any golfing event.”

The online course is still required for new tour members who haven’t already taken it.

So, how many PGA Tour gambling regulations did The Match violate? Most of them. But it was an unofficial match, a mere exhibition, and those bets during the match really were only “challenges” in which the money would go to charity. So, this one-off event gets a pass.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan is a smart, forward-thinking leader who recognizes the potential importance of advanced golf wagering. The Tour hired Genius Sports to create an integrity program to protect golf events from possible gambling factors. Genius Sports will develop a system to identify suspicious betting patterns. It also will develop a program to educate players, caddies and officials about the potential pitfalls related to gambling – similar to the Tour’s online course but adapted to the changing world of in-play wagering.

“Every other major sport has similar programs in place,” Monahan said. “We established this program not because we think there’s a problem. It’s just the world is dynamic, and gaming is a reality in every sport.”

What The Match did for golf was offer a peek into the future of golf wagering. When Woods and Mickelson had their “challenges,” sports books could take bets on the outcome. Golf betting has been around for years, but it has stayed mostly in the elemental stage: betting on players to win, or betting on the low score in a twosome or threesome. Shot-by-shot betting is now realistic, thanks to the Internet, complex algorithms and the use of mobile devices.

“Most sports, you watch the competition and see everything,” the Tour’s Levinson said. “Most sports are one-ball sports. Golf has an average of 72 balls in play at any given moment. It’s a tremendous opportunity to engage fans. The untapped potential is huge.”

How will the new betting work? Say you’re watching the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Woods is on TV, getting ready to hit a shot on a par 3. An algorithm on your viewing screen – presumably your phone or tablet – provides instant odds of Woods hitting the green in regulation. You quickly click and make a bet. Done.

Suddenly, golf viewing gets more interesting because you, the viewer, have an intense rooting interest: your money.

This kind of wagering, and proposition bets on all sorts of game-related items, already is in progress. Levinson told me about an incident in Europe involving odds posted on whether a famous pro soccer coach would eat a meat pie during his team’s game. He did, and then a controversy ensued about whether the coach knew about the odds.

The bottom line: betting on live action throughout an event is a way to keep a viewer hooked.

“The United Kingdom is a very mature, advanced betting market,” Levinson said. “More than 70 percent of U.K. betting is ‘in-play betting’ after the event commences. More than 90 percent of betting takes place online or on mobile devices. Historically, there’s been very little in-play betting in Las Vegas, until recently.

“In the short history of sports betting in New Jersey, which is only a few months, we’re seeing more than 80 percent done on mobile devices. We’re already seeing a more advanced technological sports-betting environment. We have a tremendous opportunity to engage fans. Golf may be the last great popular sport that is untapped for in-play betting.

“There will be shot-by-shot betting in our sport – internationally first, domestically after. I think we’re going to get there.”

Sports gambling used to carry a stigma, a deserved one in the 20th century after assorted scandals such as fixed boxing matches, a thrown World Series and point-shaving in football and basketball games. That stigma has faded for a variety of societal-changing reasons that include the proliferation of Internet wagering and the phenomenon that was televised poker championships.

Professional gambler soon might be the hottest new respectable job title.

“There’s not a negative attitude toward sports betting,” Levinson said. “It’s not that old image we had that it’s corrupted by organized crime, or bookies coming after you. There’s not a lot of public angst related to sports betting now.”

The way we consume golf and all sports is on the verge of a massive change, thanks to sports betting. Is that good? I’m not sure, but I’ll give you long odds that we can’t stop it now.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle