How the NCAA is pivoting to address sports betting integrity

After decades of public resistance to legalized sports betting — including six years as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against New Jersey that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court — the NCAA is moving to address sports betting integrity in new ways.

“Sports wagering is going to have a dramatic impact on everything we do in college sports,” said NCAA executive Mark Emmert at the organization’s annual convention in January and first reported by the Associated Press. “It’s going to threaten the integrity of college sports in many ways unless we are willing to act boldly and strongly.”

The NCAA also said it would form an internal group to study “how best to protect game integrity, monitor betting activity, manage sports data and expand educational efforts.”

In part, it’s also due to a confluence of recent events that have highlighted the need for a change in how sports betting is monitored:

-NCAA team championship futures odds shifting markedly after Duke’s Zion Williamson injured his knee last month.

-Moneyline bets cashing — or not — because of a controversial technical foul call in mid-February after a fan threw a stuffed animal onto the court with less than a second remaining during a tie game between Georgia and Mississippi State.

-Two recent late-game officiating disputes that have left the NCAA considering whether to review all buzzer-beaters, even if the outcome of the game would not be impacted.

Conferences are tackling the topic, too.

“[F]raud prevention and consultative services are key tools that support preserving and protecting the integrity of our sports and sports competition,” wrote Pac-12 executive Larry Scott in a 2015 letter to Nevada regulators.

Even individual schools, such as the University of Arkansas late last month, have taken to lobbying lawmakers on sports betting issues.

Having the NCAA, certain conferences, and single schools addressing sports betting represents a seismic shift from where college sports were 20 years ago. It also comes at the time when America’s most-heavily bet sporting event — the NCAA basketball tournament — is set to tip off later this month.

NCAA’s shifting sports betting policy through the years

In 2001, the NCAA supported a federal bill pushed by the late Sen. John McCain that would have banned college sports betting nationwide, including in Nevada. The Congressional bill never made it to a vote on the Senate floor.

The NCAA also displayed an allergy to harnessing the power of betting data as a detection tool to address game integrity concerns a little over a decade ago.

“[W]e have heard the argument that Internet gambling can actually protect the integrity of sports because of the alleged capacity to monitor gambling patterns more closely in a legalized environment,” wrote NCAA lawyer Elsa Kircher Cole in a 2007 letter to Congress jointly signed by attorneys from other sports leagues and obtained by ESPN. “This argument is generally asserted by those who would profit from legalized gambling and the same point was raised in 1992. Congress dismissed it then and should dismiss it now. The harms caused by government endorsement of sports betting far exceed the alleged benefits.”

Fast forward to 2018, when the NCAA submitted a formal statement in an Indiana legislative hearing that called for mandatory information sharing and reporting if “abnormal activity or trends are detected.”

The NCAA has even entered into a specific betting data monitoring arrangement of its own.

“For integrity services, we have always had informal relationships,” said NCAA attorney Naima Stevenson at a Nov. 2018 conference in Washington, DC. “We have formalized the relationship to really make sure that we’re monitoring and understanding … the betting landscape.

“We have partnered with an entity in order to provide those types of services.”

When contacted earlier this year, an NCAA spokesperson declined to confirm the name of the provider and did not respond to a follow-up question about whether the NCAA would be comfortable using the integrity services of a firm that simultaneously sent data scouts to college basketball games for the purpose of selling information to sports gambling customers.

Individual colleges chime in as well

Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh are two schools with an emerging integrity focus as well.

In separate June 2018 filings to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, both colleges expressed their concerns as the commonwealth moved towards authorizing legalized sports betting.

Penn State president Eric Barron sought a temporary prohibition on betting involving in-state colleges so his school could “seek legislative changes, such as, perhaps, the inclusion of an integrity fee to provide funding for the additional educational and compliance costs that are expected to be incurred.”

Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke wrote to regulators and flagged “obligations or pressures to disseminate information about student-athlete injuries or playing status.”

In a letter to the Arkansas Racing Commission last month, the University of Arkansas and three other in-state schools recommended that regulations prohibit “in-game proposition bets on the performance or non-performance of a team or an individual participant during a college sporting event.”

West Virginia University and Marshall University also participated in sports betting discussions, with both schools reportedly seeking compensation for integrity-related costs they thought they would incur after West Virginia authorized sports wagering in 2018.

March Madness betting in focus

Legalized sports betting is now in eight states following the Supreme Court’s May 2018 decision. Upwards of 20 other states are actively considering sports gambling legalization during the early part of 2019.

But it doesn’t stop there. Tracking wagering on college basketball’s marquee event stretches further.

“Sports wagering is going to have a dramatic impact on everything we do in college sports.”

NCAA executive Mark Emmert

“Betting is happening on NCAA sports globally, [particularly] with March Madness,” Chris Dougan, an executive at Genius Sports in Washington, DC, told ESPN. “Monitoring technology provides crucial visibility and transparency over global odds movement.”

Athletic directors at schools that will be competing in this month’s NCAA basketball tournaments for men and women have also taken note, according to Tom McMillen, chief executive officer of LEAD1, a Washington, DC-based group representing administrators at the largest universities.

“There is great fear amongst our athletic directors about a sports betting scandal,” wrote McMillen in an email to ESPN.

The concern makes sense to betting industry experts.

“Those seeking to corrupt events have historically looked to exploit the weakest links across sports and competitions,” said Jake Marsh, head of integrity at Perform in London.

Conferences lead the way

Industry stakeholders point to individual conferences and schools — not necessarily the NCAA — to be uniquely capable of addressing sports betting integrity issues.

LEAD1’s McMillen, a former NBA player and ex-Congressman from Maryland, cited the “fragmented” nature of modern college sports as a potential reason for the divide. More practical reasons exist too.

“In order for anything to be addressed in real-time, the conferences must be involved,” said Matthew Holt, president of U.S. Integrity in Las Vegas. “The individual universities also need to be involved as they are the ones hiring the trainers, interns and associate coaches that get caught for insider information leaks.

“As it stands now, the conferences only share data when the issues are to the point of the investigation, but the individual universities want the ability to track — in real-time — issues that may be arising with any of their employees and not be blindsided after trends have escalated so far that they need to be investigated.”

Potential next steps beyond integrity?

The conference and college-level roles in sports betting may not end with integrity-focused issues. Industry sources told ESPN that individual conferences, and perhaps even single schools, could join pro leagues in signing joint marketing and sponsorship deals with sportsbooks.

Even the NCAA has signalled its interest in monetizing one aspect of sports betting.

In the NCAA’s filing to the Indiana legislature late last year, the organization wrote that sports wagering operators should be required to use “records maintained and authorized by amateur and professional sports organizations” to determine the outcomes of bets. A majority of the NCAA’s co-plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case — the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball — have similarly come out in support of laws mandating the use of so-called “official data.”

The NCAA also recently held a workshop at its annual convention in Orlando to provide an update on the NCAA’s sports wagering “initiatives.”

Amid the flurry of March Madness betting, such initiatives will likely be tested by a myriad of integrity challenges that college sports are now beginning to address in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s decision less than a year ago. Key injuries, incidents involving fan interference and impactful late-game referee calls are but the most recent examples. More will inevitably follow.

NCAA tournament brackets will be set on March 17 for the men and March 18 for the women. A combined 130 games will be played in the three weeks that follow. Approximately $300 million was wagered on the NCAA tournament at Nevada sportsbooks last year.

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