Beyond The Hype: Rolling The Dice

By Diane M. Grassi
Updated: April 14, 2009

NEVADA — It was 30 years ago when baseball legend, Willie Mays, was banned from Major League Baseball (MLB). Four years later, New York Yankee great, Mickey Mantle, met with the same fate as did Willie.

And what was their supposed fall from grace?

They each became promotional spokesmen for Atlantic City casino hotels.

Mays had a deal with the Park Place Casino — now Bally’s Park Place — and Mantle contracted with Del Webb’s Claridge Casino Hotel. The roles both played were as pitchmen for the resorts as they appeared in television and print ads for the respective properties.

At the time, it was MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who made both Hall of Famers “permanently ineligible” to participate in any capacity with MLB.

In 1985, after Kuhn’s retirement, then newly appointed Commissioner Peter Ueberroth exonerated both Mays and Mantle, thereby lifting their banishment.

Ueberroth proclaimed, “A lot of people will misinterpret my position as being soft on gambling. My stance is as strong as any Commissioner’s going back to Judge Landis. But there’s a need for new rules.”

And the argument could be made back then that both Mays and Mantle were not front-men for gambling, but rather were promoting entertainment interests of hotel resorts.

Fast forward to sometime around 2006 when MLB supposedly relaxed its rule on permitting direct relationships with gambling casino interests and its MLB teams.

However, most such deals blossomed for this year’s 2009 baseball season that includes large casino hotel properties as well as many lucrative agreements with Indian reservation hotel casinos.

Sponsorships and the financing of such throughout professional sports as well as amateur athletics are drying up by virtue of the worst recession in 70 years.

Added to that is the negative public perception that corporations receiving federal tax bailout dollars should not be dabbling in multi-million dollar contracts for advertising at sports venues nor buying skyboxes and over-priced season tickets at stadiums.

However, there now appears to be a new revenue stream, largely untapped, yet quickly assembled by many MLB teams and with Commissioner Bud Selig’s blessings.

But in order to fully appreciate the precariousness of such contracts that MLB has already approved, it is helpful to revisit MLB Rule 21:

(a) Any player or person connected with a club….or who being solicited by any person, shall fail to inform his Major League President and the Commissioner

(d) Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform, shall be declared “permanently ineligible.”

And now the question must be asked. How does MLB oversee such sponsorships between MLB teams and those casino operations which allow legal sports betting on their premises, such as Harrah’s Entertainment, which has become a major sponsor for the NY Mets’ new Citi Field, most prominent in its outfield stands?

Harrah’s is now a Signature Partner of the Mets and has a 12,000 square foot 900 seat capacity full-service restaurant called the Caesar Club.

Harrah’s hopes to recreate the atmosphere it provides at its Caesar’s Atlantic City property. Harrah’s will also benefit from naming and branding rights and orchestrate theme nights for baseball fans throughout the season.

It is important to note that Harrah’s casino hotel properties that it owns in Las Vegas, such as Caesar’s Palace, the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, Bally’s and its Rio Hotel and Casino which is host to the World Series of Poker, among others, all have sports books where sports betting on all professional and amateur sports is legal.

And such includes sports betting on MLB.

At the new Yankee Stadium, the Mohegan Sun Hotel & Casino also has a presence in its center field stands. Its Mohegan Sports Bar is a 4,900 square foot full-service restaurant with major signage and a naming rights deal with the Yankees.

In addition, Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment will own and operate the NYY Steak restaurant as well as the stadium’s new Hard Rock Café. The Seminole Nation is the primary proprietor of all Hard Rock Café and hotel casino properties worldwide, with the exception of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casinos in both Las Vegas and London.

The casino sponsorships for both the Yankees and the Mets are quite lucrative and in the millions of dollars, although MLB clubs do not necessarily accurately disclose the amount of their sponsorships, nor are they required to do so.

But the New York teams are hardly in the minority when it comes to lining up for casino riches in the form of sponsorships. The Milwaukee Brewers inked a deal over the winter with the Potawatomi Bingo Casino of the Potawatomi Tribe.

The Brewer’s deal with the Potawatomi Tribe is just second to its deal with Miller-Coors Beer. And in MLB’s logic according to MLB’s Chief Operating Officer, Bob DuPuy, “There is no sports book associated with Potawatomi and casino gambling is now part of the entertainment landscape in 40-plus states and a number of clubs have had advertising and sponsorship relationships with local casinos.”

Perhaps DuPuy does not realize that Harrah’s is in the sports betting industry?

In Detroit, there appears to be a long-standing conflict of interest with respect to the ownership of the Detroit Tigers as well as the Motor City Casino, purchased by Ilitch Holdings, Inc. in 2005, which purportedly owns both entities simultaneously.

Michael Ilitch and his wife, Marion Ilitch, are listed as the Tigers’ owner and the Motor City Casino owner, respectively. The question arose when it was revealed that Marion Ilitch is Vice Chairman of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. which also owns the Detroit Tigers.

But Ilitch’s friend and Commissioner Bud Selig overlooked the proprietary conflict and asked his staff to stand-down.

There is indeed no shortage of casino sponsorships throughout the major and minor leagues of baseball. The Atlanta Braves, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Los Angeles Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs all have contractual sponsorships with Indian casinos, gambling interests or state lotteries.

So what impact does this state of affairs have on the “best interests of baseball?” One could say that it was precipitated by Commissioner Ueberroth’s comments”…there’s a need for new rules.”

Or did Bud Selig’s multi-billion dollar empire become too greedy for MLB’s own good by accepting a strong presence of gambling partnerships throughout the leagues? Has the appetite for big bucks clouded Selig’s judgment and has he crossed the line?

For MLB must be careful not to step on that third rail; that which endangers its integrity. After all, MLB itself has already gambled on fan loyalty after nearly 20 years of the Steroid Era, also on Selig’s watch.

And finally, if the apparent overlap between gambling interests and MLB is not clear to the MLB Commissioner, then why is he so clear on keeping Pete Rose “permanently ineligible” and forever denying his chance of realizing his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame?