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State’s top bookie calls Pennsylvania’s current ban on spring training betting ‘a slippery slope’

New Jersey is allowing spring bets as it takes baseball's request under review. The problem for sportsbooks is the precedent that could be set.

Former first-round pick Mickey Moniak received a large bonus when he signed with the Phillies. Most of his fellow minor leaguers, however, did not.
Former first-round pick Mickey Moniak received a large bonus when he signed with the Phillies. Most of his fellow minor leaguers, however, did not.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

When Major League Baseball asked states last week to prohibit wagers on spring training games, Nevada basically told MLB to get up the street.

Pennsylvania, however, agreed to the restriction, and one of the nation’s leading sportsbook houses is not one bit happy.

“We are opposed to their request and don’t understand the motivation for it,” Joe Asher, the CEO of William Hill-US sportsbooks told the Inquirer. “We’ve booked spring training games for many, many years without incident. We know how to protect ourselves, and pushing people to the illegal offshore market isn’t the way to go.”

Baseball is concerned that spring contests could be compromised more easily since teams often are more interested in player development and training than in winning. One thought is that young (and lightly paid) baseball prospects are more vulnerable to nefarious schemes.

ESPN first reported Nevada’s response to Major League Baseball, which was similar to what Asher had to say. Asher’s company runs sportsbooks throughout the country, including Nevada, Pennsylvania, and the Ocean Resort and Tropicana casinos in New Jersey.

“Limited and historically in-person betting on spring training in one state did not pose nearly the same integrity risks that widespread betting on spring training in multiple states will pose,” MLB said in part of a statement published by ESPN.

The real issue for bookies

Wagering on spring training is minimal, but for Asher and others, the problem is a potential precedent being set. If MLB can request a prohibition on exhibition games, could the NFL do the same for its preseason games or meaningless games in Week 17?

“It’s a slippery slope,” Asher said. “It’s a terrible idea to go down this path and serves only to strengthen the black market.”

Spring training games were still on the board as of Tuesday at Asher’s casinos in New Jersey, at Resorts and at the Hard Rock, which had a $500 betting limit. Lee Moore, a spokesperson for the state Attorney General’s office, said it received MLB’s letter and that “the request is under review.”

Philadelphia’s casinos, SugarHouse and Parx, are not offering games, nor is Asher’s location at Hollywood Casino outside of Harrisburg. Doug Harbach, communications director for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said it is looking at MLB’s concerns. “While we do this,” he said, “we have requested Pennsylvania sports wagering operators to refrain from offering wagers on spring training games.”

This is the first spring training since the Supreme Court overturned a ban in May on sports betting outside of Nevada. Asher and his company have more experience than most at monitoring suspicious activity. This includes state regulators, who have been in the sports betting business less than a year.

“We are happy to engage with MLB on legitimate integrity concerns as our interests are totally aligned on the fundamental importance of honest competition,” he said. “Pushing people who want a little action on spring training games back to the black market doesn’t help anyone other than illegal bookmakers.”