Keeping an eye on the ball, and tracking the rebounds By Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports October 18, 2020 at 4:56 pm Legal Sports Report recently reported on a study first published in the Journal of Prediction Markets that looked at NBA scorekeepers and the possibility the some of the data being recorded was subjective. The study suggested that there was pressure to produce some specific types of data. The study focused on rebounds, but other measurables intrinsic to sports might also be subject to the same subjective bias, according to the authors. Prior to the dramatic expansion of sports betting, those biases might not have been important, but the situation is now rapidly changing, due to the increasingly larger number of bettors and the amount of money being wagered. In September, bettors in New Jersey threw down some $748 million on sporting contests and the myriad prop bets tied to those contests. In August, the amount wagered nationally on sports was $2.1 billion. And in the new and growing world of prop bets, the number of rebounds by a player or a team, for example, are common betting propositions. Statistics of uncertain provenance would corrupt the process. Because the accuracy of the data is critical, the source of the data is important. Those sources have long been part of legislative debates. The leagues, naturally, would like to be the exclusive provider of data pertaining to their sport and to be remunerated by any entity that wishes to use that data for wagering. Not everyone agrees: getting an exclusive data source written into legislation enabling sports gambling has not been easy. The leagues argue they are the only safe source and that the games belong to them, so the statistics should be theirs to disseminate as they see fit. The data, of course, are valuable; bookmakers have to have it and are therefore willing to pay. There are plenty of other willing providers which legislators have thus far been hesitant to codify. Regardless of the source, the accuracy, integrity, and reliability of the data is of concern, since the integrity or outcome of the wagers placed is the foundation of all legal gambling. Nelson Rose, in his 1986 book Gambling and the Law, wrote of three waves of gambling expansion in the United States. The first was in the country’s infancy, the colonial period; the second came just after the Civil War, with legalized state lotteries; and the third wave began with the legalization of casino gambling in Nevada in 1931. The first wave faded out as taxation replace lotteries for raising public funds. The second wave was broken by myriad scandals, which ultimately resulted in the imposition of anti-gambling legislation in nearly every state. It has taken more than a century to overcome the anti-gambling sentiments of the 19th century. Professor Rose warned that if the gambling legalized in the third wave was not honestly conducted and scandal-free, it too could suffer the fate of the second wave and lead to another wave of anti-gambling legislation. As the first state to legalize casinos in the 20th century, Nevada set the tone for the nation for integrity with its legislation. The Nevada Gaming Control Act, section 463.0129, says, in part: “The gaming industry is vitally important to the state economy… the continued success of gaming is dependent on public confidence and trust that licensed gaming is conducted honestly and competitively…and that gaming is free from criminal and corruptive elements.” In one way or another, every state that has passed some form of gaming legislation has embraced that concept. The game must be fair and honest, whether that game is a slot machine, blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat, poker, keno, or a basketball game. Nevada puts a great deal of effort into ensuring that Nevada gaming operators meet those standards and conduct honest games. In the last two years, sports betting has transformed into a major industry. Twenty-one states now have legal sports betting, and several more are set to legalize it in the next year. In the legislative debates preceding the enabling legislation, there was surprising little discussion dedicated to the possibility of game fixing, such as happened in the 1919 World Series. Game fixing was part of illegal, unregulated gambling, not modern, regulated, corporate gaming. Lawmakers were more concerned with quickly taking advantage of the opportunity. They focused on adding to the state’s revenue sources through taxes and licensing fees. Legal sports betting would be protected from illegal activities in the same manner that casinos are protected, through regulation. The bookies, whether casino companies, English betting corporations, or fantasy sports operators like FanDuel and DraftKings, would have to be licensed. That process would protect the state from scandal and corruption, it was thought. The data was discussed, but only the ownership and the right to sell it seemed important. However, the aforementioned Diemer, Kim and Kneavel study of NBA scorekeepers suggests that the integrity of the data cannot be unilaterally accepted without question. It is an important issue: false or inaccurate statistics would have the same impact on wagering as an inaccurate score, a false lineup, or corrupt officials. The potential for subjective data also opened an opportunity for criminals and corruption – and, if that happens, it undermines the general public’s confidence and trust in the honesty of the game. In Nelson Rose’s three waves model, criminals and corrupt officials led to scandals, and those scandals led to anti-gambling statutes that swept the nation, ending the expansion of gaming and making most gambling illegal in every state. It destroyed a nascent industry. On its face, the number of rebounds seems like a minor issue. Teams don’t win games off rebounds, after all. But there are many judgment calls in sports – balls and strikes, for example. In the era of call challenges and ultra HD, when a call is reviewed, the ultimate decision is a judgement, not an indisputable fact. As minor as the issue might be, one major scandal that results in gaming wins or losses in the millions of dollars could have a dramatic effect. It could reverse a century of progress and expansion and bring back the suspicion and distrust that was prevalent until the 1990s – a time when the common wisdom held that all gamblers were crooks, and all games were rigged. If there is a solution, I don’t know what it is, but we need to keep our eye on the ball.