Baseball fans often remember the times they saw the game’s biggest stars play in person.
I’ll never forget the first time I watched Ichiro Suzuki play. Now, two decades later, there’s an unlikely connection between him, MGM Resorts International, its bid for a resort in Japan and the new affiliation between the Oakland Athletics and the Las Vegas Aviators.
I was in Japan in the 1990s and decided to see professional Japanese baseball for fun. It was raining outside the Tokyo Dome when the Nippon Ham Fighters played Ichiro’s Orix Blue Wave team.
Ichiro played left field, and I was sitting among hundreds of Japanese baseball fanatics in the dome’s left-field bleachers. In this cultural immersion, I quickly learned that bleacher fans in Tokyo aren’t passive baseball viewers. By the second inning, I was following the lead of my section chant leaders cheering the action.
I had no idea what I was saying in Japanese, but I just remembered how much fun it was. Little did I know that day that Ichiro would become a big star in America.
Flash forward about two decades. Ichiro is a non-roster invitee with the American team that first signed him, the Seattle Mariners. At 45, it’s a long shot he’ll make the team. But if he does, he’ll be with the Mariners as they open their season March 20 and 21 against the A’s at the Tokyo Dome, as Major League Baseball makes a push to extend beyond North America.
The two-game series in Tokyo is significant for another reason. The A’s — new parent team of the Aviators — will be wearing a special patch on the sleeves of their uniforms that says, “MGM Resorts Japan.”
It’s part of a sponsorship agreement MGM Resorts signed with Major League Baseball last year, and it illustrates how far baseball has come in embracing sports gambling.
The sponsorship patch is a marketing coup for MGM, which is in the midst of a highly competitive bid to build an integrated resort with a casino in Japan.
Though Japanese lawmakers still haven’t determined all the details of the bid process, it’s expected that three casinos will be built. MGM, Las Vegas Sands Corp., Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd., as well as Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment and a handful of Asian and Australian companies, are competing to win a spot in what some analysts believe will become a $24 billion-a-year market.
Spring training bets
While MLB appears to be embracing casino gambling on the sponsorship front, it’s clear it still has a lot to learn about how the industry works.
Last month the league made a request of state Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Morgan to restrict all sports wagering on spring training games.
The request from Bryan Seeley, deputy general counsel for the MLB commissioner’s office, came a day before spring games were to begin.
“Spring training is practice,” Seeley’s letter said. “Spring training is an opportunity for clubs to evaluate non-roster players and finalize their regular-season rosters.”
Because the games are meaningless in terms of wins and losses, Seeley argued, integrity risks are heightened with wagering.
In one of her first appearances on a national stage, Morgan flatly rejected the request.
“We share your concern about the integrity risks in your sport and we believe Nevada’s strict statutory scheme has proven that it has proper controls in place to minimize those risks,” Morgan wrote in her reply.
It should be noted that state gaming regulations have a process in place giving leagues the right to request that games be taken off betting boards, and regulators could enforce a request. Regulations require that any request be made 30 days before a game or series for fair consideration and input from bookies.
Sportsbooks take little action on spring training games, since most of the big stars see minimal action, especially in the earliest games.
MLB’s handling of its request shows the industry still has a lot of educating to do on the business side of sports wagering.
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.