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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

High-tech safeguards facilitated MLB’s wagering crackdown

Tucupita Marcano dives to make a catch for the Indianapolis Indians during a 2021 minor league game at Werner Park in Nebraska. (Wikipedia)

By Rustin Dodd, Stephen J. Nesbitt and Cody Stavenhagen / The Athletic

When MLB permanently banned San Diego Padres infielder Tucupita Marcano earlier this week, the particulars of his wrongdoing were laid out in specific detail: 387 bets placed at legal sportsbooks, 231 wagers related to MLB and 25 on the Pittsburgh Pirates, his employer at the time. He was accused of betting more than $150,000 on baseball.

Marcano was not a particularly savvy bettor. According to MLB, he won just 4.3% of his wagers, most of them parlays. But the copious facts released by the league Tuesday — the same day Ippei Mizuhara, Shohei Ohtani’s former interpreter, pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud — underscore a recurring theme as the sports world grapples with more blowback from the precipitous rise of legalized gambling in the United States.

In a majority of states, it has never been easier to place a bet. But in a world of legal online sportsbooks and smartphones, it has also never been easier for leagues to track the betting and, as they see it, protect the competitive integrity of the sport.

In addition to Marcano’s permanent ban, MLB announced yearlong suspensions Tuesday for Oakland A’s pitcher Michael Kelly and three minor leaguers — the Padres’ Jay Groome, the Philadelphia Phillies’ José Rodríguez and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Andrew Saalfrank. All four were found to have placed bets on MLB while in the minors.

The announcement came, according to MLB, after an investigation that included interviews and cooperation from the league’s sportsbook partners, a process that offers a window into the monitoring system in place at legal sportsbooks. That system includes outside firms like U.S. Integrity, a monitoring service that works with major sports leagues and sportsbooks.

“As betting becomes more acceptable and widespread, having these players getting in the sports betting market is dangerous,” said John Wolohan, a sports law professor at Syracuse University. “It’s really uncomfortable for the leagues. That said, the leagues are in bed with the DraftKings and the FanDuels of the world anyway, and casinos, so in some ways they’re taking the money and hoping things don’t blow up in their face.”

While leagues like MLB increasingly court gambling partners, they have attempted to implement safeguards to deter athletes, coaches and team or league employees from gambling on their sports.

When bettors log into a betting app, their location is immediately pinned by integrity analysts within a matter of feet. Global positioning is one way of ensuring no athlete can place bets from within a team facility without being caught. There are other methods, too. Social media is monitored closely, and companies use real-time data and proprietary algorithms to monitor betting trends and flag any unusually large line movement. If a troubling trend is spotted, it is generally sent to a person on an investigative team who will look deeper into the matter.

If a case rises to a higher degree of suspicion, a monitoring service alerts sportsbooks and the league. In some cases, sportsbooks have internal teams watching for abnormal line movement and betting behavior.

U.S. Integrity is now a part of a joint venture called ProhiBet working to use encryption technology that will prevent athletes, coaches and league officials from placing bets in the first place. In May 2023, the company started a tip hotline to allow people within the sports world to report gambling suspicions.

U.S. Integrity did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the case of Marcano and the other suspended players, MLB said a legal sports betting operator alerted the league in March of past betting activities from accounts connected to major or minor league players, none of whom were found to have played in a game on which they bet. A person briefed on the league’s investigation said, “This information came to light as a result of a legal sportsbook’s new proactive measures to enforce their policies,” though they did not detail the changes.

Peter Bayer, a former A’s minor league pitcher, went public last year saying he had been ruled ineligible by MLB since 2021 for betting on baseball. League investigators found that Bayer placed more than 100 baseball-related wagers in 2020, including at least 12 on his organization, and accused him of attempting to obstruct the league’s investigation.

Bayer’s bets were first discovered by the Colorado Division of Gaming, which identified him as a prohibited bettor and reported his bets to MLB.

From the perspective of Dan Hartman, who was director of the Colorado Division of Gaming at the time, cases such as Bayer’s are a testament to the collaboration between regulators, law enforcement and leagues.

“We’re not going to stop incidents like this,” Hartman said last year, but proper oversight allows leagues to address them.

A player placing legal bets under his own name may come with obvious consequences.

“Honestly, in the years I’ve been involved in this, I see it time and time again,” said Steve Paine, a co-founder of the advisory firm Evolve Sports Integrity. “It’s those basic checks. You think, if they were trying to do wrongdoing, they’d go out of their way to really hide it — use pseudonyms and fake accounts. But they don’t. They just bet in their own name.”

Leagues and integrity companies, however, are also working to eliminate more complicated occurrences, such as an athlete placing bets through a friend or a family member.

It is not difficult to imagine a scheme evading the system for some time. Especially if an account is not in the name of the prohibited bettor, or someone with the same last name, or if it makes only modest and unalarming wagers. But as time passes, sportsbooks, regulators and betting-integrity companies are becoming more streamlined, sophisticated and savvy to new ways bettors are trying to game the system.

“I think it’s always going to be a bit of a cat-and-mouse scenario,” Paine said. “People who are trying to place bets that they’re not supposed to place, they’ll always look for methods to try to disguise that — whether it be betting through family members, or betting through using other third parties, or trying to use technology like VPNs to make bets appear like they’re coming from another country. All of those things exist.”

But the technology used to monitor such activity is not rudimentary. There are ways to identify even those who attempt to find loopholes.

“If they’re using the same iPhone that they used to place the bets when they placed it in their own name two years ago, the companies can find links,” Paine said. “It’s not just the account name. It’s: ‘Was it your home router that you came through when you placed bets? Was it the same device?’ There’s lots of technical data points these sophisticated companies can use to detect fraud.”

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