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Washington Nationals are betting on big business from sports gambling

Another look at the Nationals’ deal with BetMGM...

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Toronto Blue Jays v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

You won’t need a ticket to the game to get in on the action once a new sports book opens at Nationals Park.

After an abbreviated season of baseball without fans, and restrictions on the bars and restaurants surrounding the ballpark because of the COVID pandemic, the Nationals are wagering that the BetMGM sports book and app will bring back more paying customers, whenever they’re allowed.

The team’s exclusive deal with BetMGM will allow fans to use a mobile app to wager online within a two-block radius of Nationals Park or place bets with live tellers or machines at what the team promises to be a luxury viewing and sports betting experience with food and beverage service.

The sports book in the former Center Field Social location, the original home of the Nats’ team store, will be accessible from outside the ballpark, but not inside. That’s what the team and its gambling partner hope will keep the fans cheering in their seats and customers dining and drinking in the neighborhood.

“The BetMGM mobile app will enable our fans to engage with the game in new and exciting ways, while the BetMGM Sportsbook connected to Nationals Park will provide Nationals fans and the D.C. community with a first-class gathering place to celebrate their passion for sports together,” Alan Gottlieb, Chief Operating Officer of Lerner Sports Group, said in a press release.

Fans at the games can get plenty of action right in their seats, with the app offering in-game prop bets as well as wagers on game outcomes and other sports.

Who will have more strikeouts, Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom? Will Juan Soto hit a home run? Will he be the first player to hit one out? Which inning will have the highest score? Fans can now put their money behind their man, or their team, while watching the game in person.

Maybe some who have money on the line won’t want to see Davey Martinez leave Scherzer in with the bases loaded and two out in the seventh. Some fans believe the divergence between a gambler’s interest and a fan’s is a problem with on-site, in-game wagering.

But a sport that was tainted and changed forever when gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series and still maintains strict rules against players gambling on games has now fully embraced betting by the fans.

Major League Baseball is already in on a business that has taken in more than $2.5 billion in revenue since sports betting became legal in the United States in 2018, according to LegalSportsReport, an industry website. The sports gambling industry is forecast to make as much as $8 billion annually by 2025, according to analysts surveyed by Marketwatch, a financial news website.

That money, and the people who spend it, are the targets of baseball’s growing embrace of legalized gambling since 2013. That’s when MLB bought an unannounced financial interest in DraftKings, according to a 2015 Washington Post article. Within two years, it was MLB’s “Official Daily Fantasy Game,” luring fantasy players to co-branded online games with ads in ballparks and on television, seemingly between every half inning.

Once upon a time, when Kirby Puckett was still alive and crashing into outfield walls, and Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were normal-sized human beings, fans had to buy baseball periodicals, scour box scores in newspapers, and use pocket calculators to play fantasy baseball.

And once upon a time, if you wanted to wager on whether Cal Ripken Jr. was going to be the American League MVP, or the Minnesota Twins were going to win win the World Series, or even who was going to win a weeknight Expos-Astros game, you had to go to Las Vegas to find any legal action.

The internet changed all that, and online money management tools and wagering took it to the next level.

DraftKings soared from a company owned by private investors with 200,000 registered users in 2014 to a publicly traded corporation that in 2020 had 8 million registered users, according to Investopedia, an online finance resource.

The industry has steadily grown since 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal law prohibiting states from allowing sports betting. Fans can now place bets either in person or online, or both, in 19 states and Washington, D.C., according to Action Network, another industry-focused website.

Maryland voters have approved sports gambling, but the state has not set rules for legal online or in-person betting yet. Online sports betting is legal in Virginia, but there are no in-person wagering locations. In the District, there’s currently one legal app for citywide online betting and one temporary in-person sports book at Capital One Arena.

The Nats and other major league teams are looking for revenue, blaming heavy losses for staff layoffs following the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that MLB’s 30 teams had as much as $3 billion in combined operational losses, although none of the teams opens its books for verification. The owners and the players’ union are currently negotiating terms for a 2021 season, and it’s still unclear when teams will be able to sell game tickets and how many they will be able to sell.

The Nats’ agreement with BetMGM will bring competition to both the online and in-person sports betting markets and give the Nationals a piece of the action. With promised special perks for season plan holders and in-ballpark promotions still to come, the team must feel like it has excellent odds of bringing in more fans and more money.