Betting interest in this year’s Masters’ golf tournament is high, the latest sign of a golf gambling boom linked to Tiger Woods’ return to relevance in the sport.
This year’s Masters, which generally garners more betting than any other golf tournament on the PGA tour, is estimated to surpass $12 million in Nevada, which would be a record.
Many storylines, including the resurgence of Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson — as well as the plethora of young, sharp golfers in contention — factor into the large “handle,” the amount wagered on a particular event. Yet it’s Tiger Woods’ return that makes this year special.
“During the last 10 years since Tiger won the 2008 U.S. Open, tournaments he was involved in would see a spike in handle around 20 percent,” Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Westgate sportsbook and owner of Golfodds.com, wrote via email to CNBC. This season, in tournaments Woods has played in, there has been an uptick in gambling of roughly 30 percent, according to Golfodds.com data.
More money has been placed on Woods to win the Masters than any other player at the Westgate Superbook this year, according to data provided to CNBC. He accounted for nearly 6 percent of all bets, a whopping number considering the 87-person field.
The increased wagering on golf won’t necessarily go away if Woods’ doesn’t hold up as a player: His previous comeback bids have ended in disappointment.
With the legalization of sports betting seeming more likely by the day, the PGA is among the pro organizations to declare its objectives. The PGA TOUR will align its strategy with ideas earlier outlined by the NBA and MLB, which includes an integrity fee to be paid to the leagues by the gambling entities.
“The PGA TOUR supports the regulation of sports betting in a safe and responsible manner. We believe that regulation is the most effective way of ensuring integrity in competition, protecting consumers, engaging fans and generating revenue for government, operators and leagues,” it said in a statement provided to CNBC.
“We are aligned with the NBA and MLB in this area, and we are looking for ways to collaborate with legislators, regulators, operators and others in the industry on regulation that serves the interests of all involved,” the organization added.
Golf could see an even bigger spike in interest as a result of a pro-sports betting Supreme Court decision that is being anxiously awaited.
Sara Slane, vice president of public affairs at the American Gaming Association, said she believes a favorable ruling would help to increase viewership, in a world where people are no longer fond of sitting and watching an event for hours on end.
“Absolutely, without a doubt,” the PGA Tour will be able to increase interest with the legalization of betting, Slane said. In fact, she thinks golf could set the standard for in-game betting. “The PGA is in a unique position with their stats and data, and pace of their play,” Slane tells CNBC.
The PGA Tour wouldn’t speculate on increased interest as a result of legalized betting. However, Laila Mintas of Sportradar — the official data partner of the NFL, NBA, and NHL among other leagues — also envisions that with a favorable Supreme Court ruling, golf organization will see the same benefits as the other North American sports leagues.
“Betting has long been associated with increased interest in sports,” Mintas told CNBC. “At its heart, betting is about a sports fan having an opinion on a game and being prepared to risk money on that opinion. It’s been proven that fans are more interested in watching and engaging with a sporting event if they have something on the line to win. This leads to more viewers tuning in to watch games and watching those games for longer.”
The U.S. Supreme Court may present a favorable ruling for legalized betting as soon as this month, though the Court does not announce the order of the case decisions that it will release. The Court heard the case, Christie vs. NCAA, late last year.
Mintas predicts that a ruling won’t be handed down until June when the Supreme Court announces its final cases of the year. “They [sometimes] like to save the biggest decisions for the end,” Mintas said. “Though it’s good that they take longer. … the states will need time to get their systems in place.”
The PGA Tour’s alignment with the NBA and MLB on the integrity fee is about paying for the compliance measures needed in order to mitigate the risk of betting scandals.
The pair of leagues originally expressed a desire to have operators of sportsbooks pay an integrity fee, totaling 1 percent of each bet. The proposal was met with some resistance, as many feel that taking a percentage off the top will deter illegal bettors from utilizing the regulated markets.
“Sports bettors are looking for the best odds. [The regulated markets] need to be competitive,” Slane said, adding that the illegal books already have several advantages. “They don’t pay taxes. Who knows what they pay employees. They’re not held to the same standard,” as the regulated bookmakers, she added.
The debate over an integrity fee will continue after the Supreme Court decision and it will be handled on a state-by-state basis. New York recently introduced a Senate Bill that grants the leagues 0.25 percent of the wagers, rather than the 1 percent asking price from the leagues’ proposals.
The AGA supports the leagues’ effort to protect the integrity of their games, and is working with them to understand the betting business. “All of the leagues are trying to get educated on the issues. It would be irresponsible for them not to understand the business,” Slane said.
One of the AGA’s main goals is to shut down illegal books, something all parties would benefit from. Transferring the illegal bettors to the regulated marketplace would mean more taxes paid, more interest in leagues, and less crime. However, imposing a set fee may hurt the odds and not give any incentive for bettors to move over to the legal marketplace, something Slane described as already a “low margin business.”
It may even mean legal operators failing as a business.
“People misunderstand the handle. … After paying winners, taxes and other costs, [bookmaking] is about a five percent margin business,” Slane said.
The risk for betting scandals exist anywhere there is legal wagering and there’s a cost for policing the activity. “The leagues should get a piece,” Mintas said, while cautioning that the amount they receive shouldn’t be so much that it overburdens the bookmakers. “It’s fair [for the leagues] to get something.” She added, “[With the legalization of wagering], match-fixing will come more into the daylight. There need to be procedures in place.”
Mintas previously served as the director of sports integrity at CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. “Match-fixing is a potential threat and it is often related to organized crime,” she said.
While legalized betting benefits professional leagues in viewership goals, a scandal could easily negate any added value.
“Fans will be less willing to engage with a sports league if they don’t trust in the integrity of the sport and they feel that the outcome is corrupted. This highlights the need to build trust with fans by implementing integrity services and being proactive on rooting out match-fixing,” Mintas said.
Sportradar collaborates with several leagues, including the NBA, NHL, and MLS, to deter scandals and help them be “prepared for scenarios.” It doesn’t partner with the PGA Tour, but Mintas said golf is not immune to the risk of match-fixing.
“Every sports has potential for scandal and golf is also at risk,” Mintas said, adding that sports like “tennis and golf are difficult to investigate.”