Updated: Jul 20, 2022
For anyone who has watched a significant amount of NCAA Men’s Basketball this year, it becomes easy to wonder, at times, how the officiating of such a high-leverage, pressure-packed sport can be so inconsistent. Further, it’s hard to believe that those officials, with the amount of money the NCAA makes off March Madness, are part-time employees and are paid on a per-game basis. The same questions have been hurled at the NFL, which also uses part-time officials. I believe that those questions could soon be asked by entities that have the vested interest, funds, and influence to pressure these leagues to do something about it. Sportsbooks (gasp!) might soon realize they stand to profit more off consistent officiating than they do off the status quo, and may begin to apply slightly more pressure to fix the problem.
Questionable judgements by officials in sports are a tale as old as time. The uproar over those calls becomes amplified when a part-time official makes a call that, in the view of most observers, directly changes the outcome of the contest (i.e. The 2018 NFC Championship non-pass interference on Nickell Robey-Coleman). There are documented cases of individuals attempting to sue officials or the league (as was the case with the NFC Championship No-Call) for damages stemming from negligence of the officials in those contests (lawsuits that have never materially succeeded). But aside from any lawsuit, these incidents receive a disproportionate amount of coverage on social media, the morning talk shows, and ultimately harm the reputation of the league. More consequently, however, they increase unpredictability in the outcome of games, something that can adversely affect sportsbooks that attempt to be as accurate as possible when setting odds.
There are reasonable motivations for why sportsbooks would want full-time officials and more consistent officiating. Sportsbooks trade on information. They build the infrastructure to provide the maximum amount of information possible when setting the initial line for a sporting event. They continue to use and update that information to make adjustments as the market changes the odds through wagering. Why? Because that’s how they make money. Sportsbooks count on the fact that they have vastly more information than Joe Everydayman who walks into a Vegas or Atlantic City Sportsbook and places a bet because his buddy’s dog picked Team X when asked to decide between two treats. All of that information is geared towards eliminating as many variables as possible that will affect the outcome of the game. Predictable outcomes (or a limited range of probable outcomes, as limited as possible) allow gambling operators to maximize their cut on either side of the action and allow them to adjust lines more accurately.
So, if sportsbooks trade in predictability, it would seem they would also have an interest in predictable officiating. Not the kind where they are paying for a specific outcome (and thereby committing a federal crime), but the kind where they can eliminate (or at least significantly reduce) the possibility of an inconsistent call by an official in the late stretch of a game from swaying the outcome. As sponsorship deals and endorsement rights allow sportsbooks to develop close relationships with league offices, they may begin to apply pressure to these leagues (looking at you NFL and NCAA) to make their officials full-time employees and train them year-round to officiate every game in the same (somewhat) predictable manner. Certainly, neither party is wanting for money, and the increased cost to pay officials full-time and train them year-round would be paid back tenfold if a crucial call that would have been missed is assessed accurately. If that doesn’t work, there’s a remote possibility that those same gambling operators may ask (see: lobby) Congress, or possibly state legislatures, to examine the possibility of creating an oversight and certifying body for sports officials to create the kind of predictability they are looking for. And with the amount of money that sportsbooks are collecting with the increasing legalization of sports betting, government officials are likely going to be willing to listen.
At worst, these changes would provide the leagues with the plausible deniability that there is no way to have a more competent and accurate body of officials to preside over contests with such high stakes. At best, for the sportsbooks at least, it allows them to more accurately set lines for wagering, and the leagues get the consistent officiating that coaches, athletes, fans and gamblers all want to see. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it was the sportsbooks, and not the leagues themselves, that ultimately enhanced the integrity of officiating in American sports and helped stop the conspiracy theories that start the second an official misses an obvious pass-interference with the game on the line.
….And no, I’m not a Saints fan.
Michael DiLiello is an Army Officer transitioning to the Sports Law field and will enroll as a 1L in the Fall of 2022. His opinions are purely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or any other external agency.
Image via The New York Times