Sports PR Lessons from Recent Betting Scandals

April 4, 2024

Sports PR Lessons from Recent Betting Scandals

April 4, 2024

GG’s Kerry Close offers advice to sports PR teams as sports betting controversies continue to grow.

Recently, several betting scandals – notably, involving MLB phenom Shohei Ohtani and NBA center/power forward Jontay Porter – have rocked the sports world. They’ve thrown the integrity of the game into question and created crisis PR challenges for sports teams and leagues as they grapple with the consequences of their rush to embrace sports betting.

Sports betting creates the potential for PR crises

While historically the pro sports world had taken more of a cautious approach to sports betting, that all changed starting in 2018 when the Supreme Court struck down the Amateur Sports Protection Act. This paved the way not only for 38 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, to legalize betting – but also for the sports industry to wholeheartedly embrace sports betting (and the profits that came with it). Over the past few years, professional sports leagues have established high-value sponsorships and partnerships with industry players like FanDuel and DraftKings, and even ESPN now has its own sportsbook and regularly displays odds during games.

While sports betting can be exciting and lucrative, it comes with a few notable downsides – including the increased likelihood of match fixing and for gambling addictions to potentially develop. Over the past month, we’ve seen both elements unfold in the form of two high-profile scandals involving the MLB’s Ohtani and the NBA’s Porter. In the case of Ohtani, $4.5 million was wired from his bank account to a California bookmaker who is currently under federal investigation. Meanwhile, Porter is under investigation by the NBA regarding unusual prop bets made around him in recent months.

The public responses to both incidents call to mind a few lessons for sports PR teams as they navigate the wild, wild West of sports betting, including:

Mixed messages make public relations crises worse

Ohtani’s interpreter, Ohtani’s personal team, and even Ohtani himself have changed their story – and had multiple inconsistencies – in their interactions with media in the short time since the news has broken. One notable example is that originally, in an interview with ESPN overseen by a crisis communications professional hired by Ohtani, his interpreter said Ohtani stepped up to cover gambling debts that he had racked up. But the Ohtani camp quickly walked back this story and instead claimed that Ohtani had no knowledge of the transactions and was in fact the victim of theft.

Consistent messaging is always critical, but especially in communicating around hot-button issues like sports betting, where there’s a lot of money on the line and a lot of eyeballs following the situation. Ohtani had a short window to regain public trust and offer a sensible explanation for what happened (or if not, a commitment to finding out the truth). The fact that he and his team blew that opportunity dealt a major setback to the quick resolution of this issue – meaning homeruns and strikeouts will take a backseat in the public discourse about Ohtani for a long time.

Sports PR teams should be proactive in their communications

In the case of Porter, neither he nor his team have issued a public statement about the betting irregularities or the NBA investigation. As the pain points with betting are unfolding, sports teams need to stay ahead of the curve and be overly communicative around their intent to act with integrity and cooperate fully with any investigations around potential wrongdoing. The NBA should also be as transparent and regular as possible in giving updates about its investigation into Porter. This will help maintain public trust in the integrity of the league, especially while it continues to double down on betting investments, including incorporating betting options into its League Pass app only several weeks ago.

The sports world needs to walk the walk more intentionally

There’s no doubt the sports world moved quickly, and perhaps too quickly, to embrace betting. The best path forward is for the sports industry to show it is truly taking the risks of betting seriously. Sports PR teams should advise their front office and coaching staff to commit more fully to education about best practices around betting and what’s acceptable and legal. Existing educational programs should be evaluated, fine-tuned, and well-resourced. It also goes without saying that the teams need to redouble their commitment to quickly addressing any betting-related issues among players and staff as they come up.

Sports betting has not only brought a lot of opportunity to the sports world, but also real challenges for the public image of sports teams and leagues. To stay trusted and relevant, sports PR teams need to be nimble, proactive, and intentional in developing crisis communications strategies that address what can sometimes be the less savory side of sports betting.