The Mid-American Conference has asked the NCAA for clarity on the governing body’s sports wagering restrictions, a request that could usher in a new era for betting in college sports.
The MAC earlier this year filed a formal “interpretation request” with the NCAA, according to multiple people familiar with the filing. There is no set timetable for a formal response, or an announcement should the rules need tweaking, the people said.
The conference is asking about Section 10.3 of the NCAA’s Division I manual, which prohibits athletes, staff members, conference employees and university leaders from gambling on sports. The section also says those people cannot “provide information” to anyone associated with sports wagering, which could be interpreted as forbidding conferences from signing pricey data distribution deals.
Those deals have become one of the prominent ways that pro leagues like the NBA and NFL are profiting off the booming U.S. sports betting industry, and the MAC took a major steps toward replicating them last month, when it inked a wide-ranging data and sponsorship deal with Genius Sports. That partnership doesn’t allow Genius to sell data to sportsbooks right now, but that could change depending on how the NCAA responds, according to someone familiar with the deal.
Representatives for the NCAA and the MAC declined to comment.
The NCAA receives hundreds of interpretation requests each year from conferences and schools—anything from individual athlete eligibility to larger division-wide bylaws. Most are filed through an online database, at which point the NCAA decides which staffers or committee can best review the request. Some are returned fairly quickly, others can take months.
Should the NCAA clarify that members are allowed to sell data through to sportsbooks, that could open the door to massive deals for conferences like the Big Ten and SEC, whose football and basketball games are often more popular (and attract more bettors) than established U.S. pro leagues. Bidding that led to the NHL’s recent deal with Sportradar, for example, eclipsed $250 million, and the league’s eventual deal included the right to purchase around $90 million worth of equity.
Should the NCAA make changes, it would be the latest example of the Indianapolis-based governing body loosening its grip on how college sports is structured and policed. In January the NCAA approved a new slimmed-down constitution that will cede more control to individual divisions, and likely to individual conferences themselves. That came amid mounting public, legal and legislative challenges to its long-held version of amateurism.
For decades the NCAA and the major U.S. leagues fought the push for more legal sports betting in America, citing fears over the integrity of their games. The seminal case on the issue, Murphy v. NCAA, eventually landed at the Supreme Court, and in May 2018 the court struck down the federal ban on sports betting.
Professional leagues like the NBA, NFL and NHL were quick to reverse course, signing lucrative commercial deals with operators, and data deals that give them an additional revenue stream. The NFL’s partnerships in those two realms include at least $2 billion worth of cash and equity. The NCAA, however, has been slower to accept the new reality. There is no official sports betting partner of the NCAA, and its current data deal with Genius Sports only covers media, not distribution to sportsbooks. At the governing body’s annual convention in 2019, Emmert told hundreds of college administrators that sports betting will “threaten the integrity of college sports.”
College sports are likely more susceptible to match-fixing than major pro leagues. The players are compensated significantly less, and beyond major conferences like the Big Ten or SEC, there are dozens of smaller leagues and smaller schools where there is significantly less oversight.
That said, college sports have gradually warmed to the industry. UNLV and Nevada, the only two Division I schools in a state with comprehensive legal sports betting prior to the Murphy decision, have long allowed casinos with sportsbooks to advertise at games.
More recently a handful of schools such as Colorado, LSU and Maryland have begun signing broader partnerships with sportsbooks. Colorado’s deal, with PointsBet, pays the Buffaloes at least $1.625 million over the five-year term, plus a $30 referral fee for every new customer the school directs to PointsBet, according to the contract. Last year the Fiesta Bowl signed a partnership with Caesars (Nasdaq: CZR) that included a fan lounge at the game and title sponsorship to some live events.
Asked about those deals, the NCAA said in a statement that “campus sponsorships are determined at the local level,” which applies equally to any future conference-wide marketing deal. In other words, schools and conferences can be paid by operators for advertising and customer recruiting, but as evidenced by the MAC’s interpretation request, it’s unclear if they can also be compensated for selling official data to those same companies.
The NCAA has also made more subtle changes. The 2019-20 version of its Division I handbook explicitly says “organizations promoting gambling” are prohibited from advertising during NCAA championships, because they’re not in the “best interests of higher education.” That section was removed in subsequent versions, with the language moving to individual championship manuals, a change that the NCAA recognized would help it align its policies with those of “other athletics organizations,” and could lead to an increase in revenue.