Shohei Ohtani, Jontay Porter and the Problems of Sports Gambling

Transcript of an interview that I did with CBC’s Radio Jayme Poisson on the Shohei Ohtani and the coming tide of sports gambling problems.

Front Burner Transcript for April 2, 2024

Host: Jayme Poisson

Front Burner
Ohtani, Porter and sport’s gambling problem
23:22

JAYME POISSON: Hi, I’m Jayme Poisson.

JAYME POISSON: The LA Dodgers Shohei Ohtani is the biggest star in baseball. In December, Toronto lost its collective mind just over rumours that he was signing with the Blue Jays.

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FIRST SPEAKER: Jon Rossi tweets out Shohei Ohtani is enroute to Toronto.

SECOND SPEAKER: A private flight from Anaheim to Toronto has just popped up on a flight tracker. Who rides around in a Bombardier Global 5000? Oh my gosh, the dots are really connecting.

THIRD SPEAKER: Apparently, Usyk Cuzshe has booked out the entire restaurant of Akira back on Blue Jays way to sushi restaurant.

JAYME POISSON: But over the last two weeks, Ohtani’s squeaky clean image has collided with a scandal that’s really all too familiar in sports. We found out that there were millions of dollars in wire transfers from Ohtani’s bank account to an illegal gambling outfit. And while Ohtani’s camp has blamed it on his longtime friend and translator, the explanations have split on some key details and left people with a lot more questions than answers.

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In translation: Just to kind of just go over the results, in conclusion, Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has told lies.

JAYME POISSON: Last week, we also found out that the NBA is investigating Raptor Jontay Porter because of irregularities in bets that have been placed on him. These are two huge gambling controversies at a time when leagues have embraced sports betting and are plastered with ads for betting apps. So what is really going on with Ohtani and Porter? And have these leagues opened this Pandora’s box of betting culture that could threaten the integrity of sports? Declan Hill is here to weigh in. He’s an associate professor of investigations at the University of New Haven, a leading expert on match fixing and corruption in international sports, and the author of the Substack Crime Waves.

JAYME POISSON: Declan, hey. Thank you so much for coming on to Front Burner. It’s a pleasure.

DECLAN HILL: It’s an honour. Thank you so much.

JAYME POISSON: So I’m hoping we can actually start with why the Shohei Ohtani scandal is such a big deal, even beyond him just being this ridiculously good baseball player. Why are he and his famously clean image so important to Major League Baseball right now?

DECLAN HILL: Well, because baseball’s dying. I mean, baseball is the sport of the elderly in North America. It used to be America’s pastime. It used to be, you know, apple pie and mom and baseball. But that’s really be supplanted by a whole bunch of things, including e-sports with the younger generation. And baseball has slowly killed itself off. So they’ve responded, they being the Major League Baseball officials, by two ways. One is by trying to expand globally, specifically into Japan, South Korea and China. Two, they’ve sold off everything that moves in baseball to bookmakers and gambling companies, and they’re trying to really revenue generate by turning it over to gamblers. Thus, it’s an exact sweet spot attack because you have a superstar, really, really good baseball player, arguably one of the best in a century from Japan. So a great, you know, allegedly clean cut guy in that new, rapidly growing market. And now, he’s embroiled in a sports gambling scandal.

JAYME POISSON: And lay out the facts for me here. What do we actually know about what’s happened here so far, about the transfers from Ohtani’s account to this illegal bookmaker?

DECLAN HILL: What we know is that $4.5 million of his money lands up in this guy’s account. That’s the statement of fact. Then there had been a version of official stories. I, you know, I don’t know how many official stories we’ve had. So one, it was just the translator working by himself. Then it was the translator going to the baseball player and getting a loan.

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REPORTER: Mizuhara first told ESPN that Ohtani made the payments to cover his friend’s debts, but he later shifted his story, saying Ohtani knew nothing about his gambling.

DECLAN HILL: And then now, it’s that he stole the money from the baseball player over the course of years.

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REPORTER: Ohtani says that he is the victim in this story.

TRANSLATOR: I’m very saddened and shocked that someone who I trusted has done this. I did not, never agreed to pay off the debt or, you know, make payments to the bookmaker.

DECLAN HILL: Which begs two firings. First, the translator’s got to go. And then second of all, anyone connected with his finances has to be fired because you didn’t notice over two years that $4.5 million was going from your client’s accounts? Like a whole bunch of people have to be fired if that particular current official story is true.

JAYME POISSON: So as you mentioned, there’s lots of details that we still don’t know. As an expert, though, I’m curious, like what questions have these explanations left you with?

DECLAN HILL: So many. I mean, it’s difficult to go through them because they’re just so many. For a start, which story is true? You know, what kind of steps is the League doing about addiction, about access? The illegal bookmaker was supposed to have met the, quote, translator in a team hotel in a poker game with other players. And again, this happened two years ago. You know, is this regular? Do you regularly have poker games with players in their team hotels featuring illegal bookmakers? Oh, and the problem is the translator? Like hundreds of thousands of our listeners are falling out of their chairs laughing now. Like this story is so weird that somebody has to investigate it properly or they have to change their story yet again.

JAYME POISSON: I want to talk quickly about the other scandal that’s happening around the Toronto Raptors right now and sort of a semi-regular player for them named Jontay Porter. We found out last week the NBA is investigating irregularities around bets on him. And give me the facts with this case. What about these bets seem so strange?

DECLAN HILL: Okay. So for all the people who haven’t been to a bookmaker site, legal or illegal, there’s up to 60,000 sports events a day they can bet on. And I’m talking like golf played by under 15-year-olds, women’s soccer, fourth division in the Netherlands. I mean, 60,000 of the smallest professional sports event all the way up to National Football League games. But within those games, you can bet on up to 20,000 different points, data points. So in cricket, for example, you can bet on whether the umpire is wearing a hat or not. So what was concerning was that you can now bet on people’s underperformance, whether they will perform less well than they usually do. And again, we’re not talking about illegal bookmakers. This is a legal bet, but it’s just a door wide open to fixing because you’re not betting on somebody who’s going to win. You’re going to bet on somebody who’s going to underperform their usual standard. And that is what happened to Jontay Porter. And not only did it happen, but a bet on Jontay Porter’s underperformance, that he wouldn’t match his usual standards was the most profitable bet in the NBA that week. And that’s seeing a huge amount, Jayme.

JAYME POISSON: Yeah.

DECLAN HILL: Because hundreds of millions of dollars per week are bet on the NBA. So if he’s like the most profitable bet, and I’m not saying that he was connected with this, but it is clear and extremely curious that on January 26th, this occurred. And then exactly the same thing happened on March 20th. So you could kind of see maybe it might happen maybe once, but twice. And it also indicates that not only did this bet occur, but there was a lot of money placed on it, i.e. a lot more money than usual. So these are red flags in the betting monitoring industry, significantly higher than usual profits, so that someone somewhere knew something, whether it was an entourage or maybe Jontay Porter had gone to the hairdresser and said, I’m not feeling great. Bam! Somebody is on the mobile phone doing those bets saying, hey, I’ve just had Jontay Porter. Those are the kind of things that can happen.

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ANCHOR: Players, along with all league employees, are prohibited from betting on any NBA events. That’s including, of course, prop bets.

JAYME POISSON: Right. And I guess I’ll just note here that, you know, the Raptors, the NBA and Porter have all been really tight lipped about this. Porter’s brother did speak out. He said he loves basketball too much to get involved with gambling and risk his career. But obviously, this is the subject of an investigation right now.

JAYME POISSON: Declan, you know, you have written about how athletes are exceptionally prone to gambling, but also about how they’re very, very bad at it. And I wonder if you could just expand on that for me.

DECLAN HILL: Yeah. So key fact number one, sports gambling is addictive. Hugely addictive. Gambling has changed since an older demographic. Like, you know, a wheezing Declan Hill knew gambling in the 20s. In that case, I would have had to go to a racetrack. I would have had to go to a casino. I would have had to find an illegal bookie at the back of some bar, and we would have had to have some human interaction where I take cash and place it down in front of them and they give me chips or something. So there was a human interaction that in some way would have checked and slightly slowed down my potential gambling addiction.

Now, with mobile phones, gamblers and potential gambling addicts are walking around with the equivalent of a bar in their back pocket for an alcoholic. It’s just there. And all you’re doing when you’re placing bets is you’re just clicking buttons. And it’s built in. The social engineer these gambling sites, again, legal and or illegal, to make them deeply addictive. There’s research coming out of Sweden that recognizes that this new form of, quote, frictionless gambling is up there with heroin in terms of addictive qualities or capacities. And it’s particularly addictive for one demographic, and that is young males between the ages of 14 and 35. And I’m not misspeaking there.

There is now well over 55,000 teenage pathological gamblers, i.e. teenage gambling addicts, in the United Kingdom. You know, basically, if you took the SkyDome in Toronto and you could fill it up with young teenagers between 14 and 18, that would be the number of addicts. But the gambling researches unconnected with the bookmakers say the figure is far, far higher, three or four times higher than that. And it’s all because of this frictionless gambling that’s pushing and pushing and pushing. Inside that critical target demographic of young males between the ages of 14 and 35, athletes are particularly susceptible to gambling addiction for a couple of reasons.

One is that, again, the sport, like gambling, has changed dramatically in the last 15, 20 years. Again, back in my day, you know, when I played soccer and all my sports, it was frequent that we would go out for beers afterwards. If you were a high level athlete in any professional sport now, alcohol is almost impossible to drink at any level because the demands on these guys are just so high. It’s just cigarette smoke is very, very rare. Much more is the figure of, you know, say a Tom Brady who’s now embracing, I don’t know, whatever he’s embracing this week, veganism, yoga, whatever. That’s the lifestyle of a professional athlete now, is incredible consciousness on their physical body. So they still have the same amount of stress. They still have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people screaming at them if they don’t perform their job well. So they have to handle that stress, and what they do is they turn to gambling and gaming. And this is the new addiction. This is the really powerful addiction that very, very few people in the sports media are talking about.

JAYME POISSON: And it’s really interesting. I guess I’ll just note, there’s restrictions, but most of the big sports leagues do let players bet on other sports, as long as it’s through the right channels, like legal channels. But it seems kind of intuitive that there might be something in an athlete’s personality that would make it easier to get addicted to gambling, right? Because what makes someone a really good athlete is like never giving up and never letting go. And don’t, you know, when you’re gambling, don’t you have to do that often?

DECLAN HILL: Well, the best gamblers, many of my contacts, my professional contacts are professional gamblers. They’re the 1 in 200,000 people who can actually beat a bookie over a long line. And they are absolutely the opposite of athletes. They’re ice cold, emotionally constipated math nerds. They have no, they have no emotion in the game. In fact, any time they look at a sport with any emotion, they immediately stop betting on it. They’re not interested in those kind of things. They look at it as a way of beating bookies, and they just don’t do it. Athletes, on the other hand, are incredibly obsessive. They in their professional life, they can overturn odds. They are never going to give up. They’re going to keep playing till the final minute. And no matter what the score is, they’re just, you know, they hate being beaten. To be beating them is to make sure that they go on and go on and go on, and that is a recipe. That’s the, you know, the carbon profile picture of a gambling addict.

JAYME POISSON: You layer on top of that what you have talked about a little bit in this interview so far, what’s happening with the culture of gambling and sports in recent years and how we’ve seen sports leagues cozying up more and more with betting outfits, right?

DECLAN HILL: Yeah, they’ve really started to dance with the devil. And I’ve seen a graveyard of sports around the world that have been killed off by too close links with gambling. Right across the continent of Asia are just a myriad of sports leagues that have just collapsed. Like the fans just don’t pay any attention anymore. Singapore or Malaysia or Thai or even Chinese soccer. I think the Chinese soccer, the president has just been kicked into jail. And I think that’s the fourth of their senior executives in the last 10 years, like the fourth of their CEO presidents that have been put in jail for corruption and match fixing. And so what happens in Chinese soccer is that Chinese sports fans aren’t stupid. They’re looking at the product out on the field and it’s like, forget about it. And the same thing is really in danger of happening here in North America, because we’ve had an employee of the Jacksonville Jaguars who stole $22 million from his team to do online betting.

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ANCHOR: The attorney for Ameet Patel says his client will plead guilty to the charges of wire fraud and making illegal transactions, and that he checked into a rehabilitation centre this spring. Patel is accused of spending company money to fund his lavish lifestyle.

DECLAN HILL: We’ve had similar scandals out of Temple and Layola. We’ve had a wave of athletes, coaches and officials being threatened really quite seriously, death threats by gamblers. So we’ve really entered into this storm of gambling and betting, and the leagues are far too close to it. You know, they have official sponsors. Their little DraftKings, FanDuel, blah, blah, blah, are linkages with various of the sports leagues, and it’s just too much. A sports fan needs to see clear blue water between the product, the sports league and the gambling company. There has to be distance. Otherwise, people start looking at the game and just going, is that for real?

JAYME POISSON: Right. They won’t necessarily believe it’s really happening. You mentioned those death threats. Like death threats for what? I just want to get a few more details on that.

DECLAN HILL: Oh, look, there was a player in the NCAA played for Texas Christian University, and his team was losing above the spread. So I think it was four and a half points was the spread. And the kid grabs the ball in the final point seven seconds of the game. So he’s on the losing team, and he takes it and he hits a fantastic three pointer. Doesn’t win the game, but he narrows the betting spread from four and a half down to two. So people lost their bet. And the guy was inundated on social media with attacks, with like you’re a jerk, you did that deliberately, blah blah blah, all kinds of stuff. Cleveland Cavaliers coach, you know, his mobile phone got out to sports gamblers, and they were phoning him up and saying, not just that we’re going to kill you, we know where your kids go to school.

JAYME POISSON: Wow.

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COACH: I personally have had my own instances with, you know, some of the sports gamblers, where, you know, they got my telephone number and were sending me, you know, crazy messages about, you know, where I live and my kids and all that stuff. So it is a dangerous game.

DECLAN HILL: And so he, you know, he’s saying in press conferences, as many athletes and coaches are saying, but our sports media is refusing to discuss this, saying, hey, we’re in a really dangerous game. Like what are we doing as a sports league? What are we doing as a sport when we’ve got this kind of relationship going on?

JAYME POISSON: Right, because it’s no longer about, you know, enjoying the game for the game. It’s also so much more now about like money that’s put on the game or something that may or may not happen in the game. You’ve referred to this as gamblization.

DECLAN HILL: Yeah, it’s an academic term. I hate using it, but I think it’s a good one. And it’s a fairly accurate one, so I’ll throw it in. What it means is that when a sport is gradually being transformed from a sport that one enjoys and, you know, follows the narrative, follows the points, you know, gets caught up in the morals and ideals and or lack thereof and values of the coaches and the athletes and starts looking at it as a vehicle for gambling, very much like horse racing. So very, very few people go to the horse races because they love horses. They go to the races because those horses are vehicles for their bets. And we’re seeing the same thing now with athletes, the discussion. So I, you know, I invite any of our listeners to tune in to one of the sports networks, and you’ll see many of the conversations, many of the actual screen is divided up with betting lines, and people are saying, oh yeah, so-and-so’s got a hamstring that’s going to up the betting spread, blah blah blah. What? The betting spread? And that’s where we’re getting into. We’re getting into that world where our professional sports are simply vehicles for gambling, and that is going to be a death. People are going to be looking at it, going, I just don’t believe this anymore. This is too much theatre. I’m going to turn this off.

JAYME POISSON: You mentioned, well, when we started this conversation, that this was one of the big things that the MLB was doing because they basically need it for survival, right? So I mean, we’re talking about big, big money here. There’s a lot of incentive for the leagues to want to do this.

DECLAN HILL: Look, there’s a lot of short term incentives for the leagues to do this. I don’t think it’s survival. I think they’re actually jeopardizing their survival. I think they’re dancing with the devil. They’ve made a deal with Satan. And at first, it seems really good. Oh my gosh, we’re going to get all this cash earnings. But the problem is when listeners, and this will happen to many of the listeners to this podcast, next week, next month, next season, they’re going to be watching a sports event and something will happen, whether it be this miraculous fantastic play, or whether one of the brilliant sports stars makes such an obviously glaring mistake, or the referee doesn’t call something they should, and our listeners will go, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s happening here? What am I watching? And our listeners aren’t stupid. They’re not conspiracy theorists. They’re not nuts, but that’s going to happen. And as soon as that happens to enough people about sports, and once you lose that credibility and the integrity of your product as a sports league, it’s over.

JAYME POISSON: So what do you think should happen here?

DECLAN HILL: Very, very easy thing for in Canada. Two years ago, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals legalized sports gambling across the country.

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Provinces and territories will be able to offer single event sport betting products like wagering on the Grey Cup, game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals or the Super Bowl.

DECLAN HILL: But they didn’t amend the Criminal Code. So match fixers move to Canada because it’s like an arrest free zone. You don’t even get arrested, let alone investigated or prosecuted or convicted of match fixing in this country. Okay, take 20 minutes of a legislative session and just amend Canada’s Criminal Code, just one paragraph, it’s not like this major thing you have to do, saying underperformance in a professional sports event is illegal.

JAYME POISSON: Mm hmm. And if more action isn’t taken, like take me a couple of years down the line here. What do you think is going to happen?

DECLAN HILL: One of the professional sports leagues will die. Why wouldn’t it? And again, we haven’t mentioned the $100,000 fine on the NBA basketball player that he made towards the referee because he was saying, you’re taking bribes. You’re taking bribes from gamblers. Among athletes, among players, among coaches, among officials, they’re talking about this. Our listeners, they’re going to pick up on this, and they’re going to start tuning out one of the major sports leagues. I don’t know which one, but one of them is going to. If this carries on, one of them is going to be killed off.

JAYME POISSON: All right. Declan, thank you so much for this. This was really fascinating. Thank you. Thank you.

DECLAN HILL: Jayme, anytime you need to discuss it, I’d be honoured to come back on.

JAYME POISSON: All right, that is all for today. I’m Jayme Poisson. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you tomorrow.

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