As other sports step up, MLB drops the ball

It’s easy to practice social distancing in Montana, where Brent Musburger is spending the summer at his home away from Las Vegas. He reads books, watches “Ozark” on Netflix and plays golf a few times a week. He wishes he could watch baseball.

In recent years, while hosting VSiN shows in the spring, summer and fall, Musburger would bet on baseball games on a daily basis. He has called the World Series — and basically every other big-time sporting event imaginable — and has a passion for the game.

But the inability of Major League Baseball owners and players to strike a deal to start the season is leaving Musburger frustrated.

“Listen, there was a time when this country needed professional sports in the worst way,” he said. “We were stuck at home in a pandemic, and we needed a healthy distraction. For those two sides to be unable to reach an agreement over money strikes me as shortsighted for a game that needs all the love it can get. I think it’s inexcusable.

“I think baseball blew it at every level. There was a way to get back on the field. I find it ludicrous that we’re looking at a complete NFL season, the NBA and NHL playoffs are coming and yet baseball is nowhere to be found.”

The only Mike Trout sighting of the summer was a video of the Los Angeles Angels star launching a bomb at a golf driving range.

We might still get an abbreviated season, but MLB whiffed on an opportunity to own the national TV stage in June and July. With each passing day, a July start to the baseball season becomes less likely. By August, our attention will turn to the NBA and NHL playoffs and, hopefully, the beginning of the college football and NFL seasons.

“I still hope there will be a baseball season somehow, but I’m losing hope,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “It’s so disappointing. If we could have just gotten MLB to carry us through to football season, we really would have been fine this summer.”

Baseball’s loss will mean gains for the UFC, the PGA Tour and other sports that could get lost in the shuffle (NASCAR, European soccer) or get no attention at all (Korean baseball, Russian table tennis) during a normal year.

William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich never was a UFC fan before the last two months. “Now I watch every fight, and it’s intriguing,” he said.

He watches the fights mostly because of the major wagering handle on each card, but also because there has been nothing else to watch. UFC 250 on Saturday was the latest example of how a league can seize the moment. It was a pay-per-view card mostly devoid of big names, with a lame women’s featherweight main event featuring Amanda Nunes as a -600 favorite over Felicia Spencer.

“The handle was just absolutely insane,” said Bogdanovich, adding that William Hill was a small winner despite taking a $1 million bet on Nunes that paid $166,000 and change.

Cody Garbrandt and Sean O’Malley each recorded sensational knockouts to save the fight card, which was more entertaining in reality than it appeared on paper. It was another win for UFC President Dana White, who’s making the best of a bad pandemic situation.

“I never could fathom this could be the case, but our total handle on the UFC was roughly equal to all the money we wrote on the point spread of the Super Bowl,” Mike Palm, vice president of operations for The D, said of the Circa Sports handle. “People really don’t pay attention to boxing anymore, and they focus on UFC.”

Golf will come into focus now. Musburger said he watched the May 24 match with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and found it “thoroughly enjoyable.” He’s looking forward to the PGA Tour’s restart this week with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. Even without Woods, a strong field features the top five players in the world.

“The golf is showing positive signs,” Bogdanovich said. “It’s a monster field, and it should be an incredible handle.”

Golf tournaments are scheduled each week before the year’s first major, the PGA Championship on Aug. 6. It seems UFC, golf and soccer will need to carry the sportsbooks through the next two months until the NBA and NHL playoffs fire up in late July — and there are no guarantees, of course, but that’s the plan.

Once we get to August, baseball would not be missed. The window is still cracked open for MLB to do a deal and open the season in July, but something positive must happen soon. With the other leagues finding ways to play, the pressure is on MLB and the players’ union. Baseball cannot afford to be the one sport that fails to play because of fights over money.

“The two sides are still going around in circles with each other, and they should be ashamed of themselves,” Musburger said. 

A baseball season consisting of 50 or 76 regular-season games would be better than nothing.

But for now, the radio play-by-play voice of the Las Vegas Raiders is ready to shift his focus.

“I just can’t wait for the football season to get started,” Musburger said.

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