MLB’s proto-gambling app is a managerial pace-of-play simulator

If you’ve been following the 2020 MLB playoffs, you likely have seen or heard advertisements for the MLB Rally app, through which fans may access a free-to-play contest with the possibility of monetary prizes. Contests are organized around individual MLB games and run before and during a game. Before first pitch, participants might be asked to predict the game’s winner, whether a particular player will hit a home run, or which of a selected group of players will have the most total bases. During the game, participants may make predictions about the outcome of each plate appearance. The options for each prediction opportunity have different potential values, and a correct prediction adds the associated number of points to the participant’s total points for the game. At the end of the game, a handful of participants who accumulated the most points during that game win cash prizes.

I gave Rally a spin during a few of the recent postseason games and, in case you want to stop reading here, no, I did not win any money, nor did I come especially close in that regard. Initial setup of the app (only available for Apple devices right now) was reasonably easy. It requires participants to login with their existing MLB accounts (think MLB.tv or any other official MLB mobile apps) or create an account, but there isn’t much technical setup beyond that.

There is some experiential calibration required, however. If you, like almost everyone right now, are watching, listening to, or streaming the game from home, you have the option of setting a delay. Since the contests run in real time, and telecasts, for example are between twenty and thirty seconds delayed (over thirty seconds for the World Series), participants likely will want to set a delay so that the app doesn’t “spoil” events in the game. While the delay feature isn’t difficult to use or adjust, it isn’t perfect. Even after dialing in what feels like an optimal setting, I sometimes found I needed to tweak it as the game went on.

Importantly, the delay does not adjust the deadline by which you need to make your pick. If Mike Zunino really is up to bat right now, your selection for the outcome of his plate appearance needs to be locked in now, even if the prior batter still is battling at the plate on your TV screen. While the simulated delay isn’t really an issue early in games and at the start of innings– I found myself using the usual commercial breaks to enter guesses for the three “due-up” batters– for example, things started getting dicey once teams began changing pitchers and using pinch hitters. By the time I realized either, and especially the latter, the time to enter a new pick based on the changed matchup almost always had passed.

The delay feature also is not a failsafe spoiler-avoider. Participants may enter predictions for the next three batters on a rolling basis (i.e., the first three due-up hitters to start an inning and advancing through the lineup as each guy up reaches base, strikes out, etc.), but scanning ahead sometimes “prematurely” reveals that an inning has ended, tipping you off that the guy still standing in the batter’s box on your TV screen isn’t going to reach safely. “Game Advisory” notices (mound visits, pickoff attempts, pitching changes, and other between-pitch delays) also do not seem to be subject to the delay setting.

Like daily fantasy sports contests such as those DraftKings and FanDuel offer, the idea that you or I actually might win money with the Rally app feels pretty remote. The reason for that in the DFS context seems to have something to do with high-volume entrants using specialized algorithms. I’m not yet quite sure what the ostensible methodological key to succeeding at Rally would be, but I have a few ideas. There aren’t that many people participating in these contests. Based on data available through the app, there usually were fewer than 1,500 participants (up around 2,500 for World Series games), which seems to me like a pretty low number for primetime LCS games, especially with no entry fee and payouts to the top fifty finishers. Still, and while I certainly don’t claim any special ability in this regard, my final point totals always were off from the top-tier group by a factor of ten. As with DFS, I’m fairly confident that casual sports fans are not winning these contests. In the case of Rally, winning likely means abandoning any notion of using this app as an entertaining augmentation to the ordinary, at-home viewing or listening experience. With only the opportunity cost of a wrong guess, aggressive participants will want to enter a prediction for every single plate appearance (in addition to answering all of the pregame questions), and any shot at evaluating the actual batter-pitcher matchups requires ditching the delay feature and just reacting to the information as it appears in the app in real time.

While entering picks for every single plate appearance in real time can feel like a chore, it does present fans with a more engaged sensation of the actual pace of a baseball game than one has as a passive observer, and that’s just from being asked to make a multiple-choice prediction about one outcome with nothing really on the line (again, no entry fee, and you’re not going to win the fifty bucks). Participating in a Rally contest makes it ever-so-slightly easier to appreciate the speed at which, for example, a manager– who has far more to consider, even on a pitch-by-pitch basis, and, of course, far more at stake– perceives a game.

That element of altered perception has made engagement with the Rally app this postseason interesting for me, though certainly not in a conventionally entertaining manner, and I would not expect that academic experience to be a draw for most anyone, including me, to use the app on an ongoing basis.

In light of the foregoing (and seriously. +450 bonus ALDLAND points to you for hanging in), it would be reasonable to wonder what, exactly, is going on here and why this app is an app, much less one MLB is pushing in high-value marketing spots.

The answer begins with an identification of the app’s creator (or at least its presenting sponsor), BetMGM, the mobile sports-betting arm of MGM casinos. Two years ago, MGM and MLB announced an agreement for MGM to become MLB’s “official gaming partner.” Initially, this included allowing MGM to use official MLB branded material in advertising. Now, with Rally, it has expanded into app development and direct user engagement.

To what end? It seems fairly apparent that Rally offers a general audience a soft introduction to mobile live betting. Of course, MGM already offers mobile sports betting apps, but they aren’t available nationwide. Rally is, and it permits users a hint of a taste of the live-betting experience with a bit of (probably illusory) prize money on the back end, all while avoiding the legal strictures that would accompany an app that permitted actual wagering. MGM stands to benefit in at least two ways. First, by familiarizing users with the general feel of mobile live betting, Rally makes it more likely that more people will engage in actual live betting when it becomes legal in their respective jurisdictions. Second, it allows MGM to collect a broader range of data on participant usage that could be helpful in optimizing their other apps.

How does Rally hold up as a framework for a live-betting app? The simplicity of the user interface and professional, yet functional visual aesthetics are appealing, but there are a couple operational caveats. First, the timing and delay issues serve as a reminder that the best place to be while live betting is at the game. Since that won’t be a possibility for most people for at least a little while, delays, lags, and “spoilers” likely will persist for users, all of which present potential information costs for participants. Second, the app sometimes– rarely, but on multiple occasions– did not tally correct selections and add them to my point total. When this happened, there did not appear to be a way to refresh or correct the problem. While this occurrence usually caused me to lose interest in the particular contest, it wasn’t a great concern because I didn’t have anything invested beyond my time making picks, usually during commercial breaks. This obviously would be a different story for a bettor with money on the line. I also would anticipate a reputable provider like MGM would make a participant-assistance channel available for users to dispute and resolve perceived discrepancies.

Having completed this review, I don’t anticipate continuing to be a regular user of the Rally app. That said, it is exciting to see the MLB-MGM partnership bear some fruit, however unripe at present, in the area of fan engagement.

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Related
MLB Rule 21(d)

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