Can NFL's presence in England influence landmark Supreme Court case on gambling?

Dan WetzelColumnist

LONDON – Sunday, on the way to an NFL game, fans can step into one of the numerous betting parlors that dot each city block here. They can wager on that afternoon’s game (or any NFL) game, such as whether Baltimore will defeat Jacksonville by 3.5 or more points. Or they can play the over/under of 39.5. Or even wager whether or not it will snow in Glasgow on Christmas Day (3/1 yes).

They can even wait until they take their seats inside Wembley Stadium, pull out their smart phones and gamble during live action.

All legally.

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The world will not end. The game will not be cheated.

This is the reality of attending a game in the NFL’s International Series – four here in London, one in equally betting friendly Mexico. Sunday it’s the Ravens and the Jaguars, which will be streamed live on Yahoo Sports at 9:30 a.m. ET.

The International Series will feature four games in London this year, starting with Jaguars-Ravens on Sunday. (Getty Images)
The International Series will feature four games in London this year, starting with Jaguars-Ravens on Sunday. (Getty Images)

Eventually it’s the future in the United States (even outside the Las Vegas Raiders), although when that occurs remains the multibillion-dollar question.

Hopes among gamblers were raised in June when the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many by agreeing to hear an appeal of New Jersey’s challenge of the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. The 1992 law essentially bans sports betting outside Nevada but had been upheld by all lower courts. The case will be argued this fall in Washington.

The court agrees to take few cases. At least four of the nine justices must agree just to grant the hearing. That suggests to many that there is movement on the court to side with New Jersey, which is seeking to allow sports wagering at its casinos and racetracks. If they weren’t interested in overturning it, why bother hearing the arguments?

Still, there are no guarantees. The court could keep the law in place or rule in an unexpected manner. The Trump Administration is still strongly supporting PASPA. The decision will not focus on whether sports wagering should or should not be legalized, but rather whether the law is unfairly grandfathered in four states, most notably Nevada, at the expense of others, thus violating state sovereignty protections under the 10th Amendment.

Even if PASPA is struck down, the immediate future is uncertain. The U.S. Congress would need to step in and rewrite the law and regulate the marketplace.

Optimism is surging anyway. This is the first London game since the high court agreed to hear the case.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court appears to have responded favorably to our arguments,” said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the American Gaming Association.

Two states (Connecticut and Mississippi) have already enacted laws in anticipation of the court ruling and nine others (including California, New York and Michigan) have introduced legislation. Online gaming platforms are being bought up. European bookmakers are positioning themselves for the big score.

The AGA estimates there is a $150 billion market for illegal sports wagering in the United States. There is, undoubtedly, plenty of people who would gamble on games if it were legal and convenient, as it is here.

The most staggering thing about sports wagering in London is how out in the open it is. This is easier than walking into a Nevada casino. The self-service kiosks are less daunting than those huge boards at the sports book. It is as convenient as buying a lottery ticket, with parlors filling small storefronts all over the place, from the center of small downtowns to multiple locations on nearly every block of central London.

The NFL, which opposes sports wagering in the United States, has long said it has no problem with it in England because it is the league that decided to stage games here, not vice versa. The league doesn’t feel it is in its rights to try to block the local gambling here.

Betting parlors like this one in London are commonplace. (AP)
Betting parlors like this one in London are commonplace. (AP)

Over the past decade, the league has grown more comfortable with the arrangement. The games are under no additional threat because someone is wagering across town. It’s why the NFL’s unofficial position is softening. Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledges there has been a shift in public sentiment on the issue. Casinos now operate in 39 states, and 44 states have a lottery. Numerous NFL owners are involved in daily fantasy companies. And, most notably, the Raiders are set to move to Las Vegas in the next couple of years.

The NBA, NHL and others are already on board, seeing it as a growth opportunity for interest in their sports, as well as a way for wagering to be taxed and kept out of the hands of organized crime. The more open the gambling, leagues now believe, the less likely games get fixed or points get shaved. It’s a reversal from the argument that brought about the current law.

“Times have changed since PASPA was enacted,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote in The New York Times way back in 2014. “I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”

In London, you can gamble all you want on the NFL.

Conveniently. Legally. Locally.

It’s a glimpse of the future in the United States. Perhaps, if the Supreme Court rules its way, a future that will arrive sooner than once imaginable.

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