While Major League Baseball’s Rob Manfred and the NHL’s Gary Bettman took a wait-and-see approach to potential legalized sports gambling and the NFL’s Roger Goodell remained silent, the NBA’s Adam Silver fully embraced the notion during the first-ever panel to feature all four commissioners of North America’s major professional sports leagues on one stage at Manhattan’s Paley Center for Media.
Bettman expressed some concern about the effect of gambling on the atmosphere inside an arena, and Manfred remained skeptical about the potential influence of gamblers on the outcome of games, despite his league actively embracing the business of daily fantasy baseball. Again, Goodell barely said a word during the segment. Meanwhile, Silver went so far as to heavily promote in-game betting.
“I think the NBA may be a little unique among leagues in that we’ve embraced sports betting outside of the United States,” said Silver, entering his fifth season as NBA commissioner. “We’re a very popular betting property in Europe, for example, and I hear Gary about the notion of sports fans more focused on a spread and not necessarily their team winning, but I think the research generally shows fans are fairly sophisticated and that they can both root for their team and virtually all of the action.
“You get the direct data from those betting companies, and about 85 percent of the action is now so-called in-play. People don’t have the attention spans they used to. It’s not as if they want to bet the Knicks and then wait for three hours to see what happens. They want to bet throughout the game, so they’re betting on quarter scores, on particular players, on free throws and everything else, and independent of whatever revenue stream comes from licensing our intellectual property to those gaming companies, it results in enormous additional engagement in fans.
“Typically, as Roger said, you might have a sports fan who’s turning off a contest because the game is out of reach for their team or whatever else, but here there’s a completely entertaining reason to continue watching.”
Regardless of how you feel about a sports league embracing what can be a debilitating and sometimes catastrophic vice for many people, Silver offered a well-thought-out argument for in-game gambling from both a business and marketing perspective. At the very least, it seemed better thought out than the other three commissioners, because it is an issue Silver has wrestled with for some time.
Silver once wrote a 2014 New York Times op-ed piece titled “Legalize and Regulate Sports Betting,” in which he argued for the eradication of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which limited the vast majority of government-regulated sports gambling to Nevada. “Times have changed since PASPA was enacted,” he wrote. “I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”
It was a 180-degree change in stance for the NBA, which supported PASPA under former commissioner David Stern, who argued in 2012, “The NBA cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and teams.”
However, Stern changed his tune in September 2016, supporting Silver’s suggestion of granting states and professional sports leagues the option of participating in and regulating the activity. “If they’re going to be doing daily fantasy,” he told ESPN last year, “you might as well legalize gambling.”
After the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal for the reinstatement of a New Jersey law endorsed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2012, it appears we may be closer to legalized sports betting than ever before. Count Silver among those who think it could happen as soon as this decade.
“My sense is that the law will change in the next few years in the United States,” Silver told the Paley panel this week. “And I think it’s not as much at the end of the day: Are leagues being for or against sports betting? It’s more a function of being realists. It’s a multi-hundred-billion-dollar illegal industry in the United States. And I think ultimately as the owners of the intellectual property, we’re going to embrace it and also make sure our integrity is protected at the same time.”
It’s certainly an interesting argument. We would be naive to think gambling on sports does not happen with or without a league’s approval, so to openly embrace it at least grants the NBA an opportunity to dictate how this activity impacts the league, while potentially improving the product both from a financial and entertainment standpoint, all with an eye toward capturing the attention span of the next generation — something Silver has also been outspoken about publicly.
All the while, we’re still waiting on Roger Goodell’s thoughts on the matter.
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