The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for states to legalize wagering on sporting events was just minutes old when the press releases started flying.
Major sports leagues asked the U.S. Congress to develop a federal regulatory framework that would save them from a patchwork of state laws. Gambling lobbyists hailed the decision and in the same breath warned everyone against getting their grubby mitts on the revenues that would be sure to flow to betting houses. Anti-gambling groups let out a big weary sigh. And DraftKings, the daily fantasy-sports company that has insisted for years now that its product is not gambling, said it would soon enter the online gambling market. Since it had the infrastructure in place, you see, not because it is already in the gambling business. Ahem.
But while the speed of the response from all sides on Monday was striking, there remains a larger question about the dawn of legalized sports betting in the United States. (And, potentially, Canada, but hold that thought.) Are the professional leagues here actually ready for it?
Spoiler alert: no.
Those who consume sports are divided into two camps. The first, and by far the largest, are fans that have a rooting interest in teams and want them to win because they are emotionally invested in the outcome. The much smaller group includes those who are literally invested in the outcome. And while there is overlap between in the two, experienced bettors rely on the general ignorance of the casual fan to provide the room for them to make a profit.
North American sports leagues cater almost entirely to the former group. They are aware that wagering increases the interest in their games, and so they force teams to provide things like injury reports for the benefit of prospective bettors, but the leagues are officially hands-off about it, with broadcasters discouraged from ever mentioning a point spread, forcing Al Michaels to be all nudge-wink about it on Sunday Night Football. (“This field goal attempt will be of interest to CERTAIN viewers.”)
But if betting on single sports events is soon widely available and legalized, leagues will have to drop that pretence. More importantly, if the leagues are cut in on the gambling revenues, as the NBA and Major League Baseball have already argued they should be, then they would suddenly have a much greater responsibility to ensure the games themselves are conducted fairly. Every league pursues that goal already, but ultimately a blown call is a blown call. Too bad your team lost. But if the NBA, for example, becomes an actual partner in organized wagering on its games, it would add a new level of scrutiny to late-game outcomes. And it would expose that leagues are often making it up as they go along. Think of the various officiating controversies in recent seasons: the goalie interference rules in the NHL or the confusion over what constitutes a catch in the NFL. Now imagine that these things play out — complete with video-review assist from another official or from someone watching the game at league offices — while fans have legally bet a lot of money on the outcome. Are the leagues ready for that kind of blowback? (Those kinds of interested bettors already exist, obviously, but the leagues, at present, have the official cover of saying they don’t endorse such things.)
Leagues would have to be prepared to open themselves up to new levels of transparency. Could the NHL still get away with calling everything from a sore shoulder to a concussion an upper-body injury? Would the leagues still let the official timekeepers just be some random guy with his finger on the button? There’s an old joke that the best way to ensure a clock is run smoothly is to have it operated by one person who bet the over and one who bet the under. Would the CFL, in this age of technological advancement and driverless cars, still have first downs determined by having one official mark a spot with his foot and two more officials who carry a 10-yard chain between a couple of orange markers?
The mind boggles at the number of ways in which bettors might demand that the leagues tighten their games up. But there’s too much money at stake for them to refuse to do it. Though the North American leagues have largely fought widespread gambling for ages — Monday’s SCOTUS decision alone was the culmination of a seven-year legal fight — it is simply too tantalizing a revenue prospect, especially in an era of declining television viewership, for them to keep up the battle.
And if single-sports betting in the United States becomes widespread in the near term, Canada would almost be forced to follow suit. Provinces are already in the casino business and some have sports-betting lotteries with odds heavily skewed toward the house; they would be foolish to watch as border casinos and U.S. operations started snapping up all that wagering money.
But Parliament’s task strikes me as much simpler than the one before the leagues, which have perferred to pretend that gambling didn’t exist. Perhaps it’s not surprising that once a casino owner was in the White House, that lie was finally put to rest.
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