The very reason that commissioners exist in American professional sports is that, after the Black Sox scandal in 1919, when the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series, baseball needed to make a show with the public that the game was on the level.
What a difference a century makes.
It didn’t make waves this week in quite the same way that it might have in a more ordinary timeline, but here was Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, at a panel in New York with his counterparts from the other sports, talking about sports gambling, as quoted by USA Today.
My sense is the law will change in the next few years in the United States. People want to bet throughout the game. … It results in enormous additional engagement with the fans.
Well, yeah. Silver might be in charge of professional basketball, but he knows darn well the impact that office pools in March have on the popularity and general following of his sport at the collegiate level. The NBA also was deep into a relationship with the daily fantasy sports industry before the government started cracking down on those games as a form of gambling.
While it’s now finally possible to watch more than five minutes of a sporting event in the United States without seeing an ad for DraftKings or FanDuel, the impact of that brief daily fantasy boom continues to be felt. Daily fantasy smudged the line between traditional fantasy games and flat-out betting, and it’s a giant step toward sports being able to go all-in.
The other necessary step is the evolution of the role of the commissioner. It’s now a job that exists to maximize the bottom line for the team owners who are the presumptive poobah’s bosses, chiefly at the negotiating table with players’ unions, but also, importantly, in making deals with sponsors and broadcasters.
By embracing the eventuality of gambling, as opposed to the NFL’s continued resistance, there is money to be made for the NBA, just as there was in being the first major professional league in North America to allow jersey sponsorship patches – coming this season. It helps that basketball is the most international sport of our Big Four, meaning that the sport has its eyes wide open to the rest of the world.
If you’ve been to a soccer game in England, for instance, you know what this means. Walk into the stadium, and there is a betting window where wagers can be placed not only on the result of that day’s game, but also the final score, which player will score the first goal, and other more exotic wagers. And Silver is right: People do want to bet, and it does result in enormous additional engagement. West Ham against Bournemouth is a lot more interesting if you’ve got five quid on Jermain Defoe to score a brace at 25-1.
Is it possible that embracing gambling would lead back to scandal? Sure, there’s always a chance of that, but it’s also a chance that exists now if athletes get themselves into bad situations with the wrong people. It’s a certainty, at least, that the outright financial motives of the Black Sox no longer are on the table. Just as in tennis and other sports, there is more to be concerned about at the lower rungs, where match-fixing would be less likely to be noticed.
So long as gambling is regulated, there’s actually a greater measure of control for the leagues, and given the potential rewards – read: money – the calculus does dictate that Silver is correct, and it’s only a matter of time.
Think of an NBA game whose broadcasts start with the announcers’ Bovada Picks To Click, as Mike Breen projects Stephen Curry to score over 26.5 points, Mark Jackson calls for under 13.5 three-pointers to be made in the game, and Jeff Van Gundy likes Cleveland with the 2.5 points in the first half. Pepper in sponsorships like this throughout the game (not to mention the cut the league would get from bets through its official gambling partner) and now picture 30 NBA team owners swimming through piles of money, Scrooge McDuck style. Not that they can’t already, just bigger piles now.
A commissioner’s job in 2017 is primarily about making those piles bigger. And really, it was the same when baseball got Kenesaw Mountain Landis to take the reins after the Black Sox, too. Then, it was a crisis in making sure the money wouldn’t go away. Now, it’s about making more money appear. Silver is doing his job, and doing it well, by pushing for something that his league’s customers want and that will move the decimal point to the right on his bosses’ ledgers.