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At Least One Pro Sports League Is Being Halfway Honest About Sports Gambling

The NBA just wants a taste.

It’s only January, but it will be hard, from a spelling out the obvious standpoint, to top The Washington Post’s headline on Thursday morning, “If sports gambling is legalized, the NBA wants in on the profits.”

The NBA is not stupid. Of all the major professional sports leagues, Adam Silver’s has been the most open about embracing the possibility of a future in which wagering on sports is legal, with visions of just this kind of proposal: using gambling as a revenue stream. That said, the NBA’s logic in this particular story is utterly assailable.

Dan Spillane, the NBA’s senior vice president and assistant general counsel, outlined a plan to the New York State Senate’s Racing, Gaming, and Wagering Committee in which the league would get a 1% cut of any bets made on its product. The rationale is that “without our games and fans, there could be no sports betting. And if sports betting becomes legal in New York and other states, sports leagues will need to invest more in compliance and enforcement, including bet monitoring, investigations, and education.”

That’s one way to look at it, certainly. Another way is that people already find ways to bet on sports, and if sports didn’t exist, the people who bet on sports would gamble in other ways, like putting their money in the stock market. The NBA’s argument also doesn’t hold up with other forms of gambling: Bob’s Roulette Wheel Mfg. Co. doesn’t get a cut every time they spin 17 at Caesars.

When it comes to the legality of betting on sports “in New York and other states,” well, Nevada is a state – and now, thanks to the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, one with major professional sports that people bet on, and the world hasn’t ended as a result. There also is legal betting on pro football in Delaware, an easy drive from the NFL markets of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. While that’s not extensive, it’s also not as if people don’t do plenty of sports betting that’s either illegal or simply independent of bookmakers, which is legal.

There also is offshore betting, and with the NBA being a global league with global players, it’s not as if “compliance and enforcement, including bet monitoring, investigations, and education” are a non-issue now. Also, have we all forgotten about Tim Donaghy, the ex-referee who went to prison in a gambling scandal? If we did forget about him, we shouldn’t have, because he was back in the news last month, getting arrested for threatening a man with a hammer.

The NBA knows all of this, surely, but also knows that it doesn’t hurt to ask – and it certainly is a good idea to open negotiations by asking for more than you expect to get. Because that’s what this really is now, a negotiation. Legal gambling is going to spread wider, whether in New York or elsewhere, because there is money to be made, and there’s only so long that untapped revenue streams can last in America.

Eventually, it means either NBA teams or the league itself having sponsorship deals with preferred bookmaking companies, just as is the case in European soccer, where gambling houses’ logos often appear on team jerseys, and betting kiosks are set up in stadiums. Why wouldn’t American sports want a piece of that? Because, 99 years ago, the White Sox threw the World Series? Even then, the problem was that the gamblers were operating outside the law – maybe with good regulation, the Black Sox scandal never happens. The NBA didn’t even exist then, and while there have been point-shaving scandals in basketball, it’s not like the risk would figure to increase in a world where betting on sports is legal. If anything, having a regulated, legal system with the monitoring, investigations, and education talked about by the league would act as a hedge against that. But the main thing that the NBA sees is money to be made, and by golly, they’re not going to pass up a chance to try to make as much as they can.



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