Inside sports business
There were days not long ago when the National Football League feared its players even paying a visit to Las Vegas.
And they weren’t alone. The mere thought of Sin City intersecting with operations of any major sports league sent the billable hours of their public-relations machines spiraling out of control.
Not any more.
The announcement the Oakland Raiders will move to Las Vegas in two years looks to be a major step in eliminating the barriers between pro sports and gambling that have existed nearly a century since baseball’s “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.
At least, that’s how Geoff Freeman sees it. As president of the American Gaming Association, trade representative — aka lobby group — for the nation’s casino industry, he views the Raiders’ move as confirmation of sports betting having gone mainstream.
“I think it speaks to the mainstream nature of the industry and why you’re seeing greater comfort in working more closely with the industry,’’ Freeman said. “Already, in the case of the NFL, you have 28 of the 32 teams within an hour of an existing casino. And so, the omnipresence of the industry has changed the outlook on the industry.’’
And that’s a big deal, especially when you consider Pete Rose remains ineligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame because he bet on games nearly 30 years ago.
The 1992 federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) allows sports gaming only in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. As a result, Freeman says, there is a “thriving” illegal market encompassing 97 percent of the $150 billion his group estimates is bet annually on sports.
Freeman says the “integrity’’ fears that accompany the idea of mixing sports and gambling can be better policed through regulation. The bigger threat, he adds, is an unregulated environment in which illicit entities control the market and are not easily tracked via online data.
He says states in the business of regulating other forms of gambling “have proven to be effective regulators.’’
The NFL isn’t the first league to put a team in Vegas, but definitely the most powerful. The Las Vegas 51s, a Class AAA affiliate of the New York Mets, have been around 34 years in various incarnations after moving from — of all places — Spokane. But the major pro teams didn’t show up until last year, when the NHL awarded the expansion Golden Knights as its 31st franchise — opening play this fall.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver had already raised eyebrows in 2014 when he declared he felt legalized sports betting was inevitable and leagues would benefit from a regulated version of it. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred upped the ante in 2015 by partnering with the daily fantasy sports site DraftKings, whose operations have been likened to gambling.
Through it all, the NFL seemed the lone holdout, even drawing the line at fantasy sports partnerships. Skeptics note the league has for years published weekly injury reports either to — depending on your level of cynicism — encourage gambling around games or discourage the providing of inside information by players.
But the league, even with daily fantasy ads splattered across its television broadcasts in 2015, had drawn a firm line in not partnering with those companies. Now, with an NFL team about to be smack dab in the hub of the nation’s legal gambling universe, the argument for separation between sport and bet becomes tougher.
A poll commissioned by the AGA of 1,334 Seahawks fans over a two-week period in December and January found nearly three times as many favored legalizing sports betting than opposed it.
The Morning Consult poll — with a margin for error of 3 percent — found 48 percent of Seahawks fans favored legalized sports gaming, 17 percent opposed it and 35 percent were undecided or had no opinion.
The AGA has long lobbied for the repeal of PASPA and was joined in October by former NBA commissioner David Stern, who reversed his stance on the issue and sided with successor Silver. A month later, the election of casino magnate Donald Trump as U.S. president further buoyed those arguing PASPA isn’t in step with American views.
The reasons for leagues getting involved are obvious. Even a fraction of the overall sports-gaming pie could help leagues double annual revenues. And Freeman makes no bones about daily fantasy sports paving the way for leagues to partner directly with gaming interests.
“Daily fantasy sports has been and will continue to be a gift for the introduction of regulated sports betting,’’ he said. “People recognize daily fantasy sports for what it is, first of all. But then secondly, it really awoke the leagues, owners, broadcasters and others as to the potential of generating more fan affinity for these games. And that’s been remarkable.
“We know people are engaged in the games. We know they are likely to consume more of the games. We know that people who fill out brackets are more likely to watch the NCAA tournament.’’
So, going from that to leagues actually allowing fans to place bets on their websites isn’t much of a leap. Freeman feels the NFL doing “due diligence” and allowing a team into Las Vegas represents the most reticent of leagues slowly joining the rest.
He calls this a “perfect storm” of politicians, leagues and law enforcement coming together to demand a regulated betting environment and expects PASPA to be repealed during Trump’s first term.
And once that happens, all bets are off as to how far leagues might take it.