Gambling laws and regulations in the United States have given the major sports leagues the power since 1992 (via the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or PASPA) to block states’ efforts to legalize sports betting like former Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon during the same era. That is to say: completely and ruthlessly.
Despite softened language in more recent years with to respect betting laws and regulation, the major leagues still publicly oppose sports betting, or at least they do so in the courts. Indeed, the NCAA, NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB are all plaintiffs in the blockbuster lawsuit against New Jersey, headed to a Supreme Court near you this Fall. Thus, they remain opponents and will fervently argue the same hypocritical points against legalized sports betting that they have for decades.
Behind the scenes, the leagues want to make sure that have a stake in profits to be had (as they did with respect to daily fantasy sports) if and when New Jersey prevails in court, or if Congress acts to end the federal ban. For now, here is what the leagues and its commissioners have actually said or done with respect to sports betting:
The NCAA and president Mark Emmert
After the NCAA and co-plaintiffs prevailed in its case against New Jersey in August 2015 (the same case that is headed to the Supreme Court for review):
“We are pleased that the Third Circuit agreed that New Jersey’s newest attempt to legalize sports wagering violates federal law” said the NCAA’s chief legal officer Donald Remy. “The NCAA maintains that the spread of legalized sports wagering is a threat to student-athlete well-being and the integrity of athletic competition.”
The NCAA has also banned any on-air advertising during its championship events by DraftKings or FanDuel. Similarly, for a long time the NCAA has refused to host tournament games in states where sports betting is legal or legalized in some form (Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey after another effort to legalize, and in Oregon until 2007 when it eliminated its legal but narrow sports betting contest).
But the NCAA now appears to be reconsidering that ban, or at least entertaining some modification. Asked if Las Vegas might be considered as a site for the NCAA basketball tournament, NCAA president Mark Emmert said in June 2017:
“The board has been having active discussions about that issue. They have not changed the policy yet. And they won’t be able to do so for this round of bidding. And I’ve communicated this to some of the leadership in Las Vegas. They will not be eligible for this round. Whether or not the board changes its mind before the next round, I can’t say. Obviously there’s a lot of collegiate athletic events going on in Nevada, both regular season and tournament events. And the board’s acutely aware of that, and they’ll be considering it.”
The National Football League and Commissioner Roger Goodell
Goodell inherited a strict league stance that argues the integrity of the sport be protected from every possible angle. In 1992 the NFL had several other national sports leagues standing in solidarity and they made substantial input when PASPA was enacted. During congressional hearings prior to PASPA’s enactment in 1992, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (who Goodell succeeded in 2007), testified:
“Sports gambling threatens the character of team sports. Our games embody our very finest traditions and values. They stand for clean, healthy competition. They stand for teamwork. And they stand for success through preparation and honest effort. With legalized sports gambling, our games instead will come to represent the fast buck, the quick fix, the desire to get something for nothing. The spread of legalized sports gambling would change forever—and for the worse—what our games stand for and the way they are perceived.”
The basis for the NFL’s argument against legal online wagers has never changed, the NFL is opposed on the grounds that game fixing would irreparably shatter the integrity of the sport.
“It’s a very strongly held view in the NFL, it has been for decades that the threat that gambling could occur in the NFL or fixing of games or that any outcome could be influenced by the outside could be very damaging to the NFL and very difficult to ever recover from” Goodell said in 2012. That’s why we take the positions that we do with our policies and education and make sure that people understand that we’ll enforce it vigorously.”
Goodell has repeatedly maintained his stance without any mention of forward-thinking in the event PASPA is overturned. Even as he watches other commissioners shift, and prepare to collaborate, he has remained quiet about any discussions the NFL might be having behind closed doors.
“We are not changing our position as it relates to legalized sports gambling,” Goodell told Peter King of the MMQB.com in March 2017 around the time the owners voted in favor of the Raiders’ relocation to Las Vegas. “We still don’t think [legalized sports gambling] is a positive thing. We want to make sure that the integrity of our game is the primary concern and we do everything possible to protect that. And that people are watching it for the outcome, and they know that it is not being influenced by any outside influences. We are very determined to continue that, and we will; that’s a first priority for us.”
At the same time, Goodell has attempted to avoid having the NFL appear hypocritical for moving a team to the sports betting capital of the U.S.:
“I think also you have to realize the changes that are evolving in society on gambling. Second: I think Las Vegas has evolved as a city. It’s not just a singular industry. While it is still dominated by [the gambling industry], there is a lot of entertainment going there, including political conventions. Our leaders in government are all going there. You see it a lot of different ways where this city has become much more diverse as far as the industry and the events it is attracting. It is really an entertainment city now, much more broadly than it would have been thought even a decade ago, much less two or three decades ago. In our analysis, we’ve been able to look at Vegas and it is actually one of the fastest growing cities in the country. We project by 2037 that it will be the same size as Oakland. It isn’t now, but it is continuing to grow rapidly.”
Major League Baseball and Commissioner Rob Manfred
A Harvard Law School graduate and former CEO of Major League Baseball until he succeeded Bud Selig in January 2015, Manfred sees the writing on the wall and appears to be positioning baseball for the eventuality of legal, regulated sports betting.
“Sports gambling has changed a lot. The old vision of betting illegally with a bookie somewhere is not today’s world,” Manfred said in April 2017. “And, we’ve begun a conversation, educating people about what’s out there, what sports leagues in other countries have done, in an effort to make sure that Major League Baseball’s ready to join in what I think is going to be a dialogue about how sports gambling regulation in the United States should be changed.”
Commissioner Manfred has publicly spoken about the MLB changing its direction to include support for legal sports betting. Manfred was onboard with fantasy sports legalization given his interpretation of the current laws. In the event that PASPA is overturned, his intention is for baseball to be ready to integrate any changes that might be needed.
“If there’s going to be a change in the regulatory structure with respects to sports gambling, we needed to be in a position to meaningfully engage and shape, try to shape what the new regulatory scheme looks like” he said in June 2017.
He sees the benefit to being part of regulatory discussions and has ongoing interest in being prepared should the fans finally get what they want. Manfred’s hesitation is with regard to legal implementation more than opposition to betting in general. He and MLB are also still parsing out their positions on single-game wagering, proposition bets and in-game wagering. Manfred said at the July 2017 conference “GameChangers: Creating the Future of Sports”:
“As a source of engagement, betting is really on more discreet activities. The growth area is on more discreet activities in a game. Is the next pitch a ball or a strike?” Those are the sorts of bets that are going on.” There’s a continuum that you have to think hard about.” “Daily fantasy, right, where we thought that, we were pretty comfortable with the fact that it was a game of skill and therefore legal and that’s why we became involved in daily fantasy, but obviously you know a source of fan engagement. And then, you get into actual sports betting and it seems to me that there’s a difference between somebody betting on whether the next pitch is gonna be a ball or a strike, which is very hard for anybody to affect or control, as opposed to the outcome of game which is a little different.”
Meanwhile, former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, who was in office when the league banned Pete Rose in 1989 fro betting on baseball, told ESPN the following in July:
“In those days, we were very adamant against betting, because we had just been dealt and were dealing with the Pete Rose case. We saw the risks and the danger of corruption, and we saw that the mafia was involved in some of the things we investigated. It’s dangerous, and it’s still dangerous. But I think the American public wants to bet, and it’s already betting.”
The National Basketball Association and Commissioner Adam Silver
Taking over for David Stern in 2014, Silver has become perhaps the most outspoken proponent of legal sports betting the gambling industry has, and he’s in favor of it for the NBA’s benefit. Silver sees more fan engagement as a positive for the league owners, players and fans since more engagement translates to more revenue.
“[Sports wagering] results in enormous additional engagement and fans” he said in July 2017. “Here there’s a completely different independent reason to continue watching. My sense is that the law will change in the next two years in the United States. 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.”
Commissioner Silver believes it’s possible to effectively license and regulate betting as well as keep checks in place to prevent game fixing or other nefarious intrusions on the sport. He articulated such in 2014 in an op-ed appearing in the New York Times:
“[T]he laws on sports betting should be changed. Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards.
“These requirements would include: mandatory monitoring and reporting of unusual betting-line movements; a licensing protocol to ensure betting operators are legitimate; minimum-age verification measures; geo-blocking technology to ensure betting is available only where it is legal; mechanisms to identify and exclude people with gambling problems; and education about responsible gaming.”
National Hockey League and Commissioner Gary Bettman
Commissioner Bettman’s stance against legal sports betting has diminished in recent years. Some of his recent comments show a further softening of the league’s concern over their sport’s image and fan experience. While most arguments for or against legal online betting focus on either regulation, integrity or game-fixing, Bettman has his own lane that focuses on how the NHL might look to children if betting on game outcomes is commonplace.
Bettman seems to be considering change because hockey fans have some say in how they enjoy games, but he is fairly new to the discussion. His opinions are evolving as he appears to be realizing the old guard is losing power.
“We’re competing for leisure time and leisure dollars” Bettman said in July 2017. “I don’t worry about fixing games, I don’t worry about anything other than from our standpoint, what does it do to the way young people consume sports? Do they look at it as a vehicle for healthy competition with role models or do they look at it as a device to make or lose money on a bet? And secondly what does it do to the environment… in a stadium or an arena if everybody’s sitting there just worrying about their bets? Does it turn us into something other than what we’ve been?”
Major League Soccer and Commissioner Don Garber
Commissioner Garber has gone from reluctant to engaged in the fight for legal online gambling on sports. By publicly aligning with NBA’s Commissioner Adam Silver this year Garber is actively encouraging strategy discussions in the MLS management. Now that his league has turned toward the inevitable future he is eager to transition successfully, lest MLS get left behind. Garber said in March 2017:
“We have a project going on now to really dig in deeply and understand it. I’ll be the third commissioner (along with NBA’s Adam Silver and MLB’s Rob Manfred) in and say I’m very open to understanding how we can get more engaged in this market in a way that I think if done properly, can be regulated and managed and controlled. I’ll join the chorus of saying it’s time to bring it out of the dark ages. We’re doing what we can to figure out how to manage that effectively.”
Finally, a word from the President of the United States
We’ll end with a remark from U.S. President Donald Trump, hotel and casino magnate and also the former owner of the New Jersey Generals of the now-defunct United States Football League. Here’s the President on sports betting and daily fantasy games:
“I’m OK with it because it’s happening anyway,” Trump told FOX Sports in November 2015. “Whether you have it or you don’t have it, you have it.”
Say what you want about Trump, but he’s right on that one. The commissioners appear to be coming to terms with the reality Trump has identified.