With college football season just around the corner and a dozen more states with legal sports betting this season than last, the topic came up across the country over the last two weeks as the Power 5 Conferences held their media days. On balance, the country’s most powerful college football conferences continue to lobby for a federal framework, while also pushing to prohibit betting on college sports altogether.
Four of the five commissioners addressed sports betting in their media-day remarks — Larry Scott of the Pac-12 was the only commissioner not to discuss it. That said, the Pac-12 did announce that it will play its conference football championship at the Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas, and earlier this year agreed to participate in the Las Vegas Bowl against a Mountain West opponent. The conference already holds its basketball tournament in Las Vegas — and not a single Pac-12 team is based in Las Vegas.
Of those who did discuss sports betting, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey pointed to a link between sports betting and mental health issues while Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby focused more on the logistics of weekly “participation reports,” that have been discussed among NCAA schools. The reports would be similar to NFL injury reports, which can provide would-be bettors with meaningful insight ahead of a game.
Below is a look at what each of the commissioners had to say about sports betting.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey
Sankey discussed sports betting as part of his comments during the SEC Media Days, July 15-18 in Birmingham. Sankey’s key concern is the relationship between sports betting and mental health:
We’re seeing trends in the mental health area that should cause us all to pause before these ideas around specific event betting within college sports are allowed to take place. And I’m talking about, for example, whether a field goal is made or missed, whether a 3-point try is successful. Is a pitched ball a strike or a ball?
That pause should happen before any of these types of activities take place.
The perspectives on mental health represent not a ripple of change, but a wave of new reality, which faces all of us in intercollegiate athletics and higher education.
Sankey was also clear in saying that those at the top of the SEC favor a federal framework and the prohibition of prop bets on college sports — though in Sankey’s ideal world, there would be no proposition betting on college spots.
The SEC presidents and chancellors have expressed strong support for NCAA national office efforts to seek federal legislation that will regulate sports gambling,” Sankey said. “Ideally, there would be uniformed practices applicable across states throughout the country governing gambling on college sports, particularly eliminating specific in-game betting and proposition bets on college sports.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby
— Heartland College Sports (@Heartland_CS) July 15, 2019
During the Big 12 Media Day on July 15 in Arlington, Texas, Bowlsby didn’t address sports betting in his remarks, but did touch on it when a reporter asked about the possibility of the NCAA mandating participation reports (emphasis added):
Well, it’s hard to say how far down the road it is. We have had conversations with our coaches and we have had conversations with our athletic directors. Frankly, I don’t know that we want to do anything that encourages gambling, not that that necessarily does. But the replicating what the NFL does with 32 teams is very different than replicating it across 700 schools that play football or 200 that play in Division I. I could make a case for doing an announcement. I couldn’t make a case for a head coach being out in front of it and having to deal with it two days before the game or a day before the game.
Obviously any situation like that needs to have credibility to it. I don’t think we’re going to FERPA regulations and HIPAA regulations would not allow us to be specific about injuries, but availability reporting, the ACC has been doing availability reporting in the past. They’re not doing it right now, but they have in the past. I think theirs was a three-tiered available possible, and not available, something along those lines. The case for doing it is really a protectionist case, for lack of a better term. There will be lots of people around who are talking to assistant trainers or kids on the football team or friends in the dorm or others that may think have information.
And he notes a potential benefit of mandating injury reporting:
A mandatory reporting would eliminate people skulking around trying to find a leak that could give them inside information, so there could be a case made for it. I would say our coaches aren’t wildly enthusiastic about it but if they got forced into it, I think they would say we use a three-tier approach, we do a media relations after practice on Thursday or something like that and then everybody has to agree that you’re going to stick to it. You can’t say that they’re out and they show up playing on Saturday. I could capably argue on either side of the issue and as more and more states adopt gambling policies we’re going to have to deal with it.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany
Delany spoke at his final Big Ten Media Day on July 18 — he’s resigned and will be replaced by Kevin Warren on Jan. 1, 2020. In 2018, Delany introduced the idea of a college injury report similar to the one that the NFL uses, as well as saying that he would support a college sports carve-out and a federal framework. But this time around, he fielded only a single question about creating injury reports and never used the phrase “sports betting” in his address.
It doesn’t look like that’s (creating a college injury report) going to get done. The NCAA picked up on it, studied it, and at the end of the day, for a variety of reasons — and you can ask them what those reasons are — I pushed it pretty hard. Publicly I pushed it pretty hard. Internally I worked with the groups that were studying it, but for their own reasons they have decided not to do that.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford
At the ACC Media Day in Charlotte on July 17, Swofford gave a long answer to a question about how the conference would handle sports betting as broadcast partner ESPN has been rolling out sports betting-related content. The league is poised to launch its own network on August 22. In Swofford’s perfect world, college sports would be carved out of sports betting legislation and he favors a federal framework.
It wasn’t the first time Swofford discussed sports betting.
— Sports Business Journal (@sbjsbd) December 5, 2018
In answer to a media-day question about sports betting, Swofford covered a lot of ground:
Quite frankly, our presidents would like to see a carve-out for college athletics, so that college athletics could not be gambled on, as well as high school athletics. So that effort continues. We’ll see how that works out.
Obviously with ESPN or anybody else we’re partnering with, we want space between gambling and our games, so we do have those discussions. We will have conversations ongoing about that.
But the laws are changing. I would hope that at some point, at the federal level, there’s some consistency brought to how this is done state to state, if it indeed is going to happen in a particular state.
Obviously the states make that decision right now. I think there’s, what, seven or so that have gotten there to this point. I’m sure there will be a lot more. So it’s something we’re going to have to learn how to navigate.
Obviously gambling has been there illegally. We’re well aware of that. A lot of it. Now it’s legal, and we have to figure out, I think, how that changes things in terms of how our athletes perceive it, the pressure that it puts on our athletes, the pressure it puts on people that are around our programs.
It’s pretty compelling conversation in the spring at our spring meetings with the athletes we had in that were representing that. They’re very uncomfortable with the position it can put them in with their fellow students, how they might be perceived walking into a classroom, and another student mad because they did something that cost them some money.
What does it mean now that something is legal, if it is legal in your state? Does that change the mentality with students and with young people that, hey, this is okay, there’s nothing wrong with it, and with our athletes?
There’s a learning curve there for us to figure out what we need to be doing. But we also haven’t given up on protecting the collegiate game. I wouldn’t handicap that. I’ll use that term as to where that may end up. But we haven’t given up on that. We’re also pushing hard for some federal legislation that would bring some consistency from state to state as to how it’s done.
In our league, we have 10 states. They could all go about things a little bit differently, which would complicate some of the things we would be trying to do.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott
The only commissioner of a Power-5 conference to not directly address sports betting either in his opening remarks or during a question-and-answer period during Pac-12 Media Day July 24 in Los Angeles, Scott did announce that the conference will move its football championship game to the NFL Raiders new stadium in Las Vegas. Scott has touched on sports betting in the past, most recently when the conference agreed to participate in the Las Vegas Bowl against a Mountain West opponent.
Good roundtable discussion with Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott, who touched on the @LasVegasBowl, bringing NCAA regional events to Las Vegas and the stigma of sports betting infiltrating college athletics no longer being a concern. pic.twitter.com/UIlq1dPH1f
— W.G. Ramirez (@WillieGRamirez) March 11, 2019
On Wednesday, Scott did answer questions about two other hot-button issues: pay-for-play scenarios, and the legalization of marijuana in states in which the Pac-12 plays.
On paying college athletes to play:
So, we are very clearly opposed to any type of pay-for-play system. Notably, the federal courts in the Ninth Circuit have also weighed in now on multiple occasions to say they do not support any system for compensation for student-athletes that’s not tethered to education. I think we’d be opposed to the type of system you described, and it would certainly be a violation of NCAA rules. Having said that, the NCAA is about to start exploration whether there is a possible system to look at name, image and likeness value for student-athletes that is tethered to education that is not pay for play, and we’ll see where that process goes. In fact, one of our athletics directors, Rick George from Colorado, is on the committee. I think he’s flying there today to start that conversation. So we support that conversation, but anything that looks like pay for play or compensation to student-athletes that’s not related to their education is something that would run counter to the fundamental nature of collegiate athletics and amateur student-athletes.
On the legalization of marijuana in 75 percent of the Pac-12 states:
One of the great things about the Pac-12 Conference is the diversity in many respects, and that includes the states that we play in and the types of schools and the environments that we’re in. But our approach at the conference level has really been to defer to each of our universities in their states. We do not have a unified position across the board given the diversity of state laws on that topic and our own campuses’ approaches to those things. So it’s really left campus-by-campus, state-by-state basis. There’s not a conference policy around that.