In response to a salvo about the “integrity fee” from a New Jersey senator on Wednesday, the NBA and MLB (the “Leagues”) made it clear that they will not quietly give up the fight for a percentage of all legal sports wagers to come in the United States. In so doing, the Leagues will continue to keep front and center the notion that their games are now ripe for manipulation, fixing and abuse in this new era.
Why is risk the main message in this time of “opportunity,” as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has called it? NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sees “fan engagement” as the “big upside in this” and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred deems it “a fan engagement opportunity.” And Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes the Supreme Court decision has “doubled the value” of every major professional franchise.
Manfred also calls legal sports wagering a “huge integrity risk,” and that’s the main thrust of the Leagues’ public proclamations in the mainstream media, and the same point the League lobbyists have hammered in statehouses across the country. Risk, risk, rinse, repeat.
Why Is This So Absurd?
Silver expressed his support in 2014 for legal sports betting, citing the mammoth — and unmonitored — illegal U.S. betting market, sizing it at approximately $400 billion in annual illegal wagers.
“I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated,” Silver wrote in a 2014 New York Times op-ed.
Silver did not say that the advent of legal wagering will present a Great Big New Risk that will require sovereign states or their licensed operators to contribute a 1 percent cut off the top of all wagers, payable to the leagues. He saved that for later.
Thus the fiscal and engagement opportunities, as well as the opportunity to protect their games through legal channels as Silver notes, is not enough. The Leagues want more — that “integrity fee” or a ”betting right and integrity fee,” as Bryan Seeley, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Investigations, Compliance and Security, prefers it to be known. To get there, the Leagues have resorted to scare tactics and bullying.
What Will the Average Fan Who Doesn’t Give a Damn About Sports Betting Make of This?
Taking the Leagues at their word, fans ought now to be worried about manipulation, fixing and abuse. Every day. At all times! The leagues are centering the conversation on “integrity” — suggesting that players or umpires, now all of a sudden, will be targets for manipulation.
Are the Leagues suggesting they lack the ability to manage or enforce the same wagering prohibitions that already exist? Silver wanted to take wagering into the “sunlight,” yet sportsbooks operating legally in the sunlight are somehow a greater threat warranting state subsidies?
The Leagues will now have at their disposal regulators in every state that implements legal sports betting. They will have a network of sportsbook directors monitoring betting activity. There will be increased awareness of sports wagering. Each sportsbook will likely have names of everyone associated with teams available to them. Everyone in every league is already prohibited from betting on sports. And by the way, League officials and the NCAA already work with Nevada regulators and bookmakers in these efforts. Operators are partners, not monsters for leagues to siphon money from.
Thing is, everyone loses if there’s any abuse, fixing, or manipulation. It’s bad for sportsbooks and casinos. Bad for the Leagues and obviously the fans. Bad for a player who might get away with it and then get caught. All parties should and will work to ensure that no player — earning at a minimum $465,000 among the major pro leagues– gets mixed up in a bad situation.
The threat of fixing has existed forever. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch inexplicably contended this week that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) was a roaring success. That is wholly false, which is why Silver called for legalization and regulation of $400 billion in illegal wagers in the first place. And never mind that Justice Samuel Alito said of PASPA: “a more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.”
Off the top of your head, can you think of a single known, reported incident of game fixing, point shaving or abuse in MLB or NBA past 20 years? The only one I can recall is owed to disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy — whose crooked information partnership flowed through illegal channels, outside the purview of any licensed sportsbook that may have detected and reported his activity.
But the Leagues speak of a pernicious new threat, while the NBA (Summer League), NHL, NCAA and the NFL already do or will soon play games in Las Vegas, and now MLB games like the NFL are headed to London where there’s a sportsbook within walking distance all over.
Seeley told The Athletic this week that MLB will need to “hire more investigators to look into suspicious activity and spend more on education and training of players, umpires and staff.” Yet, “Some of that fee is designed to cover our costs that I talked about. But we acknowledge that the fee is going to be more than our costs, so that revenue would go to our clubs just like any other revenue would.”
The driving force here is a phony grab for a legally baseless intellectual property fee. But the Leagues are preferring to emphasize the risk — pointing to a new threat to sports.
They’re telling the fans to watch out. To watch every play with risk in mind. Gleyber Torres boots a routine grounder? Hmm.
The Leagues are telling fans store away the notion that now, all of a sudden we’re maybe watching players throw a game to pocket some cash on the side, with co-conspirators aiming to accomplish a fix through legal sportsbooks.
But the actual risk here is focusing on the idea that the games are now under attack, and that everyone may be a suspect.
The Leagues’ thirst for a direct cut of the action has triumphed over all. The bottom line is always top of mind.