For those who attended the Jordan Brand Classic this past weekend in Las Vegas, the constant reminders of the growing influence of sports gambling were difficult to ignore.
On the short walk from a parking garage to T-Mobile Arena, pedestrians came across a sign atop a stairway for directions to a nearby sportsbook. Across The Strip inside the MGM Grand, a banner encouraging fans to place March Madness bets on their phones had yet to be taken down. Inside the arena itself, William Hill and two other gaming operators own signage that is displayed prominently during Vegas Golden Knights games.
Yet gambling on major high school showcase events is strictly prohibited in Nevada, as is placing wagers on virtually all interscholastic contests. The only sports featuring amateur athletes that are legal to bet on are Olympic and collegiate events.
Jordan Brand Classic makes Las Vegas debut
Now in its 18th year, the Jordan Brand Classic has developed a rich history as a showcase event for the nation’s top recruits. Michael Jordan made an appearance at Madison Square Garden in the 2009 renewal when John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins competed in their final contest as high school seniors. The distinguished alumni of the classic is a who’s who of NBA All-Stars highlighted by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis.
By 2020, many of the star high schoolers displaying their talents at T-Mobile could join Durant and others in the world’s top league. A quick perusal of the Rivals 150, a compilation of the top recruits from the Class of 2019, showed eight of the top 10 players in the class participated in the exhibition. While New York previously hosted the game every year dating back to 2005, organizers moved the classic to Las Vegas for the first time.
The nation’s best owned the game at this year’s @JordanClassic. pic.twitter.com/4r2eMr2WUe
— Jordan (@Jumpman23) April 21, 2019
The decision to relocate the game to a jurisdiction with legalized sports gambling invites a set of questions on whether permitting the activity threatens the integrity of high school athletics. Bill Bradley, a two-time NBA champion with the Knicks and a former U.S. senator from New Jersey, raised the issue last June in an interview with The Nation. Without a federal law in place banning sports betting, states will have discretion to allow gaming operators to accept wagers on interscholastic sports, Bradley said.
“You could (potentially) bet on AAU games with 14-year olds,” Bradley told The Nation.
During his tenure in the Senate, Bradley served as the main sponsor of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA). In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn PASPA, Bradley emphasized that he didn’t want athletes to be branded as “roulette chips.”
Top prep stars unaware of new sports gambling landscape
Following last Friday’s practice, four players including co-MVP Cole Anthony, were asked whether there is a place for sports betting in high school sports. For the most part, all four were unfamiliar with the developments regarding the expansion of legalized U.S. sports betting since the Supreme Court’s ruling last May.
Isaiah Stewart, the nation’s fifth-ranked senior by Rivals.com, has signed with the University of Washington for the upcoming season. During a media session Friday, Stewart said he was unaware of recent comments from Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on the salary cap implications of an expanded sports betting marketplace. Wilson, who signed a four-year, $87.6 million extension April 15, believes the legalization of sports gambling in the U.S. will lead to an increase of the NFL salary cap.
The Jordan Brand Classic follows the McDonald’s All-American Game, which was held in Atlanta in March. Sports betting isn’t legal in Georgia, but it could be another amateur sporting event that consumers would want to bet on. Anthony won the 3-point contest there, and also competed in the Slam Dunk Contest. Duke commit Vernon Carey Jr. missed the All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic with an ankle injury, but says he doesn’t have any problem with sportsbooks offering prop wagers on the contests.
“If they want to implement that, then that’s cool,” Carey said, while adding that the props should only be available for college and pro events.
A coach from one of the two staffs at the Jordan Brand Classic declined comment following the game.
Current U.S. laws on wagering on high school sports
Nevada has always had strict prohibitions on sportsbooks with regard to high school sports, but the issue garnered closer attention in 2015 when the state’s gaming control board began allowing sportsbooks to offer lines on the Olympics. In 2001, the Nevada Gaming Commission removed a ban on sportsbooks from accepting bets on college teams based in the state.
22.1205 Prohibited wagers. No wagers may be accepted or paid by any book on:
1. Any amateur sport or athletic event other than Olympic sporting or athletic events and collegiate sporting or athletic events as set out in this Regulation;
2. Any sporting event or other event which the licensee knows or reasonably should know is being placed by, or on behalf of, an official, owner, coach, or staff of a participant or team or participant in that event. Each licensee shall take reasonable steps to prevent the circumvention of this regulation;
3. The outcome of any election for any public office both within and without the State of Nevada; and
Regulation 22, Race Books and Sports Pools Page 11
Other states have followed suit. A provision in New Jersey bill A 4111 prohibits legal gaming operators from accepting bets on high school athletic contests, as well as competitive video games and electronic sports. Last week, New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Executive Director Larry White addressed the topic in a presentation at the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) annual legal meeting.
“Allowing wagering on high school sporting events would absolutely set bad precedent. Calling that decision a slippery slope is an epic understatement,” said Karissa Niehoff executive director at the NFHS. “The NFHS is very concerned that the integrity of high school sports would be damaged by any wagering on interscholastic events.”
White is not aware of any illegal gambling rings in New Jersey devoted specifically to accepting bets on high school basketball.
In Illinois, an amendment to HB 3308, Amendment 5, calls for a specific ban on wagering on youth sports, Representative Mike Zalewski told Sports Handle. While Zalewski supports states’ efforts in monetizing sports betting, he believes states should derive revenues from professional sports where athletes are covered by collective bargaining agreements, employment contracts and insurance policies. Professional sports are a far better recipe to derive a benefit, than high school athletics, he added.
The United Center in Chicago hosted the McDonald’s All-American Game for seven consecutive years through 2017.
Matt Lindeman, manager of trading at Caesars Entertainment, cannot envision a scenario in the near future where the legalization of high school sports betting becomes a serious topic of discussion. As the one-year anniversary of the PASPA ruling nears, Lindeman noted that the demand for betting on high school athletics isn’t high right now, and it won’t be an issue if newly legalized states adopt regulations similar to those of Nevada.
One offshore book, Costa Rica-based 5Dimes Sportsbook offered lines on Texas high school football games as recently as 2016.
“We all draw the line somewhere, and even most bookmakers and gamblers would agree that betting on high school kids is crossing that line,” Lindeman said.
On the other hand, gambling proponents could argue that placing bets on marquee high school sports events should be allowed given that most of the participants are months away from entering the collegiate ranks. Trayce Jackson-Davis and Armando Bacot, two participants in this year’s Jordan Brand Classic, have already turned 19. Former Duke swingman R.J. Barrett, a projected Top 5 NBA Draft pick, will celebrate his 19th birthday in June.
During the 2019 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, Americans wagered an estimated $8.5 billion on March Madness, according to research from the American Gaming Association. Barrett, a United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) first-team All-American, averaged 22.9 points per game in the regular season.
Nevertheless, Zalewski believes that allowing gaming operators to offer bets on high school action on a regular basis could be a tough sell to his constituents.
“High school kids are young, especially in the world of high school athletics, I just worry about the perception of these kids playing games where adults are wagering on the outcomes,” Zalewski said.