Sports betting is the black sheep of the gambling family in the United States. For decades, the activity has held the reputation as that dirty thing people do with shifty bookies in back alleys and questionable betting sites hosted overseas. Poker, casino gambling and fantasy sports have managed to achieve legal status in dozens of states, but sports betting continues to struggle for acceptance.
Not surprisingly, a part of the problem is image. Sports betting has had a hard time legitimizing itself as an activity that normal, law-abiding citizens could ever find interesting. This is ever-so-slowly changing. Nowadays, ESPN and mainstream news sources refer to the Vegas line and point spread of major events. This is something you would have never seen a few years ago.
Another major part of the problem is federal law. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (a.k.a. PASPA a.k.a. the “Bradley Act”) outlaws sports betting at the federal level. This piece of legislation makes it illegal for any state to legalize sports, with exceptions for Las Vegas and sports lotteries in three states.
A Change in the Wind
Ever so slowly, things are changing. The major professional sports leagues have been opposed to sports betting for years, but even that may be changing. The NBA’s Adam Silver made waves in 2014 when he voiced his support of legalization. Since then, other big names have come forward in support of giving states the option to regulate sports betting.
New Jersey is currently embroiled in a fight to allow local racetracks and casinos to accept sports wagers in a push backed by Governor Christie. That legal battle is ongoing to this day as New Jersey attempts to circumvent PASPA by not directly endorsing sports betting.
More recently, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reiterated his pro-betting stance. He is now being backed by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. Some of this newfound support can be attributed to the NBA’s decision to purchase an equity stake one DFS site earlier this year.
Update: Coincidentally, the day after I published this post, I realized that another industry leader has already voiced his support of a “conversation” about legalization. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in February that it would be important for him and the owners to sit down and reconsider the league’s position.
ESPN quoted him as saying:
“Gambling in terms of our society has changed its presence on legalization, and I think it’s important for there to be a conversation between me and the owners about what our institutional position will be.”
The rise of legal fantasy sports in the United States has clearly caught the attention of more than a few leagues. Sports leagues are finally starting to see the benefits derived from fans who have a financial interest in games. It basically comes down to this: if you have a fantasy team that consists of players from multiple teams, you’re more likely to watch more games that you wouldn’t have watched otherwise.
Sports gambling is a long ways off from achieving legalization in the United States, but there has been a marked increase in public figures pushing for legalizing, regulating and taxing the activity. This isn’t limited just to industry insiders and fans.
Increasing numbers of politicians are coming around to see the light as well. To them, sports betting represents a massive, untapped reservoir of tax revenue. Christ Christie has already mentioned the tax benefits of legalization. Last month in Minnesota, State Representative Phyllis Kahn introduced a bill to legalize and regulate sports betting.
Of course, opposition groups remain as opposed as ever. Most professional sports leagues remain officially opposed to sports betting, anti-gambling groups are fighting to kill all forms of gambling and deep-pocket donors like Sheldon Adelson continue to pull every string they can to gain back every bit of ground lost to pro-gambling interests. Legalization is far from inevitable.
Sports betting still has a long, uphill battle before it can achieve the same status in the United States that it enjoys in the UK, but the tide is slowly changing. Just the fact that public officials are willing to even whisper the suggestion is a big step forward.