The big news coming out of New Jersey last week was that Governor Chris Christie signed Senate Bill 2460 quickly after it had passed overwhelmingly in both the State Senate and General Assembly. The bill lifts the ban on sports betting in the state, which has been in place since 1992 when the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) was made law. PASPA prohibited sports betting in all states except Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana. Coming as no surprise, the major professional sports leagues – the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and National Hockey League (NHL) – along with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have filed a motion in U.S. District Court, seeking a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order to halt the start of a sports wagering regime in the Garden State.
New Jersey and the leagues have been at odds for several years. In 2011, a similar repeal of the sports betting ban passed by referendum in the state and was signed into law by Governor Christie in 2012. The sports leagues sued, claiming it violated PASPA, and Judge Michael Shipp, the same judge that will make a ruling on the restraining order and injunction, ruled in their favor.
The newly signed law gets around the PASPA ban by simply not actually instituting a regulatory and licensing regime. Essentially, it just tells entities currently licensed to offer gambling, casinos and racetracks, that they can offer sports wagering, but the state won’t actually get involved.
But why would the sports leagues care if the law violates PASPA? They claim, and have for as long as anyone can remember, that sports betting can and does damage the integrity of the games. Basically, they want us to believe that even the perceived threat that a player could be paid to influence the outcome of the game for a sports bettor would make fans not trust that the games were true contests of skill. Without that so-called integrity, the leagues would lose fans, sponsors, and money.
The problem with that argument, though, is that it is simply not valid. The leagues have never, as far as I know, shown that legalized sports betting hurts their games. Sure, there have been incidents of point shaving and various other crooked things that have happened as a result of gambling, but they are few and far between, don’t usually have a significant effect on the games, and there is no evidence that they are the result of legal sports betting. Put it this way: if some gambler is intent on getting a player in his pocket, it is unlikely to make a difference whether sports betting is technically legal or not. Additionally, sports betting is legal in many countries in Europe and there haven’t been any widespread problems.
As ESPN’s Darren Rovell said on tonight’s early edition of Sportscenter, it would be very difficult for a sports bettor to convince a professional athlete to fix a game for him (college athletics is a different animal). Professional athletes make so much money that even the largest sports bets wouldn’t move the needle. Even players who don’t make ungodly sums but could still influence a game, say an NFL kicker or a quarterback on his rookie contract like Russell Wilson, would need to have their worlds rocked by a payoff because they would be risking their careers and future earnings by getting in bed with gamblers.
Beyond that, the leagues are extremely hypocritical in their opposition to sports betting and it is confusing as to why. While I cannot proclaim to have any statistics to back this up, as a sports fan my entire life, I can easily say that the leagues benefit significantly from gambling. A huge chunk of sports fans maintain interest in sports because of they have some money on the game. I’m not a regular sports bettor myself, but I can certainly attest to being much more interested in games not involving my teams when I have had a few bucks on them. And without fantasy sports (yes, if people play fantasy sports for money, it’s gambling), how much money would these leagues lose? Plenty of people sign up for DirecTV for the NFL package just so they can follow their fantasy players. And guess what? Fantasy sports are legal.
It was even announced this week that the New England Patriots NFL franchise and the New Jersey Devils NHL team have signed partnership deals with two fantasy sports sites, DraftKings and HotBox Sports, respectively.
While the opposition from the leagues is nothing new, I am a bit surprised that the NBA is involved. In early September, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told an audience at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit, “It’s inevitable that, if all these states are broke, that there will be legalized sports betting in more states than Nevada. We will ultimately participate in that.”
Reinforcing the point I was trying to make above, he added, “If you have a gentleman’s bet or a small wager on any kind of sports contest, it makes you that much more engaged in it,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to see it pay dividends. If people are watching a game and clicking to bet on their smartphones, which is what people are doing in the United Kingdom right now, then it’s much more likely you’re going to stay tuned for a long time.”