Sometime this month the U.S. Supreme Court is supposed to hear a case that could change a lot about American sports. It’s a challenge to a 1992 Federal law called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which, like many laws in this land, isn’t about what its title suggests. Rather, it deals with sports gambling, and which states can and can't offer it.
The states that can at present are Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon, all of which had passed legislation permitting the practice before the Federal law was enacted. But that list, too, is misleading, because only in Nevada can people bet on sports on a game-by-game basis, in most of the many casinos that operate in the state. Delaware permits only parlay-card betting on professional football, while Montana and Oregon never used their authority to put gambling mechanisms into place.
But then came Chris Christie, New Jersey’s estimable governor, with a proposal to break the ban in his state, and in 2014 the legislature there agreed with an eye toward ginning up some tax revenue and reviving the moribund fortunes of the Atlantic City gambling mecca. It sued to do so on constitutional grounds, and even though the last appellate court to take the action ruled against it the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case during its current session.
A decision should come early next year, and if New Jersey prevails a lot of other states are expected to join it. Eilers & Krejcik Gambling, a firm that tracks state gambling laws, said in a recent report that with a favorable ruling legal sports betting could be offered in as many as 32 states within five years. New York, California and Pennsylvania are among those in which bills to enable this already are being pushed. That’s a big chunk of the country’s population right there.
Now, everyone who’s been paying attention knows that the fact that sports betting is illegal in most parts of the U.S. hasn’t stopped people from doing it—not nearly. Illegal bookmaking and online betting through offshore locations flourish across the country and few people who patronize them feel the least bit guilty about it. I put myself in that category. With all the participants being volunteers, it’s about as close to a victimless crime as you can get.
You also can make a case that having gangsters run the betting has helped keep American sports clean. That’s because the losers in any successful effort to “fix” a game for a betting return would be some faction of Da Mob, and nobody wants to get on the bad side of those guys.
Even if you don’t buy that reasoning it’s impossible to deny that big-time American sports have an extraordinary record of gambling-related cleanliness compared with those of other countries. Since the massive 1951 scandal involving City College of New York and other schools, point-shaving revelations have been few and far between, quite-small affairs involving local bookies and one or a few college basketball or football players at such schools as Boston College (1979), Tulane (1985) Northwestern (1998) or Toledo (2003).
Professional team sports have been cleaner yet in the past 50 years with only the 2007 episode involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy to mar them, and Donaghy insisted to his prison cell that he was in the scheme only as a handicapper, not a fixer. Baseball was hurt by Pete Rose’s heavy involvement with bookies, but he never was accused of dumping a game in which he played or managed. Withal, the prosperity of U.S. pro sports in recent decades is seen as the most-potent insurance against any such action; no likely betting score would be big enough to justify the risk a highly paid player or coach would take to join in pulling one off.
The national betting pool is huge and both a cause and effect of sports’ burgeoning popularity. Just how big it is depends on how you measure it. Say someone bets $100 each (forgetting for now the 10% “vig”) against the point spread on five NFL games one Sunday, and wins with three of them. Would the economic activity come to the $500 he wagers or the $100 in winnings that actually changes hands?
Either way it’s plenty—billions of dollars—and our perennially strapped states would love to get their tax hooks into some of it. Polls I’ve seen show that most people approve of or have no issue with legal sports gambling, and casinos, lotteries or horse or dog tracks already exist in just about every state. Our major professional leagues used to be unanimous in their disapproval of taking Las Vegas-style sports betting national, but Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, now says it’d be okay with him, and Rob Manfred, the baseball guy, seems to agree. The NFL remains on the fence officially, but after endorsing fantasy-football websites, approving a franchise for Las Vegas and producing encyclopedic weekly injury reports for gamblers’ perusal it hardly can be seen as anti. The NCAA sham-ams can be counted upon to say “no” while happily benefiting from the widespread gambling interest their games generate.
A green light for state-by-state sports gambling won’t make it magically spring into existence. In every capitol there will be tugs of war over whether the state will be the bookie or that function will be turned over to casinos or other private interests. If it’s the latter, look for battles over who’ll get the plums and whether ex-illegals can be involved in their operation. Who, after all, has more experience in the “industry” than the people who’ve been running it forever?
Fay Vincent, a former baseball commissioner (1989-92) and a smart guy, has been quoted as saying that betting legalization would be the biggest thing to happen to American sports since the advent of television. I disagree; most of the people who want to bet already are doing it. It’d be big, though, probably in some ways we can’t foresee.