Pros sports teams like NHL and NBA thinking Las Vegas

Jul 2, 2013 3:09 AM

Will professional sports leagues eventually relax enough to co-exist with fans and lawmakers who favor expanded legal sports wagering?

There’s already a lot of illegal wagering going on, more than $380 billion a year according to widely used conservative estimates. These are just guesses. Only the $3.45 billion bet in Nevada last year and Delaware’s parlay card revenue can be accurately counted down to the last penny.

I aimed my question at Las Vegas attorney Greg Gemignani of Lionel Sawyer & Collins. He has spent a lot of time close to wagering-related issues and did not hesitate before giving me his response.

“Sure,” he said, going on to suggest the NHL and NBA appear to be the two most likely to eventually take the first steps toward a little chilling out.

“The National Hockey League has had, what, a couple of lockouts in the last five years? It’s not a league that is flush with money.”

Thinking about that for a moment he added, “Some people see opportunity where others see a problem.”

But the process of change is at work.

There is already an effort underway to legalize sports betting across Canada. As for the National Basketball Association, Commissioner David Stern, Gemignani reminded me, has already said the time is near when the league will have to take another look at its anti-sports betting stance, whatever that might mean.

But the signs of evolving attitudes are visible, attitudes that could lead to the creation of new opportunities. How big might the opportunities for new revenue creation be?

“All the best guesses usually end up being pretty conservative whenever we have the chance to compare them with even a little bit of reality,” Gemignani said.

I remember a Gaming Commission meeting in Carson City some years ago when Stern showed up to argue the NBA’s position that sports betting on the teams playing a couple NBA games in Las Vegas that year could not be tolerated. Stern was an assistant something-or-other that year and the regulators, hungry for big time sports action – something other than boxing – bought his argument and wagering on the games was suspended.

But commercial gaming has spread across the U.S. over the last 25-30 years. The competition for discretionary spending is increasing to what is now a fierce level.

Fact: thoughtfully regulated gaming-related businesses continue to work their way into the social and economic fabric of American life.

This is the kind of process that eventually tips the scales toward acceptance and further change.

It’s just a matter of time. How much time? Hard to say…months, a few years, 10 years, but the process of change is eating away at old prejudices and opening doors to opportunities.

There’s good reason to believe expanded sports wagering will be among them even though the public statements of league spokesmen and lawyers do not offer hope.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s continuing aggressive effort to bring sports books to Atlantic City casinos has turned up the heat under this issue and captured the attention of lawmakers in other states who would like to their own share of the opportunity Christie wants for New Jersey.

The New Jersey challenge to the existing ban on sports wagering for most states reached a federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia last week where some of the let’s-keep-the-status-quo arguments of the sports leagues seemed to have an Alice in Wonderland feel.

Paul Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general who argued for the NFL actually said, “They’re our games and we have a legitimate interest in controlling whether they’re sporting events and not gambling events. ”I think the train long ago left the station on that issue. They are both. The $98.9 million wagered in Nevada books on this year’s Super Bowl alone makes for a pretty convincing statement.

Sports fans like to gamble.

It was the late super host Dan Chandler who once explained the nuts and bolts of this emotional equation to me. “Watching a game without the chance to bet is like French fries without ketchup.”

It may be weeks before the Third District panel issues a decision, but whatever that ruling says it will not be the last word. The loser will head for the U.S. Supreme Court, which has the option of deciding without explanation whether it wants to deal with the issue.

Before that moment arrives there will be countless more news and feature stories as the sports wagering issue continues to develop the momentum that often precedes change, change that may persuade sports leagues to cut the kind of deal that benefits both sides of the current argument.

Because times are changing.

Phil Hevener has been writing about the Nevada gaming business for more than 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

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