Through over a year as NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver has accomplished plenty while maintaining universal respect and admiration, something his predecessor lost in his final years as the NBA’s lead man. Silver banished Donald Sterling for life and finalized an extremely lucrative TV agreement (9 years/$24 billion with Turner Sports and ESPN). Now, he looks to expand on the foundation he has laid out by altering the league’s playoff format and draft eligibility standards. The most controversial issue, gambling, may define the early part of his tenure as commissioner. Silver has discussed legalizing and regulating gambling on NBA games, something most states have banned (exceptions being Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon).
Silver makes a tremendous point – bettors collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars in illegal sports betting, through book-holders – commonly known as “bookies” – who act as the money holders. Fans make a lump sum of money off of these players and teams, while no one associated with the league gets anything in return.
Other legal entities, most notably Las Vegas casinos and daily fantasy sports sites like FanDuel, have made hundreds of millions of dollars from sports fans betting on player stats and game outcomes. Sure, the NBA partnered with FanDuel and invested a stake in the daily fantasy site, while the NHL and MLB have connected with DraftKings. However, here’s the catch; according to studies, only $1.1 billion was LEGALLY wagered on college and pro basketball in 2013. ILLEGAL basketball bets, where “bookies” controlled the finances, counted for over $138 billion in 2013.
Leagues currently cannot regulate what goes on with sports betting, so nobody can track what goes on under the table, such as athletes, coaches, or team management participating in illegal gambling. Two prominent sports figures have jeopardized their livelihoods by participating in sports betting. The MLB banned Pete Rose, the league’s all-time hit leader, from the game because he wagered money on his team winning while serving as the Cincinnati Reds manager. The NBA did the same with referee Tim Donaghy, who allegedly placed bets on games he worked, which significantly compromised the integrity of the game. Donaghy served 15 months in prison.
These two examples serve as a major cautionary tale if leagues permitted gambling. First and foremost, this would set a terrible precedent by making it easier for everyone to bet on sports games. A fair number of people go broke through gambling, which can become an extremely addictive habit if not used in control. This would lead to larger indirect problems, such as stress, high blood pressure, and anger, which can literally destroy lives. Fans not physically present at sporting events have absolutely zero influence on the outcome of individual games.
Furthermore, legalization of gambling across the United States can defeat the purpose of the sports themselves. Games become more about defeating the spread, instead of just winning the games. That means the players themselves could receive unwarranted hate and death threats through social media, just because they cost people money by not hitting some meaningless free throws at the end of games. This would set a dangerous trend on focusing on the results more than the way a particular sport is played. Leagues should continue to strive to grow the sport entirely, where youngsters and adults are encouraged to play and relate to the top athletes in the world.
Despite some of these roadblocks, we should applaud Silver’s proactivity concerning this issue. Unlike Bud Selig during baseball’s “Steroids Era”, Silver has directly faced some of his major challenges. So far, he has not turned his back on any significant issue he has encountered, and he recognizes that illegal gambling occurs far too frequently across the country.
Because of the large lump sum of money devoted to gambling in every major American sport, Silver and other commissioners in the US should legalize and regulate gambling, as long they can establish strict parameters. Combined, all four major American sports leagues are worth roughly $50 billion. Bettors spend more than EIGHT times that amount annually wagering on sporting events. Anyone associated with these leagues has every right to feel shortchanged, since people who have absolutely no connection to players (especially college athletes, who do not receive financial compensation), make money off of them.
Leagues and teams should strive to work with local governments to regulate gambling, WITHOUT compromising the integrity of the sport. Collectively, owners use billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money to construct and renovate their current stadiums. The local communities know the value of professional sports franchises to their respective areas. Otherwise, they would not invest thousands of dollars on tickets, merchandise, and team-associated expenses. Thus, all parties need to jointly work with each other to make legalized gambling a reasonable proposition.
Only people with valid state or national government photo identifications and credit cards should be allowed to gamble. People would need to be at least 21 years of age, and the payouts should correlate with the current policies at legal sports casinos like in Las Vegas. Leagues and teams would need to invest people and resources to monitor fraudulent activity placed on bets, similar to teams’ ticket exchange policies.
While this would not completely eliminate betting with unauthorized “bookies” – who may offer better deals such as permitting minors to bet or giving immediate cash to gamblers – this would significantly reduce the placement of illegal bets. Ultimately, that would mark a major first step in eliminating unlicensed sports gambling, which has evolved into a major issue across American sports.