Former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent believes that legalized sports betting in the United States would be one of the biggest developments in sports since the introduction of television.
And he thinks it's coming soon.
In July, Vincent wrote a letter to the editor in The New York Times, responding to a story about the ongoing effort to sell the Miami Marlins. He noted that the story "doesn't report the possibility that legal betting on all major sports is not far off. The anticipated flood of revenue to baseball team owners may explain the price being asked, $1.2 billion."
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who put the team up for sale earlier this year, originally asked for $1.6 billion, but the price has been cut to an estimated $1.2 billion, according to The New York Times. Even at the reduced price, the value of the Marlins -- along with most pro sports franchises -- has skyrocketed in the past 15 years. Loria purchased the team for $158 million in 2002. He's now asking eight times as much.
"I know that [gambling] is precisely why these prices are going up," Vincent told ESPN in a phone interview this week. "I've been really astonished and can't believe, with the amount of money that's going to flow to sports if gambling is permitted, that it's not a subject of interest. And no one seems to be paying attention."
Vincent said the Supreme Court's decision in June to hear New Jersey's appeal to legalize sports betting at the state's casinos and racetracks is a "very big" case. He believes that New Jersey has a good chance of prevailing over the NCAA and four major professional leagues, which sued Gov. Chris Christie in 2012 to stop the state's efforts.
Oral arguments are expected in the late fall or early winter, with a decision coming in the spring of 2018.
Sports betting in the U.S. has been restricted to primarily Nevada since 1992, when the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) was put in place. Vincent, who served as MLB commissioner from 1989 to 1992, testified in support of PASPA at the time. Baseball had just endured the Pete Rose betting scandal and joined the other major professional leagues and NCAA to prevent state-sponsored sports betting from spreading in the U.S.
"In those days, we were very adamant against betting, because we had just been dealt and were dealing with the Pete Rose case," Vincent said. "We saw the risks and the danger of corruption, and we saw that the mafia was involved in some of the things we investigated. It's dangerous, and it's still dangerous. But I think the American public wants to bet, and it's already betting."
The American Gaming Association estimates that approximately $150 billion is wagered on sports annually in the U.S. Others believe the figure to be as high as $400 billion. But the estimates are hard to verify because the majority of sports betting takes place in a black market made up of offshore sportsbooks and local bookmakers.
"I'm not a fan of betting, and I'm not minimizing the consequences," Vincent said. "The complexities are staggering, but that is such an enormous amount of money, you can see why people would be grasping for it."
On top of the Supreme Court, there are multiple ongoing efforts to lift the sports betting prohibition. The American Gaming Association has formed a lobbying coalition and is actively educating legislators in Washington, D.C on the issue. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has released draft legislation that aims to repeal PASPA.
In the meantime, sports leagues are positioning themselves for a landscape with expanded legal sports betting. The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have partnered with sports data and betting integrity monitors like Sportradar and Genius Sports.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has come out in support of legalization and said at a conference in July that "ultimately, as the owners of the intellectual property, we're going to embrace [betting] and also make sure our integrity is protected at the same time."
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has mentioned data licensing fees as a potential direct financial benefit from legal sports betting, but says it will come down to increased viewership.
"I certainly think [sports betting] creates value for sports franchises, if only because it increases viewership and interest in individual games," Cuban said in an email to ESPN. "Beyond that, the impact on viewership will dictate the impact on value."
Vincent isn't sure how various sports leagues will get a cut of legal sports betting, but he said the equity investments made by MLB and the NBA into daily fantasy sports could be possible models.
"I don't know how the feds or the states are going to act, but the money will come to the leagues one way or another," Vincent said. "It will go to the teams. The unions are going to want a cut of it. The amount of money is going to mean enormous increases in players' compensation, and officials, too; I mean the entire sporting world is going to benefit enormously."