This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 16 Gambling Issue. Subscribe today!
LEGIT SPORTS BETTING is old news around the world, but outside of Nevada, it's uncharted territory in the United States. We asked experts to weigh in on the pros and cons of going legal.
"Leagues will posit that types of data are proprietary and will seek licensing fees
from sportsbooks and fantasy operators."
Ryan Rodenberg - Assistant professor of sports law at Florida State University
Fans will see an increase in gambling-related advertising. Leagues will posit that types of data are proprietary (think sabermetrics meets sports gambling) and will seek licensing fees from sportsbooks and fantasy operators. The leagues will also look to offer wagering options to consumers. Finally, like fantasy's emphasis on player outcomes, sports betting will continue to shift sporting events from competition between teams and players to a commercialized spectacle. Gambling and fantasy drive consumer interest. My sense is that the inevitable will happen in the next four to five years, about the same time as the 100th anniversary of the fixed 1919 World Series. Such timing would be ironic, as the Black Sox scandal set in motion the sports leagues' longtime antigambling argument the NBA commissioner is looking to supplant.
"I don't care if you're betting on a cockroach race. Some people will get addicted to it."
Arnie Wexler - Certified compulsive gambling counselor, author (with former Newsday columnist Steve Jacobson) of All Bets Are Off
You won't even be able to get a seat at the stadium because the gamblers will take them all. Why would the gamblers stay home? The leagues are going to make so much money. They are such hypocrites. They're telling people now that by legalizing it, they'll take the business away from the illegal bookies. That's what people said about lotteries too: "We're going to take it away from the numbers runners." They can tell you any kind of bulls--t they want. But when you put new ways to gamble in, when you make it more available, you get more people to try it. And some of them will get addicted to it. They have the genes for it already. I get the calls from the people who can't stop betting. I don't care if you're betting on a cockroach race. Some people will get addicted to it.
"Where there is a legal way for people to bet, they know it's a fair game and they will get paid when they win."
Joe Asher - CEO of William Hill U.S., a U.K.-based sportsbook
It is time to bring sports betting out of the shadows and into the sunlight, where it can be regulated and taxed. It would take a significant chunk of business away from illegal offshore websites and bookies across the U.S. There are undoubtedly illegal bookmakers in Nevada. But you don't see many because where there is a legal way for people to bet, they know it's a fair game and they will get paid when they win. So of course they go with the legal option. It's the same in England. You don't hear about illegal bookies because legal ones are available. Anyone who says that legalization leads to match fixing just doesn't understand. Match fixing occurs in illegal markets because the criminals who operate them are the last ones to call authorities. Look at the Arizona State point-shaving scandal in the '90s. Legal bookies in Nevada called the Gaming Control Board. The U.K. experience is the same. The legal bookmakers report wrongdoing.
"The notion that if they legalize it it's going to become an epidemic is ridiculous."
Charles Barkley - Hall of Famer and noted gambler
I've got dirty hands. Let's get that straight. I'm a gambling degenerate. The No. 1 reason football is the No. 1 sport is because of gambling. And legalizing won't change the landscape. The notion that if they legalize it it's going to become an epidemic is ridiculous. If you want to smoke pot, you're going to smoke pot. I've never said to myself, "They legalized pot; I'm going to start smoking." I think the same thing for gambling. People who bet on sports are going to bet regardless. Only if you bet already are you going to bet on it when it's legal. It's going to give more people economic opportunity. You're going to have to hire more people. It's going to help fan interest. If a person wants to bet on a basketball game, that's a fan that we've got.
"There's no lobby group to protect the families whose lives would be devastated by Mom or Dad becoming a compulsive gambler."
Justin Wolfers - Economist and professor at the University of Michigan
Gamblers want regulation because it ensures that they get paid. It keeps the sport clean, which means that guys fixing matches aren't stealing your money. It enables people to talk about it at the watercooler without repercussions. People would rather do something that's legal than something that isn't. But it has to be regulated in a way that gambling here becomes more attractive than gambling overseas. There are ways that we can set up gambling markets that lend themselves less well to corruption, like limiting betting to which team will win instead of which team will beat the spread. That reduces the incentive for corruption. As we've seen sports betting get bigger, we've seen more scandals-soccer match fixing, cricket has been mired in scandals and, of course, we've heard about it in the NCAA. The most obvious place to be concerned about ongoing corruption would be the NCAA. A few thousand dollars may be sufficient to corrupt a 19-year-old.
Another thing to think about is what we do to protect the people who could become compulsive gamblers. Most people bet small amounts and enjoy it, but most of the revenue that the bookies or state governments would earn would come from a small number of people who are basically destroying their lives. My hope, and I'm not optimistic about this, is that if we do have a legal sector, we regulate it in a way that will provide protection for those people-whether it's support, counseling, regulation about how sportsbooks can advertise, gambling limits. It's clear that the NBA is going to be involved and casinos are going to be involved, and they're both going to lobby for what's best for them. But there's no lobby group out there trying to protect the families whose lives would be devastated by Mom or Dad becoming a compulsive gambler.