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The NBA is Embracing the Coming Reality of Betting on Sports in America but the NFL is Stuck in the Dark Ages

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The NBA is forward thinking enough to see how the league can benefit from legalized betting. If only the NFL would do the same.

Americans love to bet on sports. In fact, it is home to the world’s largest sportsbetting market. The catch, however, is that betting shops and online sportsbooks in America capture only a tiny portion of that market. In 2013 Nevada bookmakers accepted $3.6 billion in wagers, a number which pales in comparison to the $380 billion Americans wagered illegally (according to the American Gaming Association).

• In 2013 Americans wagered $380 billion while Nevada sportsbooks took in only $3.9 billion

• New Jersey is lobbying the federal government to allow it to legalize sportsbetting

• Betting could help boost revenue for the NFL and NBA

Because of the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which restricted where betting can occur and which events can be covered, Nevada is the only state with a reasonably large betting market. Other states Delaware, Montana and Oregon allow betting on some events (ex: the NFL) but not others (ex: the NBA).

There have been numerous challenges to PASPA, including an ongoing crusade by New Jersey State Senator Ray Lesniak to have a federal court overturn the bill and allow New Jersey to legalize betting, something which state lawmakers and casino operators believe could help save Atlantic City from a slow and painful death.

The Justice Department seems fairly ambivalent to gambling these days (they did allow New Jersey and Delaware to launch the first online casinos in America last year). However, New Jersey’s efforts are being lobbied against by the big four pro sports leagues: the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. That being said, one of those leagues appears willing to soften its stance on betting while the other is as staunch as ever in opposition.

New leadership means the NBA is ready to embrace betting on basketball games

The NBA has long opposed betting due to the (mistaken) belief that legal betting threatens the integrity of the sport by increasing the risk of match fixing and spot fixing. This past month, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made some very groundbreaking comments concerning sportsbetting in America and its relation to the league.

His statement read: “It’s inevitable that, if all these states are broke, that there will be legalized sports betting in more states than Nevada…We will ultimately participate in that.”

Silver’s predecessor David Stern was an uncompromising opponent, going so far as to say that “New Jersey has no idea what it’s doing,” and accusing the state of ignoring the harmful effects that betting could have on the integrity of the NBA.

Seen in that light, Silver’s comments show that the NBA is changing its tune in a big way. The league is waking up to two facts made evident by the success of pro sports leagues in countries with permissive gambling laws like the UK.

Number one, legal betting is no more likely to lead to match and spot fixing than do black market and offshore betting, activities currently rampant in the US. Number two, the NBA is recognizing the basic fact that wagering increases interest in sports, and that the league thus stands to make a lot of money from it. Silver made this position clear:

If you have a gentleman’s bet or a small wager on any kind of sports contest, it makes you that much more engaged in it… That’s where we’re going to see it pay dividends. If people are watching a game and clicking to bet on their smartphones, which is what people are doing in the United Kingdom right now, then it’s much more likely you’re going to stay tuned for a long time.

As for the NFL, the picture looks less rosy…

While the NBA is embracing progress with the forward-thinking Silver, the NFL is stuck in neutral under the heavy-handed rule of Commissioner Roger Goodell. The league was instrumental in lobbying for the PASPA in 1992 and will continue to stubbornly resist any change to current American gambling laws.

Following the Super Bowl this past January (when $99 million was wagered legally with Nevada sportsbooks) Goodell issued to following statement: “As you know, we fought legalized gambling, sports gambling, for a long time, most recently here in New Jersey, and I would see our position in the same vein going forward.”

The commissioner has used the financial and PR weight of the league against New Jersey and other proponents of legalization seemingly out of the (again, mistaken) belief that it threatens the integrity of the sport or at least “undermines the public’s faith and confidence in the character of amateur and professional team sports.”

While the NBA has correctly recognized that legal betting could provide a major boost to the league’s popularity, the NFL doesn’t appear to have come any closer to that realization. Part of it may stem from the fact that the NFL is already by far the biggest league in the country in terms of revenue. But as commissioner Goodell’s job is to promote the profitability of the league in the long term as well as protect it in the immediate. Getting on board with betting is a good way to ensure both.

It took a leadership change for the NBA to embrace the coming future, and perhaps the same will need to occur in the NFL. Goodell is already deeply unpopular among the players and many of the fans, and his staunch opposition to legalize betting provides just another reason for the NFL to choose a younger and more forward-thinking commissioner, just as the NBA did by choosing Silver.

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