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Does The Will To Pass A Federal Sports Betting Law Exist Without Pro Sports Leagues’ Active Support?

Pro leagues sports betting support
The American Gaming Association held a press call wrapping up 2016 and looking ahead to its plans for 2017 this week.

The push for legal sports betting in the US was a major focus of that call — or at least the media’s questions — including a memo the casino industry group sent to the transition team of President-Elect Donald Trump.

The question for me remains this: How much traction will a federal sports betting effort get without the full support of the four major North American professional sports leagues?

The leagues, after all, would be the ones affected the most by sports betting legislation, as much if not moreso than the casino industry.

The optimistic view: Coalition expands, leagues step aside

Even those who are bullish on a change to federal sports betting law — amending or repealing PASPA — don’t think the leagues will actively lobby for such a change side-by-side with the AGA. (PASPA is the federal law that prevents single-game wagering everywhere but Nevada.)

In this scenario, the leagues let such a legislative effort move forward in Congress with a wink and a nod, but don’t publicly engage on the issue. This is at least feasible, certainly. From the AGA’s memo to Trump:

The casino gaming industry is building a broad coalition in support of repealing the nearly 25-year-old federal prohibition and giving states the opportunity to offer sports betting if they so choose. This position is shared by the National Basketball Association, owners across the four major sports leagues, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Council of State Legislatures and many others.

AGA CEO Geoff Freeman expounded during the press call.

“I think we are entering a perfect storm of interest, among broadcasters, among owners of individual sports teams — now we have a president who was once in the gaming industry,” Freeman said. ” I think we have everything we everything coming together to support a regulated environment.

“That being said, we have a lot of work to do. And one of the things that is important to us here at AGA is not going it alone. We want to work hand in hand in with owners, with leagues, with law enforcement and other interested parties. We have worked behind the scenes with the NBA. We’re also working behind the scenes with owners to determine and develop a common cause, so that when we go to Capitol Hill in support of legislation, we do that in a unified way.”

The alternative view: Not much is going to happen without the leagues

While all of the above is accurate, it doesn’t necessarily paint the entire picture.

What the NBA actually wants

It increasingly appears that the NBA wants a federal framework instituted to oversee sports betting, something very different — and far more complicated — than a simple repeal of PASPA.

And while some franchise owners are okay with the idea of sports betting, that’s also a far cry from them being an active part of the AGA coalition moving forward. Will owners actively go it on their own in support of the AGA and sports betting legislation without the leagues being vocal as well?

A story at Covers delved into some of the problems with the dynamics in play. I am not sure I share the level of pessimism Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro expressed, but I think he has a point.

“Adam Silver’s comments came two years ago, and nothing has changed, nothing will change,” Vaccaro said. “Forget who the president of the U.S. is. It’ll have to be after Goodell is gone. He is never, ever gonna let it fly. He’s fighting right now to keep the Oakland Raiders out of Vegas.”

I certainly agree with him, at least on the Silver front as it pertains to the meaning of his words and actions to date.

Congress and sports betting

It will be difficult for Congress to act on sports betting, I believe, without the leagues being an active part of the process. I can already tell you what the lawmakers at a hypothetical Congressional hearing on sports betting would say if the league commissioners aren’t there testifying. It would be something along the lines of: “Why are we bothering with this if they don’t want to be a part of it?”

I simply don’t see how you can formulate a plan to regulate sports betting without the leagues being on the front lines, or being involved in some way.

Can things change in such a way that the leagues become active proponents? Sure. I’ve outlined one such scenario for the NFL.

But in the current environment it’s hard for me to envision a wide swath of lawmakers in Congress saying we need to legalize sports betting without the leagues also saying “Let’s do this.”

So when the rubber meets the road on sports betting…

I, or anyone, can speculate all they want on the future of sports betting, but it’s just that: speculation. It’s something of a cottage industry to engage in this speculation; we read the tea leaves and try to figure out what might happen next. I do my best to best to be optimistic on sports betting, but I also know how government — specifically Congress — works. Getting anything done there is difficult, even with favorable winds.

But the speculation is a worthwhile endeavor because it’s an industry that would see hundreds of billions of dollars flow through US casinos. Americans wager that much at offshore sportsbooks currently. The future of sports betting — and the fact that a regulated market is superior to the current environment — should be discussed.

But in the end, the speculation doesn’t matter. What does matter is what happens when — and indeed if — Congress gets to the matter of legalizing sports betting. That’s when we’ll actually find out where everyone stands, and if sports betting has a realistic chance in the near future.

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Dustin Gouker
- Dustin Gouker has been a sports journalist for more than 15 years, working as a reporter, editor and designer -- including stops at The Washington Post and the D.C. Examiner.