The professional sports leagues in the United States are now between a rock and a hard place on sports betting thanks to the US Supreme Court.
The leagues, New Jersey and sports betting
The decision on the NJ sports betting case — which will likely come in 2018 — is a double-edged sword for everyone involved. The nation’s highest court will presumably tell us whether PASPA — the law prohibiting single-game sports wagering outside of Nevada — violates the US constitution, for usurping states’ rights.
That sets up a potential winner-take-all scenario. PASPA could be:
- Struck down as unconstitutional. New Jersey (and potentially other states) can start offering (or passing laws allowing) legal sports betting.
- Held up as constitutional. The only way to change the law would be for Congress to repeal or amend PASPA. New Jersey’s efforts to legalize sports betting via state law would presumably be over, for now.
To date, the sports leagues have prevailed at every legal step along the way in the legal battle. But they are likely nervous that they have a real chance of losing in the Supreme Court.
What’s all of it mean for the leagues?
The leagues might have to pivot quickly
While the leagues have banded together to stop NJ sports betting, they have varying stances on the future of sports betting in the US.
The NBA — via commissioner Adam Silver and former commissioner David Stern — has said it favors a “federal framework” for sports betting. (The possibility of that as an endgame appears unlikely no matter what happens with SCOTUS). MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has sounded similar notes.
But if New Jersey wins in SCOTUS, leagues have to accelerate that plan quickly or abandon it altogether. If SCOTUS clears the way for states to legalize sports betting, they are going to be able to regulate it on their own.
If legal sports betting is going to happen in the US, leagues want it to happen on their terms. SCOTUS might take the ball out of their hands, however.
Does this spur action for the leagues, or do they let things play out?
Instead of saying they are against sports betting (NFL, NHL) or for federal regulation (NBA, MLB), their tunes may change. Keeping the proverbial genie in a bottle on sports betting — i.e. a de facto nationwide prohibition — will be a lost cause, if they lose in court.
The leagues might have to advocate for common-sense regulation at the state level (or in Congress, for that matter) immediately. The NBA, in the past, has said it would not get involved in any lobbying.
To borrow a sports betting term, will the leagues have to “hedge their bets” in case they lose? Outright losing in court and then having no plan to deal with the aftermath would likely be a poor choice.
Regardless, the leagues may have no choice but to embrace a world where sports betting could be legal in the US in short order. And it will be interesting to see what the leagues say and do in the interim.