NBA Commissioner Adam Silver likes to say positive things when it comes to sports betting — namely that it should be legal and regulated.
Silver reiterated that position yesterday when speaking at a Paley Center for Media panel on Tuesday alongside the commissioners of the other major US pro sports leagues.
But the time has come for Silver to put up or shut up on sports betting.
What Silver said on sports betting
Silver talked about a variety of issues while appearing with his counterparts: the NFL’s Roger Goodell, Major League Baseball’s Rob Manfred and the NHL’s Gary Bettman. Not shockingly, the issue of gambling on sports came up.
Here’s what was interesting and new: Silver agreed with talking points usually issued by the casino industry, via the American Gaming Association, in responding to a question on sports gambling. Namely, he parroted the idea that sports betting was coming to the US in a few years. That is something the AGA has continued to point to as a goal for regulated sports betting in the US.
NBA commish Silver on gambling: “My sense is the law will change in the next few years in the United States.”
— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) July 18, 2017
NBA commish Silver: People want to bet throughout the game…It results in enormous additional engagement with the fans.
— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) July 18, 2017
Silver’s right about one thing: The law is changing, whether he and the other leagues like it or not. The question is whether he is an instrument for change or just repeating talking points with no substance.
The backstory on Silver and sports gambling
The infamous New York Times editorial from Silver — calling for the legalization and regulation of sports betting — is nearly three years old.
At the time, his op-ed was heralded as a sea change for sports betting in the US. And indeed, the idea that any pro sports league might support sports betting of any form probably seemed laughable as recently as five or ten years ago.
But what has Silver done in those three years on the subject? Other than repeating the same spiel in carefully crafted public appearances, he has done little. He and the NBA have accomplished pretty much nothing publicly to advance the cause of legal sports betting, other than parroting what he said in the op-ed.
In addition to that, the NBA has remained by the side of his fellow leagues in the New Jersey sports betting case, which is now headed to the US Supreme Court. He and the NBA could have symbolically pulled their name from the case, showing that their desire for regulated sports betting was more than just idle chatter.
Yes, technically, the NBA is trying to stop “unregulated” sports betting in the NJ case. But it’s also certainly not helping New Jersey to have regulated sports wagering either.
What we’re left with: Silver says legal sports betting is good while doing nothing to effect change.
The leagues are losing control they thought they had
The New Jersey case heading to the nation’s highest court is a development that the plaintiffs — the NCAA, NBA and the other top US pro sports leagues — likely never thought possible.
Instead of having the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) as a firewall against single-game wagering outside of Nevada until they deemed otherwise, the leagues face the very real possibility that SCOTUS could strike the law down as unconstitutional. That could lead to sports betting in New Jersey and a variety of other states.
The bottom line: The issue of sports betting is all about control. The leagues as a whole probably aren’t that dead set against sports betting. They are only against sports betting if they can’t control how it happens. The loss of PASPA would represent a loss of that control.
The proliferation of fantasy sports laws in the US has also manifested some of that loss of control. Even without a victory in the Supreme Court, New Jersey is rolling out a form of sports betting based on player performances. The leagues aren’t likely to try to stop that.
Is the NBA on board, or not?
If Silver wants to portray himself as a friend to the possibility of legal and regulated sports betting in the US, he has to stop playing the role of innocent bystander. Of course, he may end up being just that if New Jersey wins its case, leading to the expansion of sports betting outside of the NBA’s and other leagues’ control.
But the cause of sports betting can be advanced quickly if Silver and the NBA take an active role, instead of a passive one. The legalization of sports betting shouldn’t be something that “happens to” the NBA and the other leagues. It should be something that happens because of them, and an issue that they take an active role in shaping. No one believes that sports betting is best served without their input.
It’s within Silver’s power to give more than lip service to the future of legal sports betting. And if he doesn’t, he’s just a hypocrite who says one thing and does another. And he shouldn’t be applauded for that.