NBA Commissioner Silver On Sports Betting: There’s ‘A Lot Of Interest In Congress’

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the issue of sports betting again, just a week before his league defends the federal ban on single-game wagering in the US Supreme Court.

Silver said the issue of sports gambling has generated “a lot of interest in Congress.” He also said a lot of other things which gave the clearest insight to date of where one of the major US pro sports leagues stands on sports betting.

The NBA is a plaintiff in the ongoing New Jersey sports betting case, in which that state is trying to legalize wagering within its borders. Despite that, Silver and the NBA have started actively calling for federally regulated sports betting, saying it will try to advance legislation and lobby Congress on the issue.

Silver was talking on ESPN Radio’s Golic and Wingo show.

What Silver said on sports betting

The conversation with ESPN came roughly three years after Silver published his New York Times piece calling for federal regulation.

Here are Silver’s comments; full segment here:

When we published that piece three years ago, I never would have predicted that next week, in front of the Supreme Court, the legality of the New Jersey state law permitting in essence sports betting within the boundaries of their state is being argued. …

We defended that law against Gov. Christie, that began before I became commissioner. Largely because at least now our view is that it should not be regulated state-by-state, that there should be federal legislation. That it is proper for Congress to address this issue.

But my position, which is a little different than my predecessors, has been that we should regulate it, we should legalize it. Because it’s not to me an issue of whether I am “pro” or “con” sports betting. We know now that it goes on, largely underground, hundreds of billions of dollars are bet every year just in the US on sports betting. …

It’s legal in most other jurisdictions in the world, particularly in Europe, where people bet on their smart phones throughout soccer games, it’s closely regulated, they can monitor if there’s an irregularity activity, something we cannot do right now because it’s largely all illegal.

Where I differ from the state of New Jersey, it’s that I think there should be federal policy, it should be consistent from state to state, I think states should be able to elect whether they want to be in or out, if a state doesn’t want to have legalized sports betting they shouldn’t be forced to do it, so I agree it should be a state decision.

But I worry a little bit in terms of the monitoring of it, the integrity for the sports leagues…that if you have 50 states all competing against each other, it could be a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of ultimately how to do the best job protecting consumers, the people who place the bets, and protecting the integrity of our league.

But I will say from three years ago, I am surprised things are happening so quickly, this issue is in front of the Supreme Court next week they’ll likely decide the case by June of next year. And I think even if the Supreme Court leaves in place the existing federal law, there seems to be a lot of interest in Congress in favor of addressing the issue. And I think in part because states see that this exists, and they figure they might as well regulate it and collect tax money on it, frankly.

Parsing what Silver said

There’s a decent amount to unpack in Silver talking right before SCOTUS takes up the issue:

Suprise: Sports betting!

Silver twice said he is “surprised” things are happening so quickly on the sports betting front.

That surprise comes mostly from the fact that the NBA didn’t think the Supreme Court would actually take up the NJ sports betting case. That revelation meant that the NBA (and the other pro sports leagues) potentially lost control over both 1. the timeline for legal sports betting in the US and 2. how it will happen.

A decision for New Jersey offers the possibility of unregulated sports wagering in the Garden State, or striking down the federal ban — PASPA — as unconstitutional. The latter outcome would leave a vacuum for sports betting in which states could pass laws and regulate it themselves.

We’ve now heard the NBA talk three times in the past week about how it wants federal regulation, and that it’s going to try to work with Congress. That’s a stark departure from when Silver would talk about sports betting in the recent past, advocating for regulation but with no real urgency or action on the NBA’s part.

This is perhaps the surest sign that the leagues involved in the case (the NCAA, NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB) have a real chance of losing.

Opting out of sports betting?

Silver addressed the “opt out” solution for states and sports betting under a federal regime.

That’s an idea legal counsel for the NBA advanced last week, and is apparently one of the NBA’s new talking points, given that Silver brought it up here as well.

Under the NBA’s preferred federal framework, states could choose whether or not they want to be involved. How likely such a system might be is certainly a point of debate, which leads us to…

Congress is interested?

Perhaps the most interesting thing that Silver said was classifying the interest of Congress.

That interest has not been terribly evident, if it exists, outside of Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who has introduced legislation and called for hearings in 2017.

Does Silver know something that the rest of us don’t? Or is he just creating interest in sports betting regulation where little exists in reality?

We don’t know the answer to that and likely won’t unless legislation starts moving. But the environment on Capitol Hill is far from conducive to trying to get anything — see health care, tax cuts, etc. — passed, let alone a sports betting law.

And next year is an election year. Do members of Congress have any desire to be on the record with a vote on gambling when their seats are up for grabs?

The right (or wrong, depending on your stance) verdict in SCOTUS could possibly lead to more interest. In particular, a partial victory for New Jersey that basically allows for no governmental regulation of sports betting but does allow its legalization could create momentum that doesn’t currently exist.

‘A race to the bottom?’

Silver paints a scenario where states regulate sports wagering on a state-by-state basis as a near nightmare scenario. Here’s that part of his comments again:

…If you have 50 states all competing against each other, it could be a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of ultimately how to do the best job protecting consumers, the people who place the bets, and protecting the integrity of our league …

That’s a lot of fear-mongering that doesn’t have much basis in reality. Gambling in almost all its forms is regulated on a state-by-state basis in the US, and it hasn’t led to the downfall of society. Nevada handles sports betting regulation just fine.

(You can also look at daily fantasy sports, which has established its legality on a state-by-state basis in the recent past. It’s generally worked fine, so far.)

While a state-by-state regulatory model for sports betting is not ideal compared to the potential efficiency of a federal framework, it’s also not the end of the world, either.

Will Silver get what he wants?

If New Jersey wins in the Supreme Court and PASPA is struck down, the state-by-state regulation model will likely become a train that can’t be stopped.

New York and Pennsylvania have already passed sports wagering laws that would take effect with that outcome. More will follow. Trying to create a federal scheme that rolls back what a bunch of states have already done would seem to be unlikely in that scenario.

For the NBA and its dreams of a federal framework, it could be too little, too late, unless things break very well for Silver and the league.