The potential for widespread sports betting is raising a lot of questions for US states that are considering legislation. Should they legalize it at all? What’s the proper tax rate? Who can offer sports betting?
But the hot issue in 2018 and 2019 in statehouses around the country: Integrity fees. What are integrity fees, and how can they impact the sports betting landscape in the US?
What is a sports betting integrity fee?
Integrity fees, as they’ve been advanced in some states, are basically taxes on legal sports betting.
They’ve been popularized by the NBA and Major League Baseball as they look to find a way to profit from the proliferation of sports betting in the US. The fee would transfer money from sportsbooks to sports governing bodies themselves.
Leagues first proposed the fees in Indiana in 2018. Then the NBA adopted them as its preferred policy around the country during a hearing in New York. NBA and MLB are actively opposing legislation that does not include an integrity fee.
It’s not an entirely new idea. For instance, pro leagues in both France and Australia already get a small percentage of wagers made in those jurisdictions. Curiously, they may have been introduced in the US by New Jersey lawmakers as a way to smooth the legal confrontation.
Will leagues get their integrity fees?
Whether integrity fees are implemented in one or more states remains to be seen, but time is running out for the leagues to make their case.
On May 14, 2018, the US Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision in Murphy vs. NCAA, the so-called “New Jersey sports betting case.” The US sports leagues had successfully blocked NJ’s efforts across multiple District and Circuit battles, culminating with an unlikely appellate hearing before the nation’s highest court.
SCOTUS presented the first judicial ruling against plaintiffs, striking down the federal ban as unconstitutional. To put it in black and white, the states won and the leagues lost.
Much to the chagrin of those leagues, states are now free to regulate sports betting at their discretion. They’ve been preparing for this day with heavy lobbying efforts, but the rug is sliding out from beneath them. None of the states that have passed sports betting laws have included integrity fees payable to sports entities. And more states will be moving on the matter soon.
All hope may not be lost in the quest, though. One thing all leagues agree on is a preference for superseding federal legislation that would create a unified set of rules. Immediately following the SCOTUS decision, Sen. Orrin Hatch announced intentions to do just that.
How does an integrity fee work?
An integrity fee, as proposed, would tax handle at a rate of 1%, payable to each league on which sports wagering would occur. Leagues later slashed that ask to 0.25%.
Some who are new to the sports betting industry confuse handle for revenue:
- Handle is the total amount wagered by bettors, so it’s a gauge of how much money is flowing through sportsbooks.
- Revenue, on the other hand, is how much sportsbooks hold from the total amount wagered. Historically, this number comes in at about 5% of handle for sportsbook operators.
A integrity fee, then, would send a set amount of wagers from sportsbooks to the leagues, regardless of the revenue picture of the sportsbook. Using a 1% fee and a 5% hold, a one percent integrity fee would equate to roughly 20% of revenue going to the leagues.
The fees have no requirements for the leagues attached to them. It’s just a transfer of money from gaming operators to the leagues.
How much could leagues make from integrity fees?
A lot. Using a possible mature sports betting market of around $200 billion, that means about $2 billion in integrity fees would be paid out. That translates to hundreds of millions going to individual leagues like the NFL and NHL, possibly.
Of course, there’s already been some resistance to the idea of integrity fees in several states, so it’s not at all clear if this will get ported to a large number of states. Leagues often now prefer to fight for mandated use of official league data.
Why are integrity fees a bad idea?
There are several reasons to be skeptical of integrity fees:
- Taxing handle is not a great idea, because it is not tied to revenue. Sports betting is a new industry in a lot of states. If margins are even lower than in Nevada to start, that means an even larger portion of revenue is going to leagues.
- Why do the leagues deserve the money? Yes, the leagues’ contests are the basis for betting. But the leagues are playing no functional role in the industry. The state will be regulating it. The sportsbooks are operating it. The leagues simply exist.
- It takes away from state revenue. Why would states simply want to give money away to the leagues? They would likely be lowering their own tax rates in order to make this work. Enriching leagues at the cost of money that could go to state coffers is a difficult decision to defend.
- It hurts consumers and businesses. If the cost of doing business increases for sportsbooks operating legally in the US via integrity fees, they’ll likely attempt to pass that cost on to consumers. That would make it more difficult for legal books to compete with offshore books that are serving Americans illegally already. If the goal is to move all betting to regulated markets, states should be interested in keeping costs down. Integrity fees don’t do that.
Why are integrity fees a good idea?
There are certainly costs for leagues that are associated with a proliferation of sports wagering. They’ll have to increase the amount of time and money that they spend on data monitoring and integrity protocols.
Of course, a regulated market gives them insight into sports betting markets that they do not have access to now. Namely, we’re talking about the black market — offshore sportsbooks worth tens of billions of dollars in handle annually.
Anyway, integrity is a concern for everyone — leagues, players, sportsbooks and governments. It deserves attention and money devoted to it.