GAM­BLING DE­CI­SION RAMPS UP PRES­SURE ON PRO LEAGUES

Minute de­tails will now be un­der im­mense scru­tiny with more sin­gle-game bet­ting

Ottawa Citizen - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON sstin­son@postmedia.com Twit­ter.com/ Scot­t_Stin­son

The U.S. Supreme Court rul­ing that cleared the way for states to le­gal­ize wa­ger­ing on sport­ing events was just min­utes old when the press re­leases started fly­ing.

Ma­jor sports leagues asked the U.S. Congress to de­velop a fed­eral reg­u­la­tory frame­work that would save them from a patch­work of state laws. Gam­bling lob­by­ists hailed the de­ci­sion and in the same breath warned ev­ery­one against get­ting their grubby mitts on the rev­enues that would be sure to flow to bet­ting houses. Anti-gam­bling groups let out a big sigh. And DraftK­ings, the daily fan­tasy sports com­pany that has in­sisted for years now that its prod­uct is not gam­bling, said it would soon en­ter the on­line gam­bling mar­ket. Since it had the in­fras­truc­ture in place, you see, not be­cause it is al­ready in the gam­bling busi­ness. Ahem.

But while the speed of the re­sponse from all sides on Mon­day was strik­ing, there re­mains a larger ques­tion about the dawn of le­gal­ized sports bet­ting across the en­tire United States. (And, po­ten­tially, Canada, but hold that thought.) Are the pro­fes­sional leagues here ac­tu­ally ready for it? Spoiler alert: no.

Those who con­sume sports are di­vided into two camps. The first camp, and by far the largest, is fans that have a root­ing in­ter­est in teams and want them to win be­cause they are emo­tion­ally in­vested in the out­come. The much smaller group in­cludes those who are lit­er­ally in­vested in the out­come. And while there is an overlap be­tween the two, ex­pe­ri­enced bet­tors rely on the gen­eral ig­no­rance of the ca­sual fan to pro­vide the room for them to make a profit.

North Amer­i­can sports leagues cater al­most en­tirely to the for­mer group. They are aware that wa­ger­ing in­creases the in­ter­est in their games and so they force teams to pro­vide things like in­jury re­ports for the ben­e­fit of prospec­tive bet­tors, but the leagues are of­fi­cially hands off about it with broad­cast­ers dis­cour­aged from ever men­tion­ing a point spread, forc­ing Al Michaels to be all nudge-wink about it on Sun­day Night Foot­ball. (“This field goal at­tempt will be of in­ter­est to cer­tain view­ers.”)

But if bet­ting on sin­gle sports events is soon widely avail­able and le­gal­ized, leagues will have to drop that pre­tence. More im­por­tantly, if the leagues are cut in on the gam­bling rev­enues, as the NBA and Ma­jor League Baseball have al­ready ar­gued they should be, then they would sud­denly have a much greater re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure the games them­selves are con­ducted fairly. Every league pur­sues that goal al­ready, but ul­ti­mately a blown call is a blown call. Too bad your team lost. But if the NBA, for ex­am­ple, be­comes an ac­tual part­ner in or­ga­nized wa­ger­ing on its games, it would add a whole new level of scru­tiny to late-game out­comes. And it would ex­pose that leagues are of­ten mak­ing it up as they go along. Think of the var­i­ous of­fi­ci­at­ing con­tro­ver­sies in re­cent sea­sons: the goalie in­ter­fer­ence rules in the NHL or the con­fu­sion over what con­sti­tutes a catch in the NFL. Now imag­ine that th­ese things play out — com­plete with a video-re­view as­sist from another of­fi­cial or from some­one watch­ing the game at league of­fices — while fans have legally bet a lot of money on the out­come. Are the leagues ready for that kind of blow­back? (Those kinds of in­ter­ested bet­tors al­ready ex­ist, ob­vi­ously, but the leagues at present have the of­fi­cial cover of say­ing they don’t en­dorse such things.)

Leagues would have to be pre­pared to open them­selves up to new lev­els of trans­parency. Could the NHL still get away with call­ing ev­ery­thing from a sore shoul­der to a con­cus­sion an up­per-body in­jury? Would the leagues still let the of­fi­cial time­keep­ers just be some ran­dom guy with his fin­ger on the but­ton? There’s an old joke that the best way to en­sure a clock is run smoothly is to have it op­er­ated by one per­son who bet the over and one who bet the un­der. Would the CFL, in this age of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment and driver­less cars, still have first downs de­ter­mined by hav­ing one of­fi­cial mark a spot with his foot and two more of­fi­cials who carry a 10-yard chain be­tween a cou­ple of orange mark­ers?

The mind bog­gles at the num­ber of ways in which bet­tors might de­mand that the leagues tighten their games up. But there’s too much money at stake for them to refuse to do it. Though the North Amer­i­can leagues have largely fought wide­spread gam­bling for ages — Mon­day’s U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion alone was the cul­mi­na­tion of a seven-year le­gal fight — it is sim­ply too tan­ta­liz­ing a rev­enue prospect, es­pe­cially in an era of de­clin­ing tele­vi­sion view­er­ship, for them to keep up the bat­tle.

And if sin­gle-game bet­ting in the United States be­comes wide­spread in the near term, Canada would al­most be forced to fol­low suit. Prov­inces are al­ready in the casino busi­ness and some have sports-bet­ting lotteries with odds heav­ily skewed toward the house; they would be fool­ish to watch as bor­der casi­nos and U.S. op­er­a­tions started snap­ping up all that wa­ger­ing money.

But Par­lia­ment’s task strikes me as much sim­pler than the one be­fore the leagues. They liked to pre­tend that gam­bling didn’t ex­ist. Per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing that once a casino owner was in the White House, that lie was fi­nally put to rest.

SETH WENIG/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

With the U.S. Supreme Court loos­en­ing up bet­ting rules around the coun­try, pro leagues will have a greater re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure games are con­ducted fairly, says Scott Stin­son.

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