Adam Silver is right to push for sports betting legalization

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On Sunday I placed a bet on the Super Bowl - a £5 double on Marshawn Lynch to score a touchdown and the Seattle Seahawks to win. Malcolm Butler, you owe me five of the Queen's pounds.

I placed this bet on my smartphone, using a bookmaker's app. It took less than two minutes.

Did the fact I stood to win £17.50 make my Super Bowl experience any more enjoyable? Not really. But in a game I had no team to root for (I'm an Eagles fan) it gave me a stake in the action and a reason to will the Seahawks down the field on their fateful final drive.

Because I'm based in the UK, I can bet on any of the main US sports. Usually I stick to the NFL, but I've bet on college football and NBA before too.

Point totals, first TD scorer, winning margin, there's a market for basically anything. I could bet on next year's Super Bowl winner (Seahawks 5/1 favourites) right now.

But if I flew to the United States, I couldn't do any of this. I could read a 5,000-word Bill Simmons' NFL picks column and I would have to go all the way to Nevada to a Las Vegas sportsbooks to spend a dollar of my own money.

This is crazy, pointless and backward in the internet age.

Betting is already everywhere in the US.

It's here...

And here...

ESPN has a section devoted to it here.

And here's what the athletes think. The headline? More than 62 per cent think it should be legalized.

Despite a sports culture obsessed with point spreads and over/unders it's taken until now for America to have a proper conversation about it. Because it looks like someone - NBA commissioner Adam Silver - is going to do something about it.

The case against

There's a few arguments against the legalization of gambling and they're all rubbish. First, the corruption of a nation's moral code.

The United States is the 'land of the free' - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, even freedom to bear arms, and, of course, the freedom to drink alcohol. Freedom to gamble though, is restricted to a designated zone.

Treating gambling like a virus to be contained has done little other than to turn Vegas into a Wild West, Escape from New York-style jungle of stag parties and morning-after-the-night-before regrets. It's only fair that the whole country shares this burden.

I'm joking, but concentrating gambling into one small state really serves little purpose.

Owning an assault rifle is morally questionable, drinking alcohol is morally questionable, but citizens are free to live as they please. The idea that legalising gambling will tip society over the precipice is just not rational.

You can jam dollar after dollar into a slot machine. But you can't bet on your favourite sports team. You can waste hours and a fortune at a blackjack table in Vegas or Atlantic City. But you can't on your favourite sports team.

Allowing one completely random bet and not the other just doesn't make any sense.

But morality has never been the real reason gambling has been kept in the shadows. In the US, more than just about any other country, money makes decisions.

So the main concern is about integrity and about making money. It is about avoiding a repeat Tim Donaghy.

Fighting corruption

"This is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA or a commissioner of the NBA."

This was David Stern in 2007, NBA commissioner when referee Donaghy was investigated for betting on games in a league he officiated in. The scandal rocked basketball in the United States and shone a light on the seedy underworld of illegal betting.

Match-fixing is often cited as an excuse to keep betting in the dark, but a gambling underworld run by gangsters and criminals is much more likely to try and influence games than paying customers. They have a stake in ensuring a fair game after all, and so do the bookmakers.

University of Michigan economist Stephan Szymanski told the New York Times last month: "From a regulator’s perspective, if you legalize sports gambling, you enlist an army of private businesspeople [bookmakers] that want to help you police a sport.”

Silver, who spent time abroad growing the NBA brand as deputy commissioner, is aware of just how backward the United States is compared to the betting habits of other nations.

The UK Gambling Act of 1960 legalised bookmakers (betting shops) in Britain, permitting wagers on horse-racing and greyhounds and then football pools and the Premier League. It's now an industry worth up to £650m.

Updated legislation in 2005 had three main aims…

  • Keep gambling crime-free
  • make sure that gambling is fair and open
  • protect children and vulnerable

Because it's in the bookmakers' interest to keep the sport clean, to avoid a Donaghy scandal. Bettors want security, they want to be paid out if they win and to avoid getting their legs broken if they lose. A regulated market with stakeholders taking an active role in policing is key.

I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated - Adam Silver

Bookies track money lines and flag up unusual bets. If markets shift aggressively, it triggers a warning that something might be off. FIFA and the Premier League both help monitor this. Bringing associations like the NBA onside is the first step in the US.

Before the Donaghy incident, illegal betting sat next to Performance Enhancing Drugs as an unmentionable topic banished to fringe discussion. Easier to bury your head in the sand after all.

And that's where it stayed until Silver took the plunge. In an op-ed in the New York Times last year, he wrote: "I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated."

The new commissioner told a sports conference a few months later that sports betting was 'inevitable' in the United States and yesterday, in an interview with ESPN, he moved the discussion on again.


"I have talked to the commissioners in the other leagues about [legalizing sports betting], Silver said.

"I leave it to them to make any public statements they want to make on it. I will say that certainly all of them are interested in having a better understanding of the issue, and I know have assigned people in their organizations to study intensively the issue as well."

Fantasy league play, hugely popular across all the major sports, is about as close to betting as you can get without spending money. Many user-owned leagues actually operate cash prizes independently anyway. A kind of behind-closed-doors betting ring out of sight of the IRS.

"On the continuum of no betting at all and legalized betting, it's certainly somewhere on the spectrum, but not yet sports betting," Silver continued.

The political requirements

As in the UK, legislation will be key to legalization in the US. And there's momentum there too.

Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, has spoken about opening his state up Nevada-style.

He signed legislation into law last year, and although it's been temporarily delayed, he expects to move ahead with sports betting legalization in New Jersey.

Senator John McCain, 2008 Republican nominee for President, wants congressional hearings on the topic.

The 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) is the federal legislation that prohibits sports betting. But two US congressmen from New Jersey, Frank LoBiondo and Frank Pallone, have bills in motion to amend the law.

There's momentum in New York, Indiana and South Carolina too, while Minnesota representative Phyllis Kahn told ESPN she's planning to overturn the bill in her state.


And then there's the financial rewards, for a league with expansionist aspirations, and state. New Jersey state senators proposed to the NBA a 0.25 per cent commissioner fee for betting in state, and the NBA reportedly liked the idea. What business wouldn't?

One of the UK's biggest bookmakers, William Hill, made £176.9m operating profit in the first half of 2014. That's just one example, the company has countless competitors - and that means jobs and economic growth.

A Deloitte report in 2011 described the British Betting Industry as a 'key contributor' to the UK economy, supporting 38,800 jobs and generating £2.3bn to GDP.

In Germany, the Ministry of Finance revealed betting turnover increased by 18 per cent to €4.5bn in 2014, resulting in record tax revenue for Angela Merkel's government.

The US is a significantly larger market than either Britain or Germany so the financial rewards are potentially massive. For this reason alone, Silver is right to explore the options.

Legalised betting is a gigantic untapped market in a country whose political atmosphere, like most Western governments, is gripped by job creation fever and stimulating a growing economy.

Opposition remains

There is still opposition. US District Judge Michael Shipp, who has delayed Christie's New Jersey legislation, said: “More legal gambling leads to more total gambling, which in turns leads to an increased incentive to fix plaintiffs’ matches.”

But if cricket is anything to go by, the opposite may be true. The Indian Premier League has been dogged by improper allegations, in a country where sports betting is illegal but ubiquitous.

Games can attract up to £100m in wagers, but there's a movement in India too, to fight corruption through legalization. High profile cricket players and ex-pros like Adam Gilchrist, Rahul Dravid and Geoffrey Boycott are on board. A Delhi court called for legalization in 2010.

Path to legalization

Spreading sports betting from one state to 52 would not irreparably damage the United States moral compass, it would not lead to more Donaghy's.

Losing £5 on the final play of the Super Bowl was tough to take, but I'll do the same again next year. Maybe my US equivalent will be able to as well.

NBA Finals

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