In an unprecedented public gathering of the heads of the nation's top sports leagues, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday made a bold prediction about a topic his colleagues would just as soon sweep under the nearest rug: He believes sports gambling will be legalized in the United States.
Speaking at the Paley Center for Media's "GameChangers" panel, Silver said he thinks the laws that keep sports books quarantined in Nevada and three other states eventually will fall by the wayside.
"My sense is that the law will change in the next few years in the United States, and I think it's not as much a matter of our leagues being for or against sports betting, it's more a function of being realists," Silver said. "It's a multi-hundred-billion-dollar illegal industry … and I think ultimately, as the owners of our intellectual property, we're going to embrace it and also make sure that our integrity is protected at the same time."
Silver, who in 1988 earned a degree from the University of Chicago Law School, said that recent events would seem to suggest that the legalization of sports betting may be in the offing. He specifically noted that the U.S. Supreme Court last month agreed to hear New Jersey's appeal in its long-running quest to offer legal sports wagering throughout the Garden State. (Other states that are now setting up their own provisional legislation in the hopes New Jersey gets the five votes it needs to proceed with its gambling vision include New York, Connecticut, Michigan and Maryland.)
While the prospect of the NBA wetting its beak in what is now a wildly lucrative, wholly unregulated economy is likely a contributing factor in Silver's advocacy for legalizing sports gambling, the commish said the practice also does wonders for fan engagement. Citing data the NBA receives from bookmakers that take action on its games in Europe, Silver revealed that 85% of pro hoops bets are "in-play." In other words, rather than simply betting the point spread and then sitting back and watching the game unfold, European bettors are wagering on a constant stream of variables: free throws, quarter scores, three-point shots and every other data point you can think of.
"Independent of whatever revenue stream that may result from licensing our intellectual property to those gaming companies, [gambling] results in enormous additional engagement in fans," Silver said. And say what you will about the moral pitfalls of gambling, but it sure can make what might otherwise be an uninspiring game into a real nail-biter. "You might have a sports fan who's turning off a contest because the game is out of reach for their team or it's a blowout, but here there's a completely independent reason to continue watching," Silver said.
Silver first began vocalizing his support of legalized sports betting in a 2014 editorial that was published in The New York Times. In that piece, Silver encouraged the federal government to allow states to offer a highly regulated form of legitimate wagering, one that would include minimum-age verification and the monitoring of any unusual activity in the betting lines that might indicate the outcome of a game was being manipulated by outside interests.
Silver's colleagues on the dais offered more ambivalent responses to the idea of legalized sports gambling. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that because most people don't bet on hockey, the propsect of legalized gambling isn't exactly a pressing issue for his league.
"We're a small part of the betting that goes on. Football, basketball, both at the pro and college levels, is where, I don't know, 98% of the betting goes on," Bettman said, before adding that he had some reservations about how legalization could impact the culture of the sport.
"I don't worry about fixing games, I don't worry about anything other than what does [gambling] do to the way young people consume sports," Bettman said. "Do they look at it as a vehicle for healthy competition with role models or do they look at it as a device to make or lose money on a bet? And secondly, what will it do to the environment, in a stadium or in an arena, if everybody is sitting there just worried about their bets? Does it turn us into something other than what we've been, more like either a racetrack or a jai alai fronton?"
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested that legalized gambling would likely serve to intensify the fan experience in the same way DraftKings and FanDuel have demonstrated in recent years. "We were pretty comfortable with the idea that [daily fantasy] was a game of skill and therefore legal, and that's why we became involved in it, and obviously it's a source of fan engagement," Manfred said. "And then you get into actual sports betting, and it seems to me that there's a difference between somebody betting on whether the next pitch is going to be a ball or a strike, which is very hard for anybody to affect or control, as opposed to the outcome of a game, which is a little different."