Niyo: There's no turning back on sports betting now

John Niyo
The Detroit News

What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay there, no matter what the marketing slogans say.

And now the U.S. Supreme Court finally has put that myth to rest, along with the quarter-century-old charade that the games people play should be off-limits to the wagers bettors place everywhere else but in Sin City.

Monday’s landmark ruling overturning the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a 1992 law that barred sports betting outside of Nevada and three other states on a limited basis was not unexpected. But the court’s 6-3 decision is expected to change the way we view sports in this country, literally and figuratively.

And that’s no small thing, though just how big Monday’s ruling is remains to be seen.

There’s no way to do an accurate accounting of illegal sports gambling in the U.S., but the number likely is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. A national study commissioned by Congress nearly 20 years ago estimated that Americans bet between $80 billion and $380 billion illegally each year. Multiply that by a factor of the Internet (How’d your fantasy football team do last fall, by the way?) and it’s easy to understand what all the fuss is about now.

Back in 2012, former MLB commissioner Bud Selig made it clear where the four major U.S. pro sports leagues stood on the matter. In a deposition for the leagues’ lawsuit challenging New Jersey’s initial Sports Wagering Act, Selig testified that gambling was “the deadliest of all things that can happen” for sports, adding, “It’s evil. It creates doubt and destroys your sport.”

But as the old saying goes, evil triumphs when good men do nothing. And while Monday’s news certainly strikes a blow against illegal bookmakers — and organized crime, by a natural extension — something else happened along the way to Monday’s ruling.

The ground shifted — a recent national poll showed a majority of Americans supported legalizing sports betting — and so did everyone’s positions.

In 2014, the NHL’s board of governors set the wheels in motion for awarding an expansion franchise to Las Vegas, a move that was finalized with a unanimous vote in June 2016. Nine months later, NFL owners voted 31-1 in favor of relocating the Oakland Raiders there as well.

Once that barrier was broken, all the talk of protecting the integrity of the game was out the window, torn up like a losing ticket at the sportsbook. As former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who had a title role in the early stages of this court fight, noted in an HBO interview last fall, “The hypocrisy is just so overwhelming.”

It was, and still will be, of course.

Not just when it comes to pro sports, either. The NCAA, which has declined to hold championships in cities that allowed sports wagering, might have to open its eyes as well, a fact the organization’s chief legal officer, Donald Remy, acknowledged Monday.

“While we are still reviewing the decision to understand the overall implications to college sports,” Remy said, “we will adjust sports wagering and championship policies to align with the direction from the court.”

More: Supreme Court strikes law banning gambling on sports

The NBA under commissioner Adam Silver has been the most proactive in adjusting its stance, citing its own 2007 betting scandal involving referee Tim Donaghy as well as the league’s more global view, if you will, doing big business in other countries where gambling is legal.

Silver wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in 2014 calling for a federal law allowing states to legalize sports wagering. Not coincidentally, that came less than 24 hours after the NBA announced it had signed a four-year deal with daily fantasy sports operator FanDuel – an agreement that also included an equity stake.

More recently, with a SCOTUS decision looming, the NBA and other leagues — the PGA Tour, too — have been positioning themselves for this outcome. They’re pushing for what’s commonly called an “integrity fee,” both to defray costs for protection against game-fixing and as an intellectual property royalty fee. States may scoff at that idea — and the irony behind it — but at the All-Star Game in February, Silver insisted “a 1% fee seems very fair to me.”

However it all shakes out — bet on those fees being much lower in the end — it’s fair to say the old way of doing business is no more. Bringing all that illegal wagering “into the sunlight,” as Silver put it, will open up new revenue streams for U.S. leagues and the billionaires’ franchises that prop them up.

In an interview with CNBC shortly after Monday’s ruling, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted that “everyone who owns a (major) professional sports team just basically saw the value of their team double at least.”

Television ratings are sure to spike. The American Gaming Association says people who bet on the NFL, for example, watch 19 more games a season than those who don’t. They also watch to the bitter end, in most cases, which only adds to the advertising hook. Teams undoubtedly will cash in with new sponsorship deals, the way so many European soccer clubs have for years. And if this ruling leads to in-game wagering online — one of many issues that’ll have to be hashed out either at the state or federal level — then all bets are on, I suppose. Fans could sit in their seats and place a quick prop bet while ordering another beer, then enjoy watching them both disappear. As Cuban joked Monday, “It can finally become fun to go to a baseball game again.”

Bookmakers say they could be up and running in a matter of weeks in New Jersey, barring some kind of federal injunction, and there are a handful of other states ready to do the same, from Connecticut to Mississippi. Just how quickly Michigan joins the fray remains to be seen, though there already are bills waiting to be heard in the state legislature here and casinos waiting to cash in. Even a lone horse track that could be saved.

Everybody has been waiting for this, really. And while no one can say for sure where this all leads, this much seems certain now that the Supreme Court has weighed in, even if this ruling was more about the Tenth Amendment and states’ rights than it was point spreads and over-unders. Jeffrey Pash, the NFL’s general counsel, probably put it best while speaking at a Harvard Law School panel discussion last fall. If New Jersey won this case, he wagered, the states will be off and running unbridled.

“I don’t know what happens after the horse is out of the barn, but that’s where you’ll be,” he said. “The horse will be so far away you won’t be able to see it.”