Listen to him now. "What we've learned is it's another point of engagement for fans. It started with daily fantasy sports and ultimately, I think, if you're interested in sports betting, you're going to have an increased opportunity to engage in the game," Bettman said Thursday. "Our hope is it causes people to watch more games, whether it's existing avid fans who consume more or casual fans who want to place a bet or two."
Bettman's reversal on sports betting has been quick and dramatic, and he's not alone. His comments came at an event that would have been unthinkable as recently as last summer: a sports gambling summit at the MGM National Harbor casino where team owners and league executives celebrated their newfound closeness with sportsbook operators. They sat on panels talking about the business opportunities that accompany legal betting and mingled over cocktails and hors d'ouevres prepared by celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio.
The Supreme Court ruled last May that any state can legalize sports betting if it chooses, and since then the action has been swift. Sports gambling is now legal in eight states, with more than 20 others at least considering legalization.
Even after the Supreme Court decision, the leagues and the casino industry maintained an adversarial stance in statehouses, with the NBA and MLB in particular lobbying for a percentage of gambling revenue, calling it an "integrity fee" they would use to fight off attempts at game-fixing or similar scandals. But no state that has legalized sports betting has mandated those fees, leaving the leagues and sportsbook operators to work out deals on their own.
The two-day gathering, which concluded Thursday, was organized by the American Gaming Association, a casino-industry trade group that spent years trying to persuade sports leagues to embrace legal gambling, arguing it would increase fan engagement and open up new revenue streams.
"It isn't just about what the states have done from a legislative enactment perspective but the fact that 30-plus commercial agreements and deals among many of the people in this room have taken place, and that's where the action should be," said Bill Miller, CEO of the AGA. "And that's why I think our level of success from the perspective of who wanted to come, who we invited and who said yes, was because they believe this is a commercial endeavor at this point."
In addition to Bettman — who took the occasion to announce the league's deal with bookmaker William Hill — executives from the NBA, MLB, MLS and the PGA Tour participated in panel discussions. While they kept a lower profile, the NFL and the NCAA also sent representatives to the conference.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican whose administration took the fight over sports betting prohibition to the Supreme Court, urged gambling companies to embrace sensible regulations, arguing that successful implementation at the state level will prevent the federal government from getting involved. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Chuck Schumer have introduced a bill to regulate sports gambling at the federal level.
Two team owners showed up to talk about the way legal sports betting could transform their venues: Ted Leonsis of the Washington Wizards and Capitals and Jeff Wilpon of the New York Mets. Washington's mayor has already signed a bill legalizing sports gambling that has yet to take effect. At Leonsis' urging, the new law allows city stadiums and arenas to apply for sports-betting licenses, and Leonsis this month bought out a popular sports bar at Capital One Arena in downtown Washington, with plans to turn that space into a sportsbook.
"You have a sportsbook in the arena, maybe we have 20,000 people to watch us play on the road. I'd like to bring 20,000 people in to watch football games and go to our partner site and eat and gamble. That would be a fantastic reengineering of what we can do with our building," Leonsis said. "I want to make the building the iconic, most important convener place for the community. This will allow us to do it."
Wilpon said the ability to bet on sports at Citi Field, home of the Mets, would help attract younger fans to the ballpark, along with events featuring the New York Excelsior, his esports franchise in the Overwatch League.
Although the summit featured a discussion of problem gambling, there was little talk among the headliners about the potential drawbacks of closer ties among the gambling industry, teams and leagues. Gambling proponents see in-game mobile betting in particular as a huge untapped business opportunity, and that sort of betting can be particularly enticing to gambling addicts, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
"You can gamble on a thousand different events during a game, and at $5 a bet that's a significant financial risk," said Whyte, who attended the conference. "You can have a fan with a gambling problem spending tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars quote-unquote 'supporting' their favorite club."
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