It’s only been a couple of years since a collection of “experts”—myself included—sat on a panel at iGaming North America, the premier iGaming show in the U.S., to discuss the timing of legal online gaming in this country.
This was before iGaming was legal and operating in any state. We all basically agreed that iPoker was coming in a year or two, iGaming a year or two after that, and that sports betting in the U.S. was at least a decade away, maybe more. We were pretty much on the money with the first two predictions, but the last one… not so much.
It’s been almost breathtaking with how fast the national attitude towards sports betting has changed—at least at the highest levels. The major sports leagues are still fighting tooth and nail in New Jersey to prevent that state from legalizing sports betting, but within the past few months, several of the league commissioners seem to be having second thoughts.
It began with Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, who penned a thoughtful piece in the New York Times about why the sports betting ban was silly and outdated. Since that time, we’ve heard from Gary Bettman—whose National Hockey League is likely to become the first major sports league to locate a franchise in Las Vegas—and Rob Barnum, the new commissioner of Major League Baseball. While both stopped short of advocating for sports betting, they both indicated that the policy opposing it should be reviewed.
Even U.S. Senator John McCain, the public official so diametrically opposed to iGaming—a position he has not changed—says there should be hearings in Congress on the sports betting prohibition and that tribal casinos should be allowed to take bets if it becomes legal. Remember, just a few years ago, he was angling for a full nationwide ban—even in Nevada—against wagering on amateur sports.
So why this big change of heart? What has changed in the past couple of years?
Let’s face it, Americans love to bet on sports. Whether it’s in the March Madness office pools or the fantasy football games that have captivated players for years, no one sees any evil in putting some of their hard-earned cash down on a game. It makes the game more interesting and gets the bettor more involved and more knowledgeable about the sport.
The one commissioner who hasn’t weighed in on sports betting is, ironically, Roger Goodell, whose National Football League has benefited from spread betting for many years and can trace the popularity of the sport to the growth of wagering.
I’d also like to think that the change in attitude toward sports betting and casinos in general can be traced to the growing positive reputation of gaming in jurisdictions across America. Casino companies are part and parcel of the communities in which they are located. Casino executives and employees are friends and neighbors of everyone.
The campaigns waged in the last year by the American Gaming Association surrounding the “Get to Know Gaming” program have also had an impact. And now the AGA is doubling down with the “Gaming Votes” program that will focus on educating politicians on the facts of the gaming industry, and employees on the policies of those politicians. That’s real power.
Caesars Chairman Gary Loveman has long pleaded for gaming to be treated like any other industry. He thinks investors have been scared away from gaming because of the massive regulatory oversight and the slightly sinful reputation of the industry.
With the consolidation on the supplier side now nearly complete—lottery companies like Scientific Games and GTECH merging with slot suppliers WMS, Bally and IGT—there is a blurring of the lines between what is very acceptable gaming—lotteries—versus some of the most shadowy kinds of gaming—casinos. How long will it be before major entertainment companies like Sony, Universal, News Corporation, AEG or Live Nation look at major casino companies and begin to see the synergies?
The late MGM chairman, Terry Lanni, predicted this more than 10 years ago. It is going to happen, and more acceptance of gaming in the mainstream will only speed the process.
So the coming campaign to legalize sports betting in the U.S. is, in my opinion, just the start of a process that will bring the gaming industry into the mainstream of American life. And it’s about time.