Last month, I went to my first football game in London. Yeah, that game that we call “soccer” in the U.S. No, I didn’t see Chelsea or West Ham. Arsenal or Tottenham. We went to an older, smaller stadium on banks the Thames, home of the Fulham Football Club, which does not currently play in the Premier League. The quaint Craven Cottage stadium is nestled next to the former palace of the bishop of London, alongside a quiet neighborhood of row homes. The crowd was boisterous and enthusiastic, with the color and chanting that makes English football so endearing.
But what fascinated me was a betting window underneath the grandstands where punters could make any number of wagers on the game that was about to be unveiled on the pitch. Of course, this kind of wagering is engrained in sporting events around the world, but is a complete anathema to American sports.
Sports betting has always been the “third rail” of illegal wagering. Americans can accept the lottery, casino gambling, even online gambling, but it was thought that they would reject any wagering on their sacrosanct sporting events. All the major sports leagues and collegiate athletic organizations in North America were united against sports betting. Until now.
The American Gaming Association in January issued a report on the amount of money that would be wagered on the NFL’s Super Bowl. The AGA estimated that bets in the U.S. on Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers would amount to a record $4.2 billion. Of that, $4.1 billion would be wagered illegally.
So, Americans clearly have no reservations about betting illegally on sporting events, sending most of the benefits of those wagers, however, to organized crime and related underground groups. So what has to be done to change this dynamic?
Geoff Freeman, the president and CEO of the AGA, says it’s time to start thinking about it.
“The casino gaming industry is leading the conversation around a new approach to sports betting that enhances consumer protections, strengthens the integrity of games and recognizes fans’ desire for greater engagement with sports,” he says.
But the AGA is not alone in this. The commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Adam Silver, last year penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times advocating for legalization, regulation and taxation of sports betting. Silver knows that sports betting enhances the excitement level for sports fans. Other leaders of major sports organizations have since suggested maybe it’s time for a re-evaluation.
But the sports leagues have quietly gone beyond that. The NFL, probably the most strident voice against sports betting, recently became a part owner of newly formed Sportradar US, the subsidiary of a Swiss company that provides real-time statistics, scores and odds to bookmakers, including offshore sports books that offer illegal betting in the U.S.
The NBA and Major League Baseball own pieces of fantasy sports companies, which have recently come under scrutiny across the nation as illegal gambling.
MLB is protecting itself against game-fixing by reaching an agreement with London-based Sport Integrity Monitor, to monitor betting lines and identify suspicious betting activity that might indicate fixed games.
Last month, Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson put the considerable weight of his organization behind a possible stadium for UNLV in Las Vegas that could also host an NFL franchise. Adelson met a few days later with the owner of the Oakland Raiders, who is looking for a new home for his team. And the NFL said it would have no problem if a team wanted to move to the gambling capital.
So clearly, the time has come to take a closer look at sports betting in the U.S. and determine how to legalize it, regulate it and tax it to ensure the consumers are protected, the integrity of the games remains intact and illegal gambling is quashed.
Gambling isn’t necessary to enjoy sports. I still rooted for Fulham that afternoon in London even though I didn’t get a bet down. But it certainly adds to the experience for some people, and residents of North America should get that opportunity.