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Sports Sense

The battle over sports betting

Sports Sense

Living in Nevada, betting is second nature to many people. Heck, most of us go to a casino just to see a movie or go bowling.

The simple joy of getting a bet down on your favorite football or baseball team is taken for granted. So some of us who live here forget that simple joy isn’t available to people in other parts of the United States. OK, you can do it in Delaware now, but you’ve got to combine it for a three-way parlay. I don’t know about you, but I like straight-up bets. Parlays are a sucker’s bet, and while they might have nice payoffs, the risks are much higher.

In Europe, sports betting is part of the culture. Bookies have shops on every high street, and there is no perceived issue with bookmakers playing a role in any sport. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and most other major football clubs in Europe have been sponsored at one time or another by a bookmaker, and often, online bookmakers like bwin.party or Sportingbet. William Hill Chairman Ralph Topping is the commissioner of the Scottish premier league. It’s just not an issue there.

So the American attitude towards betting and sports is not only archaic, it’s also hypocritical.

The National Football League is clearly the most popular sport in the U.S. And while American football is certainly an entertaining game (for those who understand its nuances) and is best viewed on the television rather than in person, one of the main reasons it is popular is because it’s a very “bet-able” game. Wagering money on a team and getting points is a science, and the handicappers in Vegas have lost no time capitalizing on “900” numbers that purport to give callers the “lock of the year” every week. (Never mind that “lock” is offered either side, guaranteeing that at least half your callers will think you’re a handicapping genius.) Betting is largely responsible for the popularity of football.

A sports book on an NFL Sunday or during the March Madness college basketball tournaments is a frenzy of excitement with screams and jeers coming from every corner of the room at any time.

And the advent of new technology where players can bet on individual plays or outcomes, or hedge their bets, at any point during the game makes sports betting more profitable than it has been in the past for casinos and bookmakers.

So why is sports betting in such disfavor in the U.S.? At every internet gaming conference I have attended in the past five years, experts say that online poker and casino games will be legalized long before online sports betting will be. But what is the rationale for that opinion?

It could be the long and nasty history of sports scandals in the U.S. as they relate to betting. Starting with the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal to illegal sports betting by major athletes such as Paul Hornung and Pete Rose, sports betting has been tainted. It has always been run by organized crime, as well, so that’s also a big negative.

But isn’t that the best reason to legalize it? Get it out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of professionals. Tax it and allow government to reap some of the benefits. Give the leagues a cut. One proposal in New Jersey was to use some of the revenue from the legal sports betting operations in that state to establish a fund that would aid former NFL players with long-term health issues.

It’s been proven again and again that legal sports betting is, if not scandal-proof, at least scandal-resistant—India’s cricket betting incident notwithstanding. Legal sports books track unusual movements in the lines, allowing authorities to track down any irregularities.

So I’m hoping that the challenge to the federal ban on sports betting thrown down by New Jersey will be successful. With a referendum being approved by a 2-1 margin in 2009, the state is challenging the ban, with the opposition of the major sports leagues. It’s going to be a battle, and a win is a true long shot for Governor Chris Christie and his legal team. But it’s time to put the sports leagues on notice that we like to bet and don’t believe it is at all a threat to the integrity of anyone—except for the criminals who are still enjoying the fruits of the leagues’ largesse. 

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.

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