This is the time of year when I usually do something I shouldn’t: make predictions! My crystal ball isn’t any more reliable than yours, but sports columnists are expected to go out on a limb and pretend they know something no one else does. It’s a hazard of the profession. But this year I’m determined to make it a risk - free exercise.
One way to do that is to go with one, sure-fire prediction, instead of a handful. The biggest sports business story in 2019 will be legalized sports betting.
You may have heard that in May the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), a decades-old statute prohibiting all but a handful of states from engaging in sports betting.
Several states took immediate advantage of the decision, passing legislation to authorize wagering on sports. That trickle is expected to become a flood as greedy politicians in cash-starved states seek to tap a revenue source that only the gaming industry opposes. Note the modern day nomenclature, “legalized sports betting,” which is a sanitized phrase for what used to be called gambling. But whether it’s called a lottery, pari-mutuel betting, a casino or “legalized sports betting,” it’s all gambling. The only difference is who profits from the activity. Since the Supreme Court decision, teams and leagues have had their hands out, with the NHL, NBA and MLB being the most willing to embrace the new normal.
MLB’s conversion from betting opponent to proponent is the biggest surprise. Gambling almost killed the sport after several Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series in exchange for money from gangsters. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were banned from the sport in the 1980’s for doing public relations work for Atlantic City casinos, although they were later reinstated. And of course, Pete Rose was suspended for life after betting on the outcome of games while managing the Cincinnati Reds.
But none of that history has prevented MLB from trying to cash in on the river of money expected to flow from legalized sports betting.
The league has lobbied state legislatures to regulate gambling on sports and at the same time, cut MLB in for an “integrity fee.” The concept is nothing more than a revenue stream in disguise, money for doing what the league already does: monitor employee and player habits to ensure that games are on the up-and-up. To date, those lobbying efforts haven’t been fruitful.
The NHL, NBA and MLB have all signed deals with MGM Resorts International to be their official gaming partner. Taking gambling associations a step further, sports book operator William Hill US is opening the William Hill Sports Lounge at Prudential Center, home of the NHL New Jersey Devils. The arrangement will give the bookmaker direct access to fans at sporting events, something previously unheard of in this country.
There’s no doubt the relationship between sports and gambling has entered a new era, one guaranteed to be the top sports business story of 2019.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.