US pro sports leagues gradually embrace gambling

Jimmy Golen - The Philippine Star

Professional sports leagues in the United States that once professed zero tolerance for gambling are moving steadily toward accepting betting on their games, partly because of the futility in fighting it and partly to get a cut of the action.

One day after the NBA signed a sponsorship agreement with FanDuel, a website where fans can win (and lose) money playing daily fantasy sports, league commissioner Adam Silver wrote an op-ed article saying it was time to consider legalizing sports gambling.

"There is an obvious appetite among sports fans for a safe and legal way to wager on professional sporting events," Silver said in an op-ed article published in The New York Times online edition Thursday. "Sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated."

Gambling has been a scourge of US sports at least since eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banished for fixing the 1919 World Series. NFL stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended for gambling in 1963, and Pete Rose was given a lifetime ban from baseball in 1989 — all in the interest of protecting the integrity of the games.

But like other businesses struggling to adapt to the internet age, sports leagues are realizing that rules written for the backroom bookies of a Marlon Brando film don't quite fit when gambling takes place on well-financed sites that come bearing multimillion dollar sponsorship checks.

After decades of strictly avoiding any form of gambling, the NFL in 2009 gave teams permission to sign licensing deals with state-sponsored lotteries. More recently, leagues have embraced fantasy sports websites that allow fans to risk real money on what happens during games — but not on their outcomes. (Only Nevada allows betting on the outcome of games; a move to allow it n New Jersey is being fought by the pro sports leagues.)

The fantasy sports websites deny that they are in the gambling business, claiming they are less a game of chance like roulette than a game of skill where a player's knowledge gives him an edge — a definition of gambling that would exclude many card games and much of what goes on the golf course, among friends.

Leagues are happy to go along with this definition, and it's easy to see why: Not only do fantasy sports keep fans following the game, the sponsorship deals — and, in the NBA's case, an ownership stake in FanDuel — bring in cash for ever-thirsty leagues.

"Fantasy games have long been considered legal and distinct from sports betting," Sal LaRocca, NBA President of Global Operations and Merchandising said in an email. "One-day fantasy is a popular and legal way for fans to further connect with our game."

Likewise, when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted an endorsement of a one-week, pay $10 to win $5,000 league at FanDuel, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy dismissed the suggestion that it was an endorsement of gambling.

"It's fantasy football," he said.

Many states draw a similar distinction in deciding what gambling to ban, and the 2006 federal law that prohibited online gambling included an exception for fantasy sports. The patchwork of state laws — and the fact that many haven't been tested in the courts — makes it difficult to even say how many states prohibit playing fantasy sports for money, according to Marc Edelman, a Baruch College law professor who has written about the legal implications of fantasy sports. (FanDuel says residents of five states cannot play for money.)

Silver acknowledged that resisting sports betting merely forces it underground, citing estimates of illegal gambling on games as high as $400 million a year.

"Gambling has increasingly become a popular and accepted form of entertainment in the United States," he wrote. "In light of these domestic and global trends, the laws on sports betting should be changed."

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