It is tough not to utter those five letters in a reverential tone with wide, dreamy eyes. After all there is an unmistakable mystique to the glam and glitz of this city in the desert: Disneyland for grown-ups. Playground for bachelors and retirees alike. City of sin.
From gaudy casinos and decadent nightclubs to exquisite restaurants and luxurious hotels, the entertainment capital of the world has everything … or so it seems.
“Vegas would seem to be the logical place to have a professional team,” said Dr. Tywan Martin, Professor of Sports Management at the University of Miami.
Now you might ask yourself why of all the major cities in the U.S. – according to the latest Nielsen estimates for TV markets Vegas is bigger than Oklahoma City, Memphis, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Buffalo, all of which have professional sports franchises –Las Vegas doesn’t have one of the basic pillars of American culture? The answer is simple:
Fear and Lobbying in Las Vegas
“People want to believe and you want people to believe that this is authentic, clean,” Martin said. “Teams that are winning, it’s done by hard work – you want that image projected. And what gambling does, from my understanding is that it dilutes that quite a bit. So I think it’s more perception-based and the negative images and the stigmas that are attached to gambling and introducing that into sports for leagues and team owners, it really, really greys the line.”
Not surprisingly, sports leagues have been fighting the legalization of sports betting every step of the way.
“It’s a big item for them,” said Dr. Ryan Rodenberg, Assistant Professor of Sport Law at Florida State. “For decades they have publicly said that gambling is kind of the greatest fear. If gambling were to become pervasive and viewers no longer thought the games were legitimate, competitive sporting events then a certain percentage of people tune out.”
At the same time, more and more states have been pushing for the legalization of sports gambling with New Jersey being the most recent one. After voters approved a referendum in 2011, the state’s legislature passed a bill legalizing sports betting, a bill that Gov. Chris Christie then signed into law last January. There is only one problem: The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 or PASPA for short.
“It’s a tough fight for the state of New Jersey, because you have this federal law already in existence,” said Darren Heitner, a sports and entertainment attorney who practices law in Miami. “Have times changed? Sure. And maybe with a strict constitutional review we determine that congress overstepped its powers and should never have implemented it in the first place.”
At the moment though, only Delaware, Montana, Oregon and Nevada are exempt from PASPA. All four of them were grandfathered in and allowed to keep the sports betting scheme in place that they had when the act was passed. Thus, only Nevada has full-fledged sports betting. And it’s paying off. Big time.
Show me the money
“The most recent figure shows that close to $3 billion was wagered in Nevada on sports,” Rodenberg explained. “Which on the surface sounds like a lot, but when you think about it, most estimates peg that as only 1% of the total amount Americans bet on sports.”
And where does the rest go?
“There [are] a lot of other avenues,” Rodenberg said. “People clearly are betting on sports and it’s your neighborhood bookies, they’ve been around for decades. And then the other one, which has only been around for 15 years, is all the offshore, online stuff.”
New Jersey has argued that legalization and regulation would allow sports betting to become more transparent, thus mitigating corruption – an argument supported by past history, Rodenberg explained:
“It hasn’t happened all the time, but Nevada has detected some of this point shaving in the past. It was Nevada sports books, 15 almost 20 years ago now, [that] helped detect the Arizona State basketball point shaving scheme. They were getting such weird wagers, wagering against Arizona State that they found unexpected, they actually launched an investigation and found that the leading scorer on the team and one other co-conspirator were being paid money to shave points.”
For the love of the green
While all sports are more or less susceptible to corruption, the Arizona State episode shows that college sports might be at risk the most.
“The problem is that you have these young men who are not being compensated,” Martin said. “And that’s why it’s easy for a Shapiro to come about, flashing dollars to get close to some of these guys. I definitely think that college athletes could be influenced based on the salaries, based on them not being compensated when they probably should be.”
And according to Rodenberg this sentiment could even be backed up by the NCAA itself:
“The NCAA did kind of an internal study where they surveyed student-athletes – I don’t remember the exact numbers – but I think about 2% knew of situations where teammates took money to affect game outcomes and then 1% of the respondents acknowledged that they even did it. Some of those numbers sound pretty small, but even if that’s the case, I mean one out of 100 games seems like a lot to me, because there is thousands of college basketball games every year.”
To think that a game that was on TV last night may have been manipulated is undoubtedly discomforting. But to believe that the culprits are solely found on the field or court or in the sports books is just plain naïve. Speaking of TV…
“Here is the thing,” Martin explained. “ESPN gets away with it all the time: If you are using ‘underdog’ or ‘favorite,’ that type of language, you are indirectly – and perhaps directly – talking about gambling.”
But the problem is not just the language; it’s also the way these sports network personalities are being perceived. As experts.
“When you have people that have played the game,” Martin said, “who have studied the game, they know the players, they know the coaches, their information is valuable to you. Some guy out there trying to make a living may listen to what they say and that can certainly influence where they place their money as far as the bet goes.”
And then last but not least there is the conundrum of ‘university’ vs. ‘team’:
“Rarely do they use the words ‘university,’ ‘institution,’” Martin said. “Most of the time you hear them say ‘teams.’ So it removes the idea – in my mind – from the viewer that you’re actually looking at an amateur sport.”
While accusing the media of having a sports betting agenda would be rash and sensational, one cannot overlook the considerable influence it has on sports gambling and the way it’s being perceived. In many instances they undoubtedly stimulate the betting market, which can’t be good for the leagues, right?
Friend or foe?
By now, the old adage ‘sports is a business’ has probably turned into a cliché, but it nevertheless holds true. What counts at the end of the day is the bottom line. And the bottom line with sports betting is that every gambler is a guaranteed viewer.
“We’ll never probably know to what extent gambling drives interest in TV viewership and interest in sports,” Rodenberg said. “But the Superbowl is in a week and a half and if the score is 28-0 with five minutes to go I might go do something else, because the game’s already decided. However, if you’re a gambling man and you’re betting on a point spread or you’re betting on an over/under or something, you’re still tuning in. You’re tuning in until the bitter end if you want to see if your wager wins or not. I’m certain that sports leagues are aware of that.”
And sometimes leagues are not only aware of it, they nurture and perpetuate it. Just look at fantasy sports or the fact that there is such a thing as an injury report, which of course is nothing more than inside information for gamblers.
But sport is not only a business, it is also entertainment. And the line between entertainment and competition is a thin one. Sport has turned into muddy waters. Take for example the rule changes in the NFL over the years.
“They changed the rules, so that cornerbacks can’t touch the receiver after five yards,” Rodenberg said. “They’re not doing that just because they like receivers or dislike cornerbacks, they’re doing that because they want the game to be more exciting for people to watch.”
The same logic applies to offensive lineman, who a) are nowadays allowed to extend their arms and b) only get penalized 10 yards (instead of 15) for holding.
“Today to encourage scoring, because there is an entertainment value, you can now extend your arms,” Martin explained.
Of course this trend applies to other sports as well. For instance, have you ever wondered why in the NBA traveling violations aren’t called at the rate they should be?
“When you get into that notion of entertainment,” Martin said, “it sort of greys that line as far as this authentic, purist idea of what sport is, and sport is no longer … I don’t think it’s pure. And some people say that gambling is part of the reason why. I don’t know if that’s the case or not. I just think there is an entertainment value that has to be had across the board for sports today that was not the case early on.”
Back to the Future
So where are we now? Is it only a matter of time until gambling will become universally legal?
“Well, it may be a matter of time, but it may take quite some time,” Heitner said. “This is going to be highly contested litigation. Personally I’d like to see PASPA overruled. I do think that it is violative of the constitution in different ways and I think it’s outserved its purpose. I do believe that gambling will occur either way and it’s better that it’s regulated, that it’s taxed where states can bolster their budgets as opposed to allowing the offshore, online sites to benefit.”
But while the future for sports gambling in New Jersey and other states is as unclear as some of the wagers, two things are certain:
Offshore websites, local bookies and Nevada will still turn a profit and Las Vegas will still be waiting for its professional sports franchise.
words_patrick riley. photo_chris stamper and rori kotch.