Where the Major Sports Leagues Stand on Sports Betting Legalization

The NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and NCAA set themselves up as the primary opponents to sports betting legalization back in 2012 when they sued New Jersey over a newly-passed state law authorizing sports betting at local casinos and racetracks.

Over what has become a years-long legal battle, the NCAA and professional sports leagues have argued repeatedly that New Jersey’s attempt to authorize sports betting is an obvious violation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) that prohibits states from legalizing and regulating sports betting.

The leagues have opposed New Jersey every step of the way even though they do stand to benefit from sports betting should it be legalized. Sports wagering increases viewership and opens the door to new sources of revenue. Not surprisingly, not every league’s position on the issue is cut-and-dry.

The NBA, for example, has been all over the place with commissioner Adam Silver coming out years ago in support of legal sports betting even as the league is directly opposed to New Jersey’s legalization effort.

As the likelihood of legalization happening one way or another increases, the leagues find themselves playing a balancing act. On the one hand, the leagues have refrained from welcoming sports betting with open arms. The sports leagues have a long history of opposing sports betting and have been reluctant to embrace change in that regard.

On the other hand, the leagues accept the fact that they alone cannot stop sports betting. If legalization does happen, the leagues want to have a say in how it happens. For example, the NBA and MLB have taken to lobbying in favor of a sports integrity fee of 1% of total betting handle payable to the sports leagues.

The leagues consequently find themselves in an awkward position: they have been strongly anti-gambling for decades, but still want a piece of the pie if sports betting is legalized across the nation. This all makes it difficult to pin the sports leagues to any one position. Most seem to be hedging their bets, so to speak.

NFL on Sports Betting: Opposed

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated numerous times that the NFL is opposed to sports betting on the belief that it could impact the integrity of the league. Aside from that, the league has not had a whole lot to say about the issue.

Goodell was asked again about the NFL’s position on sports betting back in January and it seems he may have softened his stance just a bit. This could just be me reading too much into a quick statement uttered during an interview, but you’ll notice Goodell did not explicitly say the NFL still opposes sports betting:

“You don’t want to do anything that’s going to impact negatively on the integrity of our game. You want to be certain that there are no outside influences on our game, and that fans don’t even have any issue with that; they understand, whether it’s a perception or not, that there is no influence on our game. And that’s something we stand firmly behind on the integrity of our game.”

However, Goodell does acknowledge that the Supreme Court could very well in favor of New Jersey. The NFL still plans to be prepared if that happens. Here’s what Goodell said about that:

“The Supreme Court is considering changes potentially in laws with respect to gambling across our country. We’re going to be prepared as a league to address those, no matter how the Supreme Court comes out, but also how things continue to evolve. I think we have, but we’re going to protect the integrity of the game, I assure you of that.”

At least one NFL owner has broken ranks with Goodell to date. Back in December, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he doesn’t “see that gaming compromises the integrity of the game.” What that means for the NFL is hard to say, but it’s clear the league is following the issue and will be ready to act if the Supreme Court rules in favor of New Jersey.

NBA on Sports Betting: Supports Federal, Opposes State Regulation

The NBA still has some work to do in nailing down its position on sports betting. The league sued New Jersey back in 2012 when Gov. Christie attempted to authorize sports betting, but then NBA Commissioner Adam Silver came out in support of legalization and regulation just two years later.

In a November 2014 editorial penned for the New York Times, Adam Silver made the case that illegal sports betting is already widespread. Silver even referred to the oft-quoted estimated that Americans bet nearly $400 billion on sports every year – the vast majority of that being bets placed illegally. Silver concluded in his op-ed that the best path forward would be for Congress to draft a national framework for sports betting regulation.

Adam Silver aside, the league itself refused to take a stance one way or another for years. That changed fairly recently when the NBA finally came out and said it would lobby Congress to adopt a federal framework for sports betting. The NBA still opposes New Jersey’s approach, but only because the NBA prefers a national regulatory framework rather than letting states enact sports betting regulation one by one.

More recently, the NBA has also began pushing for a “sports integrity fee” equal to 1% of all sports betting handle, payable to the major sports leagues. The NBA was clever to ask for “only” 1% of total betting handle, because the reality is that this amount is actually the equivalent of a 20%+ tax on net revenue.

The NBA has received significant pushback from lawmakers on this point and has been clumsy in its attempts to justify the massive fee. Sometimes, the NBA claims the integrity fee is necessary to cover the additional costs that would be borne by the leagues in protecting their sports from the influences of gambling-related corruption.

At other times, the NBA argues that an integrity fee is fair as a sort of “royalty” paid to the sports leagues for allowing others to wager on the sports events they manage as “intellectual property creators.”

The way the NBA has tried to downplay the true scope of the integrity fee and then the mixed messages it has sent trying to justify the need for the fees have not won the league any friends of late. As of this writing, the NBA has yet to convince a state legislature to pass a law including a 1% integrity fee.

MLB on Sports Betting: Supports Legalization and Regulation

Major League Baseball has traditionally been strongly anti-gambling, which is not surprising for a league that has suffered its own share of gambling scandals. The MLB’s position began to soften last year after MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the MLB was “reexamining our stance on gambling.”

Manfred even pointed to some of the potential benefits of legal sports betting, noting that it can fuel fan engagement and the popularity of a sport. Manfred also acknowledged that sports betting is already happening regardless of its current legal status.

Here’s what he told Yahoo Finance at the time:

“Sports betting happens. Whether it’s legalized here or not, it’s happening out there. So I think the question for sports is really, ‘Are we better off in a world where we have a nice, strong, uniform, federal regulation of gambling that protects the integrity of sports, provides sports with the tools to ensure that there is integrity in the competition … Or are we better off closing our eyes to that and letting it go on as illegal gambling? And that’s a debatable point.”

Unfortunately, the NBA has thrown its lot in with the NBA on integrity fees. The MLB supports a 1% integrity fee on betting handle. Recently, the Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals and MLB voiced their support of a sports betting proposal in Missouri that includes the requested sports integrity fee. A similar sports betting proposal lacking the integrity fee did not receive their support.

NHL on Sports Betting: No Official Position

The NHL hasn’t had much to say on the issue of sports betting. The league itself has never come out with an official position, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview in 2017 that he personally is “agnostic” towards sports betting and believes his personal opinion would be in line with the NHL’s if the league had an official position.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Bettman said betting simply doesn’t play a big role in sports betting and that hockey just doesn’t lend itself to sports betting as well as some other sports. Bettman estimates that hockey accounts for just 1% of the total betting handle at Las Vegas sportsbooks.

When asked if he supports a change to sports betting law, Bettman said this:

“I’m agnostic to it. I don’t think it helps, I don’t think it hurts. I do think laws should be complied with, so I’m hoping the Supreme Court affirms PASPA in terms of the New Jersey litigation. If there’s going to be a change, it should be done the right way.”

PGA on Sports Betting: Supports Regulation

The PGA Tour confirmed its support of legal and regulated sports betting with a statement it gave to Legal Sports Report in April:

The PGA TOUR supports the regulation of sports betting in a safe and responsible manner. We believe regulation is the most effective way of ensuring integrity in competition, protecting consumers, engaging fans and generating revenue for government, operators and leagues. We are aligned with the NBA and MLB in this area, and we are looking for ways to collaborate with legislators, regulators, operators and others in the industry on regulation that serves the interests of all involved.

The wording of this statement combined with what we know of recent NBA and MLB lobbying efforts makes it appear likely the PGA Tour supports an integrity fee and other concessions in any legislation passed by lawmakers.

 NCAA on Sports Betting: Firmly Opposed

The NCAA’s official position on sports betting is stated simply on its website as follows:

The NCAA opposes all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering, which has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the welfare of student-athletes and the intercollegiate athletics community.

Of all the major sports leagues in the US, the NCAA has been the most consistently opposed to legal sports betting. This is hardly surprising considering the NCAA is actually named in the title of the New Jersey sports betting case (Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association).

Bloomberg BNA reports that the NCAA has not been too vocal in expressing its opposition to sports betting. Chris Grove of Eilers and Krejcik told Bloomberg, “The NCAA has been clear on their position on this issue in the past but has not been aggressively public at this point. So the question of where they are in this process and what are they waiting for, if anything, is a curious one for me.”

The majority of athletic directors of Division I NCAA schools are opposed to sports betting as well. Last month, Lead1 revealed that a survey found 80% of NCAA athletic directors oppose legalization. Among their concerns are the risks of gambling scandals impacting a university’s reputation and costs associated with keeping student-players out of trouble.

Lead1 head Tom McMillen said he believes the NCAA is waiting to see what happens in the courts before dealing with sports betting. “I think the NCAA’s position is basically that they’d like to be carved out, but they’re not going to be involved until there’s a determination at the court level, and then they’ll deal with it,” he said.