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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Expanded legalized sports gambling seems inevitable

Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a press

Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a press conference after NBA labor negotiations at Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers. (Oct. 20, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

Even as the tussle over legalized sports gambling in New Jersey trudges on -- more about that later -- it increasingly appears to be a short-term skirmish in a war that inevitably can end only one way.

If "inevitably" seems strong, no need to take my word for it. I defer to what NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last month at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in Manhattan:

"I think it's inevitable as all these states are broke that there will be legalized sports betting in more states than Nevada in the United States, and we will ultimately participate in that. Whether or not that's a good or bad thing, we will participate in it because it's out there."

Silver also said gambling "has never been a moral issue for me" and noted the benefits to the leagues beyond direct financial ones.

"If you have a gentleman's bet or a small wager on any kind of sports contest, it makes you that much more engaged in it," Silver said. "I think that's where we're going to see it pay dividends.

"If people are sitting and watching a game and clicking to bet on their smartphones, which is what people are doing in the United Kingdom right now, I think it's much more likely you're going to stay tuned for a long time. So it's not just about that specific revenue stream."

Given how the explosion in fantasy sports' popularity -- whether playing for money or not -- already has boosted interest, Silver's take is undeniable.

And yet the sports business community was shocked by his public candor on a subject that for more than a century has been sports' greatest taboo.

It was "refreshingly honest," said Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business and an expert on sports gaming and the legalities of fantasy sports gaming in particular.

Still, the NBA has joined the other major pro leagues and NCAA in trying to stop New Jersey from instituting betting on the result of sports events, which is set to begin Sunday at Monmouth Park with a slate of NFL games. (Nevada is the only state to offer single-game sports betting. Delaware and two other states can offer multigame parlay bets.)

As of Thursday afternoon, U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp still was considering a request to issue a restraining order to prevent what would be a historic moment in American sports gambling.

The legal particulars are complex and have dragged on for several years. Most recently, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a law last Friday that repealed an old ban and set the stage for legal sports betting at tracks and casinos.

Regardless of the short-term legal debate, the more interesting question is whether the pro leagues and NCAA are concerned more about the integrity of their competitions or about protecting their piece of the gambling pie.

Pro leagues increasingly have developed direct or indirect business relationships with fantasy sports sites that award prizes -- something that under defined circumstances is legal in New York and New Jersey but not in all states.

(And by the way, what is the NFL doing playing in London, where gambling is legal, while Vegas still is off limits?)

"It is clear sports leagues no longer are opposed to fantasy sports and no longer are even opposed to daily fantasy sports for money," Edelman said. "Perhaps that makes perfect sense, but what they have still failed to do is articulate exactly what they deem to be problematic, what they deem to be OK and why."

As Silver indicated, the OK and the problematic soon might cross paths on the way to wider acceptance.

Said Edelman: "One would be naive to think the sports leagues would not come around on sports gambling if they deemed the immediate financial gain would exceed the cost and any risk with respect to the integrity of the sport."

In other words: An expansion of legal sports gambling is coming eventually. Bet the house.

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