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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Sports betting logistics a mix of data, integrity, taxes and politics

Crystal Kalahiki pays out a bet in the

Crystal Kalahiki pays out a bet in the sports book at the South Point hotel-casino, Monday, May 14, 2018, in Las Vegas. Credit: AP / John Locher

The squabbling over legal sports betting has only just begun, now that business people and politicians are involved. But all of that is mere logistics and semantics.

In the wider world in which most of us live, the matter was settled on May 14 when the United States Supreme Court ruled states can allow betting on sports if they wish, and America responded with a resounding, “What took you so long?”

As ostensibly controversial subjects go, opposition to this one was crumpled up and tossed aside as swiftly as a losing betting slip. It turned out that most people were not shocked — shocked! — to find that gambling is going on in here.

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, one of sports bettors’ TV heroes for his popular “Bad Beats” segment, summed it up the next day after the “upfront” presentation to advertisers:

“If you live in Washington, D.C., you can drive downtown and play craps and blackjack all day, but you can’t bet on the Redskins? Who gives a [expletive]? Gambling’s gambling.”

In fairness, betting on sports is more complicated than on dice and cards, because humans running across playing fields are more complicated than dice and cards. Safeguards about “integrity” are essential.

But a legal infrastructure makes it easier to monitor suspicious behavior, and U.S. pro leagues already employ people who know that world well and can advise them on how to avoid trouble.

For example: Laila Mintas, deputy president of Sportradar US, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on gambling regulation in her native Germany.

“No sport is immune to it,” she said. “As soon as a sport is available on the betting market, there is a potential risk for that sport to be compromised.”

Hence Sportradar, which keeps an eye on data that might hint at something amiss. Now there will be more such data, and more of it easily obtainable, than ever.

The road here began in 2011, when New Jersey voters endorsed legalized sports betting in a referendum. Then in September of 2014, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the Bloomberg Sports Summit widespread legal betting was “inevitable.”

I was there, half paying attention to a Q&A with Silver, when many people in the room turned to one another with a look that said, “Did I just hear what I think I heard?”

Silver’s logic that day was indisputable.

“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,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to see it pay dividends.

“If people are watching a game and clicking to bet on their smartphones, which is what people are doing in the United Kingdom right now, then it’s much more likely you’re going to stay tuned for a long time.”

There you have it. The rest was just details.

As the leagues learned from daily fantasy sports — which some attempted to characterize as “not gambling” — nothing focuses fans’ senses and keeps them engaged like having action on games.

Now comes the long slog toward making all this a reality. New Jersey has earned the right to lead off, and will do so at Monmouth Park Racetrack in the coming weeks.

New Jersey lawmakers have laughed off the notion of allowing for an “integrity tax” pro leagues are seeking to help pay for combating game-fixing. Why give them a cut after the state spent six years and $8 million fighting them in court?

“I think [an integrity tax] is taking money away from the taxpayers to private corporations,” said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill US, a bookmaking company that has partnered on the Monmouth Park book.

As Asher noted, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said the value of pro franchises will double because of the Supreme Court ruling, and shortly after the ruling David Tepper paid $2.275 billion for the Carolina Panthers.

Legalized gambling also will be a windfall for sports media companies, from ESPN to local outfits such as YES, SNY and MSG, in the form of increased ratings, and a wave of new advertising and sponsorships.

New York is considering an integrity tax for its sports betting bill. This is where legislators must be careful.

The illegal market is not going to go away and will thrive if the legal market makes itself uncompetitive with overly high taxes, restrictions on using mobile phones to place bets and the like.

“Sports betting in a casino is a small piece of the pie,” Mintas said. “People want to bet when they are out with their friends.”

Hardcore gamblers must be accommodated by the legal system, or they will continue to use the illegal one. Those who are problem gamblers must be helped. For the rest of us, placing sports bets ideally will be a relatively harmless, occasional lark.

Van Pelt is not naive. He said he lost his father to alcoholism and is sensitive to addiction. But he also knows that Europeans “just laugh at us” for our attitude about sports gambling, and that it was time for a change.

“[May 14] everyone took it from now we have an on-ramp to the highway to now we’ve moved a hundred miles down the road,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But it’s clear people are ready to get on the road and see where it goes.”

Asher said that when speaking to leagues and regulators, he tries to get them to visit William Hill’s offices in Las Vegas.

“It completely debunks the notion of the old-school bookmaker with slicked-back hair and chomping on a cigar,” he said. “We share an office building with Wells Fargo and New York Life in an ordinary-looking office park 20 minutes west of the Las Vegas Strip.

“This ain’t the Wild West. This is corporate America.”


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