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NBA owners support commissioner Adam Silver's push for legalized gambling

NBA commissioner Adam Silver answers questions at a

NBA commissioner Adam Silver answers questions at a news conference after a deal was announced between the league and TV networks in New York on Oct. 6, 2014. Credit: AP / Mark Lennihan

Anyone who thought Adam Silver was just idly daydreaming last year when he began openly advocating legalized sports betting was set straight when the NBA visited New York for All-Star Weekend last month.

The still new-ish commissioner used the powerful forum of the league's annual Technology Summit -- full of sports business insiders in expensive suits -- to reiterate his position.

What was most notable, though, was how thoroughly in line behind him NBA owners are.

The panel discussions traditionally are off the record, so I cannot quote the pro-gambling positions uttered on stage. But in follow-up interviews, it was clear that almost everyone sees gold in Silver's strategy.

The consensus is betting is inevitable, is a way to foster increased interest and in its legalized form can be regulated and taxed.

"We've always been hypocritical saying we didn't realize it was a big part of interest in the game," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "When you do any work on where people are actually gambling, it's all overseas and places we can't see, and the league has got to monitor all these third-party betting sites and that makes it a lot tougher.

"By bringing it where we can see it, you reduce a lot of the risk that something bad can happen."

Lakers president Jeanie Buss said, "It already exists now, so as a league we're behind our commissioner in the process of supporting legalization on a federal level. We want to see him accomplish that goal, because we feel that any engagement with the fans is a positive.

"If our fans are already doing it, then it should be something that's brought out into the mainstream and it should be regulated."

Buss likened the debate over betting to the one last decade about the secondary ticket market. As reselling became easier and more transparent, old taboos (and laws) about scalping evaporated.

"There was a time where people bought tickets in a dark alley, never knowing if they were counterfeit or not; you had no recourse," Buss said. "That person who you gave your money to didn't pay taxes. I'd rather see a legitimate business that's regulated that employs people, creates jobs."

Daily fantasy sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings have become a legal and societal gateway to an expansion of betting on games themselves. (The legal particulars of their use vary by state.)

The NBA not only signed a partnership deal with FanDuel in November, it secured an equity position in the site.

"It was good to have them as partners and even better to have them as a shareholder; it was a real endorsement of what we were doing," FanDuel CEO Nigel Eccles said at the Technology Summit.

"We benefit from that partnership but then we drive so much benefit back. We're driving 1.5 million more viewers to the NBA every week, just from our user base."

That is the beauty of fantasy sports for pro leagues: It generates interest in games -- hence higher TV ratings -- and revenue through sponsorships and partnerships.

TV executives are all for it.

"It just creates interest in the game, and we clearly benefit," ESPN president John Skipper said. "It can only help us."

Full-season fantasy has been around for years, but the daily version has skyrocketed in popularity.

"The last year was an explosion," Eccles said. "I think we just managed to connect. Obviously, we advertise quite heavily, but I think it got to a point where people just got it."

Buss said the partnership with FanDuel was a natural. "It's another way to feel even more like an owner,"she said. "A lot of people say there's no NFL team in Los Angeles but actually there is; it's called Team United. It's my fantasy football team.

"I have my DirecTV package and I watch football as a citizen in Los Angeles, because I do have a team to cheer for. Think about that in the NBA. How many cities don't have a team to cheer for, but can play fantasy?"

Might direct betting on games in the style of Nevada or Europe put sites such as FanDuel out of business?

"We already operate in Nevada, where there is sports betting, and Nevada is actually a very good state for us, so there's no evidence when you can sports bet that you don't play daily fantasy," Eccles said.

"When we talk to our players about why they play daily fantasy, it's not a sports betting answer. It's, I love research, I love competing with other players . . . We just think it's a separate business. It's separate but a similar demographic, a similar type of player."

Eccles said he does not have an official political position on expanding legal sports betting, beyond the pragmatic one that it already exists.

"If it's happening, it's much better to have it legal and for operators to have a relationship with the leagues and to keep negative elements out, like problem gambling, point- shaving," he said. "Those are real risks and those should be managed. They shouldn't be pretended like they're not there."

"If you look at the history of gambling in the U.S. it's periods of liberalization, then there's a scandal, then there's prohibition. If we're in a period of liberalization, let's make sure it's done sensibly with proper regulation so we don't have those incidents, or if we do that they're well managed and we don't go back to prohibition."Eventually all will be sorted out legislatively and/or in the courts. Much of the current maneuvering is about which entities will benefit financially.

The other U.S. pro leagues are wary but are keeping close tabs on what Silver is up to.

Why isn't everyone already on board?

"Old school," Cuban said. "The NBA has never been old school. Well, we haven't been old school in a few years, let's put it that way."

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