Some years from now, when we look back on the history of legalized sports betting in this country, we’ll remember the NHL expansion into Las Vegas as a milestone.
It was just decided unanimously by the league’s nine-member Executive Committee, and is expected to be rubber-stamped by their Board of Governors next week. There will be a Las Vegas hockey team as soon as 2017-18. And with its arrival some longstanding and increasingly misplaced fears will finally vanish.
The idea of a major sport making a home in this continent’s gambling mecca was long considered an impossibility, dogged by worry over the proximity of the action enticing game-fixing. It was easy to conjure images that ranged from Runyon to Scorsese — mobsters exploiting ready access to players and coaches, trading gleefully on inside information and influence to reap the rewards of questionable outcomes. And that was enough to make it a non-starter.
But times and context have changed in a way that makes all of that now seem silly. First and foremost is the understanding that sports gambling is a multibillion-dollar industry whether legally sanctioned or not, and there is nothing gained by pretending it doesn’t exist. Sports executives have come to see it more as opportunity lost than an existential threat. All four of the major leagues’ commissioners have expressed at least softening views. Most strident has been the NBA’s Adam Silver, who used a New York Times op-ed in 2014 to argue that gambling is “popular and accepted,” and that “sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”
And as gambling has lost its social stigma, the very meaning of geographical proximity has changed with accelerated globalization. There is no longer reason to think that having a team in Las Vegas makes it any more accessible to criminals than any team anywhere else, since our world is now everywhere at once. In this regard, any risks presumed by mere affiliation with a home city now make no sense.
There are all kinds of convincing policy arguments for widespread legalization, not the least of which is the windfall from taxing the estimated $400 billion wagered per year in the U.S. Proper licensing means more revenue and oversight, and technology allows for algorithmic detection of any curious moves in point spreads or dollars plunked down that could indicate foul play. Think SEC-level supervision, which is already in use and has proven effective in other countries.
After the NHL kicks a hole in the crumbling wall, others will soon follow. Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis seems set on moving his team there as well, pledging $500 million toward a proposed $1.4 billion domed stadium, and telling a Nevada tourism group that his goal is to turn “the Silver State into the silver and black state.”
And even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, long the painfully ironic anti-gambling figurehead of a league built largely on it, is sounding a progressive public note on the issue. In deferring responsibility to his employers on the subject, Goodell said of the Raiders’ move “Ultimately that is a decision of the ownership. There are owners who will feel very strongly about continuing to support our position on gambling.” But he added — significantly — “All of us have evolved a little bit on gambling.”
More than a little bit, actually. It’s past time for sports to leave their self-imposed fantasy world and embrace the reality and opportunity of the Fantasy world and beyond regarding wagering on games. The boogeymen once thought to be hiding in the closet and under the bed are not real, now, so it’s time to accept the connection between professional sports and the big business of sports gambling. Hockey in Las Vegas first, and much more to come.
Bet on it.