By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Supreme Court recently struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Betting Act, which in 1993 had outlawed any sort of sports betting in all but four grandfathered states – Nevada being the most notable one.
The logic behind the majority decision (it was 6-3) that the federal government does not have the authority to take such a unilateral action under the federalist system. If Congress does not choose to pass a law that would outlaw it, the states have the right to act as they so choose. While there may be holdouts from jumping into the betting pool, such as Utah and Hawaii, the rest of the states at least will kick the tires on the issue in the near future.
Such a rationale for this Supreme Court decision may have implications into other areas of our lives, such as sanctuary cities, but others can worry about that. We generally stick to sports here. And as I look into the future, I see nothing but uncertainty ahead. We don’t know where this ruling will lead, and we don’t know if it’s going to be good for everyone concerned. That worries me.
Let’s start with the basics. I’m no gambler in the classic sense. I had a little fascination with the idea as a child, because it was fun to try to predict the future by forecasting the outcome (including the margin) of games. But when it was time to think about spending actual money on it, I realized that there were better, easier and safer ways to earn money.
I certainly encountered gamblers and gambling along the way. That was always a little odd, because we were looking at a game in different ways. Let’s say I wanted the Bills to merely beat the Dolphins, while others wanted the Bills to win by at least nine points. Sometimes we cheered at different times. The gamblers seemed a lot more cynical as a group. They also would bet on games so that they’d have a rooting interest in a particular contest. I usually was willing to watch a game on its own merits, but if a matchup didn’t attract me, I could always do something else like read a book.
I have no speeches to make on the moral side of gambling, because that ship sailed quite a long time ago. Racetracks, lotteries and casinos have been part of the culture for years, and state governments have been willing to accept the connected social costs because they receive revenue from it. That’s why it’s difficult to see how sports betting won’t spread across the land quite quickly; New Jersey may be ready to go into that business at a racetrack by the end of the month. It will be just another “sin tax” for legislators to enact to go with fees on tobacco, alcohol, etc. There is a libertarian viewpoint that argues those who take part in “victimless activities” like these simply should be left alone, but the chance to take in money is too exciting for legislators to pass up.
I also realize that sports gambling already is an industry that takes in somewhere in the range of $50 billion to $150 billion per year. Much of it is illegal, of course, but it has been more or less accepted on some level by many. For those worried about the chance of legalized sports betting leading to tampering with games, there’s enough money already out there now to lead to such issues. This court decision probably won’t change that much. The pro sports teams and leagues know that and try to keep such bad influences out. Those efforts might have to be strengthened, but we might not notice much of a difference. Besides, fans from places such as the United Kingdom have been betting on sporting events for years, and the Royal Monarchy continues to survive.
ROLL WITH THE CHANGES
Where, then, are the areas of concern? The biggest change in this brand new world might deal with college sports. Again, I realize that people do bet on these games on a regular basis. Bracket pools might be responsible for a good percentage of interest in the NCAA basketball tournament each year, particularly from someone who can’t tell apart a Maryland-Baltimore County player from a Virginia one. (Hint: the UMBC player is the one celebrating in the first round.) But college players, who are only compensated in the form of an athletic scholarship, are much more vulnerable than the pros to the lures of supposedly easy money from gamblers. The chances for mischief will go up.
Then from a personal standpoint, I wonder what media coverage might look like in a year or two. I was probably the lone voice in the office that used to wonder about the propriety of publishing points spreads for NFL as well as printing predictions against the spread by writers and broadcasters. Was that contributing to the growth of a quasi-legal activity, or was it simply providing information to people as part of a newspaper’s mission statement? Hard to say, but soon newspapers may look like the Daily Racing Form by the time they are done adapting to the new rules. It all might drive away as many customers as it attracts, if not more.
And in a few years, promotion for the industry may change. The idea of states adopting lotteries was to take in a big share of the money that had gone to illegal wagering in the past. It’s tough to say if how true that is. But in the meantime, those legislators decided to use advertising and sponsorships to attract new customers to lotteries. You now can hit repeat on that concept for a sports betting audience, as the marketing efforts will lead to more customers and more social costs – and probably a more cynical overall audience.
We’re racing toward a Brave New World in professional sports. I’m just not sure I’ll like it when we get there.
Buffalo Sports Page’s Bob Gaughan has a different take on the potential of sports gambling.