It’s common knowledge that politics makes strange bedfellows. Still, it was a surprise last summer when NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Jim Murren, the CEO of MGM Resorts, shook hands on a historic deal.
Dominoes had been slowly falling for more than two months before Silver changed the sports betting game on July 31. Silver announced he had struck a three-year deal worth at least $25 million to make MGM the exclusive gaming partner of the NBA, which became the first major U.S. sports league to partner with a sportsbook operator.
The most significant date in the political game was May 14, 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) to be unconstitutional. The striking down of the federal ban cleared the path for states to decide whether to offer legalized sports wagering.
In the past year the sports betting landscape has evolved, for better or worse, in many ways. This still is really just the beginning.
“It was a fast year. We were in the mix of it all,” William Hill sports book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “We got sports betting out to the masses who never had a shot at it. It has created some jobs and created some tax revenue.
Obviously, there are some growing pains, but all in all it’s a major positive. “Obviously, the big boys and the big states — California, New York, Ohio, Texas — have not piled on yet.”
Seven states have joined Nevada to offer legal sports wagering. Delaware and New Jersey were open for business by June, with Mississippi, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Mexico to follow. The roster will soon grow as Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Montana and Tennessee recently passed betting bills. New York is on deck.
“I was originally surprised at the slowness of states rolling out legal sports betting,” said former Las Vegas oddsmaker Michael “Roxy” Roxborough. “However, the process shows the various vested gambling interests already entrenched in each state each have their different needs — horse racing, tribal gaming, lotteries, casinos.”
After decades of casting an evil eye on sports gaming, the major pro leagues lost their fight to stop New Jersey’s efforts to legalize betting. The fall of PASPA in the Supreme Court led Silver to turn into a pioneer and chase the NBA’s piece of the pie.
Last summer, Silver called the NBA’s deal with MGM a “leap of faith on both sides.” MGM agreed to pay for access to official league data, but the value of that data is debatable, and in reality MGM is getting a cross-promotional marketing deal.
“We did not know what direction the leagues were going to go,” Westgate SuperBook vice president Jay Kornegay said. “The NBA and MLB have been very aggressive in terms of pursuing cuts of revenue. That would be on the disappointing side.”
Instead of seeking a so-called integrity fee, the NBA received a flat fee from MGM. Other casino operators are not as willing to cooperate in Silver’s hunt for sports betting gold.
In recent months, representatives from MLB have met with Las Vegas sportsbook operators and requested 0.25 percent of what is wagered on all baseball games. The demands have so far been denied. In February, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred requested a betting ban on spring training games, a move that was flatly rejected in Nevada.
MLB is making progress in other areas. The Boston Red Sox launched a multi-year partnership with MGM Resorts in the spring and the MGM lion logo is prominently placed on Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
The battle between the leagues and book operators is being waged mostly behind the scenes, yet as more details surface in the media it’s obvious the leagues want a piece of betting revenues and the books are unwilling to yield. The NFL has not made requests for a percentage of the betting handle or revenues, but that might be coming.
“More people are going to be watching and the ratings are going to go up, and that’s where the leagues are going to make their money,” Kornegay said.
Meanwhile, several NFL teams are doing marketing deals with casinos. For example, the New York Jets are in a partnership with MGM, and Caesars Entertainment is in a 15-year partnership with the Raiders and the new Las Vegas stadium.
Several gaming insiders are critical of what’s happening in Tennessee, where legislators caved to lobbying from the leagues by passing the nation’s only mandate forcing sports books to pay for official league data.
“Looking at sports betting 10 years from now, wagering will be based on the league’s in-game data,” Roxborough said. “It will be like a never-ending video game where millions of bets at 50 cents, yielding 10-15 percent, will render large straight bets an anachronism.”
The leagues might eventually win the fight for data fees. But for now, it’s apparent many league officials and politicians are uneducated on the small revenue margins available to book operators. Paying fees to one league will set a precedent and lead to paying fees to all leagues.
At least two more battlegrounds are developing. A Department of Justice opinion on the Wire Act could negatively impact mobile and online sports betting, but that is still to be determined. Also, European companies looking to introduce new technology and set up shops in the U.S. are mostly foreign to the nuances of American sports.
“Looking back, right out of the gate a lot of deals were being made, and I’m not sure they were favorable deals for both sides,” Kornegay said. “It’s interesting to see how big the sports betting world is.”
William Hill is operating in seven states, excluding New Mexico. Bogdanovich said business is thriving, with an especially strong wagering handle in New Jersey.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Bogdanovich said. “I’m not disappointed and I’m not blown away, so I guess it’s somewhere in the middle. I think it’s positive.