Q&A with NBA head of gaming Scott Kaufman-Ross

By VSiN Staff  (VSiN.com) 

July 25, 2022 03:39 PM

Scott Kaufman-Ross, the NBA's Head of Gaming and New Business Ventures, joined VSiN's Matt Youmans and Jonathan Von Tobel on Tuesday, July 12, at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas to discuss the league's leading role in legal sports betting in the U.S. and what to expect next from the NBA as more states allow wagering.

Jonathan Von Tobel:

The NBA has been at the forefront when it comes to sports leagues and gambling, hand in hand. So from a standpoint of being the leader and embracing all of this, the NBA seems to have taken pride in doing that, no?

Scott Kaufman-Ross:

As you mentioned, we were the first professional sports league in the U.S. to embrace sports betting with Commissioner [Adam] Silver writing that [New York Times] op-ed in 2014. When we did that at the time, it was because there was a recognition that the federal prohibition was not working. It was just proving to push the market into the offshore, into the underground where it couldn't be monitored, it couldn't be regulated. And we're in a better position to protect the integrity of our game in a regulated market where there's transparency, where there's information sharing. So that was the primary reason we changed our position. But of course, we also are well aware that it's good for fan engagement, for people who bet on sports, the research is pretty clear. They watch more games, they watch for longer periods of time. We think it's a healthier ecosystem for a regulated market with transparency and where we actually have relationships with the betting industry and share information.

Von Tobel:

Well, and with engagement too. Somebody who is engaged from a sports betting standpoint, a 10-point game is different for somebody who's catching 7 in a matchup, as opposed to who's just watching to see what the outcome is going to be.

Kaufman-Ross:

For sure, people have interest in what's happening beyond just the final score, and it's not just quarters and spreads and money lines anymore. It's props and same game parlays, which have become obviously very popular. So everybody's rooting for something, and we know that is a good thing for our product that people are more engaged. Again, it keeps them engaged in the product, they're watching for longer periods of time, and there are definitely benefits from it.

Matt Youmans:

Obviously, sports betting partnerships create a new revenue stream for these leagues, and the NBA included. I'm curious where things are headed next for the association. The Washington Wizards have a sportsbook in the arena. The Chicago Cubs are putting one in now at Wrigley Field. Is that something we're going to see more of in the association?

Kaufman-Ross:

Sure. Well, the ability to have a sportsbook in your arena is really a function of the legislation in that state. So in DC, it allowed each of the arenas to have a sports book and have mobile betting within a couple square block radius of the arena in Arizona. There is a FanDuel sports book in where the Suns play, so that was something that was part of the Arizona legislation. We're going to see something similar in Cleveland. The Cavaliers did a deal with Caesar's, so there's going to be a Caesar's sports book there. That is more of a function of what the state will allow and what's part of their legislation.

Certainly, our teams are excited about that and to be able to engage their fans on days when they don't even have live games and be able to bring their fans to the arena, keep them after the game closes. You listen to Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Wizards, talk about this, he talks about turning the arena into a 365-day destination and turning it on on dark days, keeping people after the game ends, getting them there early. So they definitely see it as a mechanism to drive traffic to the arena, and they're very excited about it. But again, it's a function of the state legislation more than it is what we allow.

Von Tobel:

I'm somebody who bets on your league pretty much every day throughout the regular season. I think one of the things that sticks out, obviously, we have lots of talks about load management. My question would be for the NBA, the steps you're taking in terms of availability for some of these players. There have been times, I'll give you one example specifically, if you follow the league on an everyday basis like I did, you knew that Giannis Antetokounmpo going into the second leg of a back-to-back in Toronto, he was kind of dealing with something. But an hour before the game, pops up on the injury report, doesn't play. Those types of things in the NBA, what are the steps that the NBA is taking to make sure that's on an even playing field for bettors as well who are watching the league?

Kaufman-Ross:

Player availability is a key issue for our league, and something the commissioner has been very outspoken about that we're focused on is we continue to engage with the players union on collective bargaining and what that might look like and ways we can solve that. One of the things we did a couple of years ago is we changed our starting lineup procedure. It used to be such that you announced the starting lineup 10 minutes before the game. We moved that to 30 minutes before the game, and we did that under the broader project of just increasing transparency and making sure that our fans know what's happening. They want to know which player is going to be on the court, but we were cognizant that for sports betting, that was very helpful. For daily fantasy and traditional fantasy, that was helpful. So we did make that change a couple of years ago, that teams now need to declare their starting lineup 30 minutes prior rather than 10 to give fans a little bit more time to react to that information.

Youmans:

Is that something Adam Silver's talked with you about? That it's got to be an emphasis when you have these working partnerships with sports betting companies that the teams have to be more transparent about who's playing? I know it's a complicated issue, because that's not an easy thing to solve.

Kaufman-Ross:

Our desire to improve transparency is broader than sports betting. It's just a thing that we believe we owe our fans. Many of our fans are diehard fans. They're coming to games, they're watching games, they're engaging through fantasy, through betting, and we feel we owe it to our fans to be as transparent as we can about what's going to be on the court. So certainly, sports betting was a consideration, but the goal of transparency goes far beyond that.

Von Tobel:

On the thought of transparency, what does the league think when after a semifinal loss to the Dallas Mavericks, there's a report that comes out that, "Ah, Chris Paul was dealing with quad injury," or after that final series, "Oh, actually LeBron punched a board. He allegedly broke his hand," and he comes out in a sling or something like that. Those are things that weren't on the injury report. And look, there's some competitive nature. Especially when we're talking about postseason series, but from our aspect, that's something that should probably be on an injury report. How does the league view that when those reports come out after series?

Kaufman-Ross:

It's a challenging one, and to the point that you made it is a competitive issue. If a player knows that someone else's right arm is hurting, they might defend them differently, they might go at them in a different way. That certainly is a problem for the team on the court. Our player availability rules are focused on will you play in the game? And if the player is not at risk of not playing, if they're going to play in the game, that is what we disclose. We have a long season. We have 82 games, and the playoffs go another couple of months. If players had disclosed every nick and every ailment, everything that was bothering them, it would be a very long list. Yeah, we try to strike that balance of injury reporting versus just bumps and bruises that happen over the course of the year. So our test really is: Are you going to play the game?

Youmans:

There were a couple things that came up in the playoffs, right? With the Sixers and the Suns?

Von Tobel:

That's what I was going to ask you. You guys did take steps. I think the Suns were fine when it came to Devin Booker and his status. Joel Embiid and his status as well, so it does seem like there are steps in your area, which you are telling these teams through fines and whatnot that these are the kind of things that you can't really fly by the seat of your pants when it comes to status.

Kaufman-Ross:

Again, it's largely tied to will the player play? Similar to other sports, the questionable, doubtful and all that stuff has to be declared either the night before, or if it's a back to back earlier that day. So we do require the disclosure of that information, but again, when you get into a player's bumps and bruises, et cetera, and where is that line? It becomes a little bit of a challenge.

Von Tobel:

All right. One of the things that I think we don't really cover a lot of is the other side of this. The dark side of what happens when it comes to sports gambling. If you are watching NFL Sundays, for example, you see Steve Mariucci up on the chalkboard like, "Hey, limit your bets. Watch..." Everything like that. So the NBA steps in terms of getting messages out there to problem gamblers and what you're doing there. What's that journey been like?

Kaufman-Ross:

We've done a few things. First, we are a member of the National Council on Problem Gambling, so we work with that organization and regularly share information and try to learn best practices about how we can educate our fans on responsible gaming. We also have a public service announcement that runs in our games. It's narrated by Kevin Harlan. So that has run in our games for the past couple of years. Then look, I think the other thing that we're doing is we try to look at sports betting as what we call an opt-in experience. We think betting should be a pull, not a push. We shouldn't be pushing sports betting on our fans, but if they want it, we want to make it available. A perfect example of that is something we're doing with Draft Kings on NBABet Stream. That is a betting focused telecast.

So it is a separate telecast of the game that focuses on betting, commentary, has odds and lines integrated. We're not trying to bring all of that into the primary broadcast, but we're making it available for those that want it. We're trying to do this pull versus push, and that is a way that we can have people raise their hand they want sports betting without pushing it onto people that may be problem gamers, may be underage, may be susceptible to that type of thing. And that's really driven a lot of our decision making on what we make available for sports betting and what we don't.

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