Is sports betting going to change the way games are watched and even played?
Team owners and state leaders are setting the groundwork for it, with potentially major consequences, after decades of opposition to sports gambling.Ted Leonsis strolled down the Capital One Arena in Washington half an hour before last fall’s pre-season hockey game, stopping every now and then to pose for someone’s selfie. A squat behemoth that occupies a block of Chinatown not far from Ford’s Theatre, Leonsis owns both the Washington Capitals, the National Hockey League team, and the arena itself. He also operates other teams in the National Basketball Association that play there, including the Washington Wizards, and several smaller ones that do not.
Leonsis is easily the most famous sports owner in the capital of the country, UFABET but in his eight seasons the Wizards managed just one division title and for years his N.H.L. team underachieved. It helps that last season the Capitals eventually won the Stanley Cup, the city’s first championship in more than a quarter-century in any major professional league. But Leonsis is unusually nice to the fans as well. He asked concerns during his regular loop around the arena from everyone who came up to him. It was difficult to imagine a lot of big-league owners doing the same thing.
Leonsis was confronted by a middle-aged African-American man in a Capitals jersey. What about that thing about gambling? “Asked him. A few months ago, the Supreme Court reversed the federal law banning sports gambling; this was the first home game since a few states, newly liberated to set their own gambling agendas, had enacted legislation enabling sports bets. Leonsis was outspoken about his legal gambling support, and he was full of ideas. One was a sports bar he was hoping to position inside the arena that would manage bets. It would fit into a room currently occupied by a brewpub, or a fitness centre could be displaced. He pictured windows for betting, like those at a horse track.
In the District of Columbia, sports gambling was not yet legal, and before it was, there would be no windows for betting. But Leonsis is optimistic they’re coming. “Finally,” he told me, “the bar will be somewhere where fans can meet and watch games and bet on the games in any way they want,” whether on windows or hand-held devices. Leonsis must outsource bookmaking, because it would be seen as a conflict of interest (and potentially illegal) to own a team when taking bets on its games. He will simply offer a platform for food , drink and more gambling instead. “Except that I want the term ‘gambling’ to be banned,” he said. Perhaps it’s called ‘interactive wagering.’ When you hear ‘gambling,’ you think of Tony Soprano,’ I’m with my bookie.’ People who bet at their church on N.C.A.A. pools don’t think they’re playing games. They are it.
Leonsis, who held numerous executive positions from 1994 to 2007 at America Online, claims he doesn’t bet on sports or anything else. But he has compromised the future of sports wagering for both his reputation and his money. He holds an interest in DraftKings, a fantasy business for daily sports that has followed online gaming. He has invested in Sportradar, which offers updates on games in progress on bookmaking websites at high speed, providing the kind of profit enjoyed by Wall Street traders who, in his words, “get a quarter of a second more to say ‘buy the stock.'” He owns part of WinView, which holds various patents for different aspects of in-game gambling. He hopes to fill the schedule with chatter about point spreads and gambling opportunities for the NBC Sports Washington cable channel, of which he owns a third. “Like CNBC,” he says.
In 1949, sports gambling became expressly legal in Nevada. Until recently, franchise owners and commissioners, who ruled over sports, viewed the idea of it expanding beyond the boundaries of that state as potentially ruinous. They worried that the bond between fans and their favourite teams would be changed, and that gambling would expose players to characters from the underworld seeking to exploit sports. Finally, the cautionary tale went, the competition would be indistinguishable from the manufactured plotlines of pro wrestling or old-time roller derby in even the largest leagues. Sports gambling was still taking place, of course, at casinos in Las Vegas, on illegal websites, at the corner bar, but somehow that hadn’t made it more palatable. “You would have had a hard time finding a single owner in any of these leagues, claiming that gambling was a good idea, also five years ago,” says Steve Murray, a Leonsis investor in the venture capital company that invested in many of these firms. You couldn’t have done it.
Attitudes appear to have shifted suddenly since then. It’s now impossible to find someone who opposes gambling in sports. That’s partially because the leagues and their owners have come to see how much they’re going to win. But it is also a product of insiders like Leonsis evangelising to everyone who will listen: in meetings with owners, in interviews with sponsors, and at a gambling conference on Capitol Hill in 2017 with U.S. congressmen. He’s a visionary, and he talks very eloquently about what potential prospects are, “says Gary Bettman, commissioner of the N.H.L., who was firmly opposed to sports gambling until recently.” He was at the forefront of encouraging us to ensure that we were as informed as we could be. I get emails from him about this every day, more than every day.
Slowly but exuberantly, Leonsis speaks. As rational as a business proposal, his conversation unfolds. What do you fear so much? He wants to question someone who is unfamiliar with gambling. We will build more jobs. We’re going to raise more taxes. “While pro athletes were once paid poorly enough to make the payoff offerings tempting, Leonsis argues that the vast majority are much richer today than anyone who would tempt them.” “An N.B.A. player, I don’t think, is prone to some hustler saying, ‘Shave the points, and here’s $5,000 in $100 bills,’ he says.
Shortly after the opening face-off, Leonsis was back in his suite. He sat down in time to see a goal scored for the Boston Bruins. I noted that gamblers had definitely put bets both for and against the Capitals when sports wagers were now legal. Naturally, Leonsis wanted his team to win, even though this preseason game didn’t really count. But he agreed that just the fact that it was possible to make such bets indicated that, in a way, he had already prevailed.
ImageTed Leonsis holding up the Stanley Cup after the Vegas Golden Knights were defeated in the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Finals by the Washington Capitals.
In the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Finals, Ted Leonsis kept up the Stanley Cup after the Washington Capitals beat the Vegas Golden Knights. Credit … Dave Sandford / Getty Images
Television started reframing the way we view sports in the middle of the 20th century. It provided us with replays and extended timeouts, moved games from the World Series into prime time, scrambled affiliations to the conference. Fans have become acquainted with teams many hundreds of miles away through national telecasts and highlights and, later, superstations and cable networks. Gambling is now poised to unleash changes that are just as transformational, and they can arrive quickly. PricewaterhouseCoopers reported in an October report that a fully formed sports gambling industry will attract $100 billion in bets per year in all states; the National Congressional Gambling Impact Study Commission has indicated that the number could be closer to $400 billion. Whatever the size of the jackpot, they all like a piece of it from clubs, teams and broadcasters. “The players, the sponsors, all the stakeholders in the ecosystem can become beneficiaries of this,” says Peter Guber, an owner of both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The games we watch are now improved by data obtained by advances in technology. Announcers inform us how hard baseballs are struck and how far they go, or how many miles a soccer player has been especially involved. Since such derivatives produce new betting opportunities, we’re sure to see several more of them. (The N.B.A. has been advertising for a gambling data analyst on the employment website Glassdoor.) Hockey hasn’t traditionally generated much in the way of metrics, but in order to learn who is skating the fastest or shooting the hardest, the N.H.L. is preparing to record the movements of every player during every game and even put a chip inside the puck. Chris Grove, an analyst who consults gaming companies and investors, says, “Leagues are building a fire hose of data around their product.” “And the logical receiver is the betting industry of that material.”
What are the chances in the next two innings that anyone would homer? Or kicks a field goal in the next five minutes? Imagine those odds sliding across the bottom of your screen like the CNN news crawl. As a sports media consultant and former N.B.A. executive named Ed Desser puts it, “How does the production and presentation of telecasts change to accommodate gambling? ” Explicit references to betting might seem jarring during a Masters broadcast, which has the feel of a conversation in a Ritz-Carlton lobby. But Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson’s made-for-TV showdown in November, which included such information, gave viewers more reasons to care about what happened.