I asked Stern if it is in the best interests of his league to seek legalization of sports betting. He sighed with his head down, as if to emphasize the gravity of what he was going to say.
“-It has been a matter of league policy to answer that question, ‘-No,’- ”- he said. “-But I think that that league policy was formulated at a time when gambling was far less widespread —- even legally.”-
He went on to provide a brief lesson in history involving J. Walter Kennedy, the NBA commissioner from 1963-75. “-Walter Kennedy testified in Congress many years ago, probably over 40, that gambling —- any gambling, not just sports —- should not be allowed in Atlantic City, that gambling shouldn’-t be expanded,”- said Stern, who was a lawyer for the NBA at that time. “-I remember it because I wrote a statement. It was the U.S. association of attorneys general, the U.S. attorneys association, the association of chiefs of police, the clergy of all denominations —- all lined up to say that expanding [was wrong] …- and I don’-t think lotteries were legal back then.
“-So that was the sin. And that’-s the way sports grew up in their opposition.”-
What has changed, Stern acknowledged, is that the NBA can no longer oppose gambling on moral grounds.
“-Considering the fact that so many state governments —- probably between 40 and 50 —- don’-t consider it immoral, I don’-t think that anyone [else] should,”- Stern went on. “-It may be a little immoral, because it really is a tax on the poor, the lotteries. But having said that, it’-s now a matter of national policy: Gambling is good.
“-So we have morphed considerably in our corporate view where we say, Look, Las Vegas is not evil. Las Vegas is a vacation and destination resort, and they have sports gambling and, in fact, there’-s a federal statute that gives them a monopoly of types [on sports betting]. And we actually supported that statute back in ‘-92.”-
Stern has long maintained that he doesn’-t want the NBA to turn into a point-spread league, and he talked about how NBA games create little of the sports-betting handle in Vegas, and that the majority of NBA fans have scant interest in the spread. I responded by noting that the NBA has created a variety of constituencies, including fans who wear NBA clothing, who play NBA video games and who view Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as Hollywood-level stars, which is not to forget the fans from any number of countries who follow the NBA patriotically via Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker or Yao Ming.
Why not make room under the big tent for the minority of fans who like to bet on NBA games?
“-OK, but then you’-re arguing there may be good and sufficient business reasons to do that,”- Stern said. “-And I’-m going to leave the slate clean for my successor.”-
He smiled and added, “-But it’-s fair enough that we have moved to a point where that leap is a possibility, although that’-s not our current position.”-
There you have it. That is a breakthrough. You don’-t hear baseball commissioner Bud Selig —- and you surely don’-t hear NFL commissioner Roger Goodell —- saying that legalized betting on their games is a “-possibility.”- Sports betting is their third rail, and they’-ve long maintained the anachronistic appearance of having nothing to do with it. (Even though illegal sports betting has helped turn the NFL into the No. 1 sport in America.)
As Stern acknowledged, gambling has gone mainstream since the scandal of 1919. The gambling industry will continue to grow as more and more casinos are built throughout the nation, such as the casino now being planned by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert for downtown Cleveland nearby Quicken Loans Arena.
Without committing himself in any way, Stern acknowledged that sports betting could create a new stream of revenue for the NBA —- not unlike the interest that March Madness betting pools have created for the NCAA tournament.
“-You’-re right about the threat that we perceive, and we stay on it,”- said Stern of the menace of illegal gambling rings. “-I think the threat is the same legal and illegal —- the threat is there.
“-Gambling, however it may have moved closer to the line [of becoming acceptable], is still viewed on the threat side,”- he said. “-Although we understand fully why, buried within that threat there may be a huge opportunity as well.”-