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History will laud Stern for his vision on a sure bet

History will laud Stern for his vision on a sure bet

History will laud Stern for his vision on a sure bet

For the millions of Americans who gamble on sports, predominantly with illegal bookmakers or nefarious Web sites, the arrival of NBA All-Star Weekend to Las Vegas is equivalent to the Berlin Wall coming down.

The NBA, NFL and other pro leagues have become multi-billion dollar industries in no small part because of the passion created by gambling. The relationship is nurtured by the leagues who feed out the daily injury reports that keep the point spreads honest.

In public, however, the same leagues equate gambling to a parasite and claim to wish that sports betting never existed -- knowing full well their leagues wouldn't be nearly so popular if that wish came true.

All of that is about to change. I'm betting 50 years from now the groundwork being laid this week by commissioner David Stern, which will ultimately produce an NBA team in Las Vegas, will go down as one of the most important and innovative moves of his career. It will spike interest in his league, make his owners richer than ever and change the way all pro sports are run in this country.

Stern has long maintained he would have nothing to do with Las Vegas so long as the local sports books accepted wagers on NBA games. That changed in 2004 (around the time SI was preparing a story that predicted Las Vegas would receive a pro sports team within the decade) when, according to a senior league official, the NBA began looking informally into Las Vegas as a potential site for All-Star Weekend. The same idea would occur to Joe and Gavin Maloof, the owners of the Sacramento Kings as well as the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. With Stern's endorsement, they arranged for the local sports books to take the 2007 All-Star Game off the board.

But the key point here, as the official insists, is the NBA had already been considering a relationship with Las Vegas.

The NBA understood putting its showcase event in Las Vegas would open the door for a team to relocate there. Las Vegas is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, with a bottomless clientele of hotel-casinoes to buy up the suites as giveaways for its most lucrative customers, and high-rollers who will pay for the courtside seats and luxury amenities that drive NBA revenues these days. That's a huge consideration: Unlike the NFL, which makes most of its money from national TV contracts, the majority of team revenue in the NBA still comes from the gate, and especially the most expensive seats nearest the court.

Now that Stern has altered his position on Las Vegas, conceding publicly for the first time this week he must essentially let his owners decide whether a team should play there, you can be sure the NBA will be moving to Las Vegas soon. (Insiders maintain relocation by an existing franchise is far more likely than expansion.) "They'd like to put five teams there,'' jokes the NBA senior official.

On Wednesday Stern invited Mayor Oscar Goodman to come up with a compromise on sports betting that would further encourage an NBA team to move to Las Vegas.

With revenues plateauing, NBA owners will welcome the shot of fresh revenue and energy Las Vegas will provide. But I don't think they realize the enormous possibilities that should go with their new appraisal of sports betting.

Let's say the NBA compromises with the city on a pro version of the UNLV rule, in which the Vegas sports books will agree to take games involving the local NBA team off their boards -- though wagers on other NBA games would be permitted. That rule will be a temporary measure. In a few years it will probably go away, just as the original UNLV rule did in 2001 when the authorities realized it served no purpose. There has been no hint of scandal in the six years UNLV games have been on the board.

The byproduct of putting a team in Las Vegas will be a wiser and ultimately more profitable approach to sports gambling.

It is true people should worry about the effects of sports gambling in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Miami -- everywhere except Las Vegas. In those other cities, sports betting is illegal. It goes unpoliced. It is a threat understood by everyone and discussed openly by no one.

Las Vegas is the one major city that deals with sports betting head-on. A staff of 100 agents from Gaming Control Board polices sports betting in Nevada. In 1994 they helped expose a basketball point-shaving scheme at Arizona State.

You cannot get rid of sports gambling. (The leagues themselves obviously don't want to get rid of something that generates so much interest in their product.) Those who maintain that gambling is a threat ought to do something about it. They should legalize it so that they can police it, as Las Vegas has done.

And then they can tax it. Of the $2 billion wagered legally on sports in Nevada in 2002, the sports books made $111 million profit and paid $6.8 million in taxes to local government. Other states around the country would gladly collect that kind of money without any kind of moral or ethical complaint -- after all, 48 states currently oversee lotteries or other forms of non-sports gambling.

The NBA will inevitably confront these issues as it marries itself to America's gambling capital. It's about time somebody took a new, enlightened approach to sports betting, because the subject has been ignored for too many years.

In the English Premier League, the top soccer league in the world, you can bet on the game just before you see it. The betting window is in the stadium. Years ago I went to see Chelsea play Tottenham Hotspurs in London.At one concession window I bought a hot chocolate, then walked 10 feet to the next window and bet 2 quid somebody in particular (I think it was Juergen Klinsmann) would score the first goal for Spurs, even though he was getting low odds.

In return the NBA will reap plentiful rewards. Imagine the potential consequences if the NBA realizes sports betting is a less dangerous threat if it is legalized. If the NBA becomes the first league to permit betting on its games, I guarantee you the league's popularity will shoot up. (Why do you think March Madness is so popular? Don't you think it has something to do with the betting pools?) People that didn't care about the Grizzlies against the Hornets will suddenly have a personal interest now that they've put $10 on the game. As the idea of betting on pro basketball gains acceptance, more states will want to accept bets on NBA games in order to generate tax revenue.

In the end new fans will be created for a league that currently appears to have maximized its revenue potential. And nobody will complain the new fans are bettors, just as nobody complains about the teenagers who like the NBA because of the XBox video games or the office workers whose interest grows out of an NBA fantasy league.

As for those who assume Stern will be embarrassed by having to deal with sports betting after decrying it for so many years, think again. He went to a lot of trouble to bring the All-Star Game to Las Vegas. He knew what he was doing. He is growing his league by creating a new stream of fans and revenue.

If betting is permitted on NBA games, Stern will serve as the perfect transitional leader heading into the new era. He will declare himself a puritan who was against the idea but gave in to the wisdom of his owners, and as such he will preside over his players, coaches and referees like a hanging judge, the Kenesaw Mountain Landis of his day. He will promise to do everything he can to make sure his league remains untainted by gambling -- and it will be an easier promise to keep, knowing he'll have more police than ever investigating this issue.

The other leagues are going to be left behind on this issue, and I think it is going to hurt them.

Fifty years from now, when everyone looks back and wonders how we ever could have been so uptight about something so natural as betting on a sporting event, David Stern is going to look very, very smart.

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Re: History will laud Stern for his vision on a sure bet

Very well written article.   wink

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