When it comes to governing a major professional sports league, nobody is as efficient and calculated as David Stern. For more than 25 years as NBA commissioner, he has been able to manipulate situations in order to stimulate his billion-dollar empire. He has presided over the two most successful decades in the history of the league, earning him the right to opine on just about anything, and that includes the forbidden world of sports betting.
But why would the image-conscious Stern even broach the subject of wagering on NBA games with the Tim Donaghy incident still hanging over his head?
Whatever the reasons may be, Stern believes it is worth the gamble.
The fact that The Commish is even willing to openly talk about the subject is a clear indication that he is warming up to the idea of legalizing sports betting, having gained enough knowledge about the gaming business with a big assist from the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings and Palms Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
In Stern’s view, it’s a win-win situation. First of all, it taps into an entirely new market for the NBA to grow its product. Second, it would be a public relations coup for the league to venture into something that could result in a highly profitable and taxable industry when it becomes mainstream. And last but not least, it somewhat diffuses the Donaghy bombshell.
“I think [Stern’s] probably getting firsthand information and getting better educated on [sports betting],” said Jeff Sherman, sports book manager at the Las Vegas Hilton. “He’s learned more about it and he has really softened on his stance. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Stern has been gambling for years business-wise, albeit on an entirely different level. He may not be placing bets on winners but he has certainly rolled the dice on a number of occasions that helped push the league past Major League Baseball as the second-most profitable professional sports entity in North America.
He helped institute a salary cap in the early part of the 1980s when it was considered a foreign idea. When the Players’ Association tried to bully him during negotiations in 1998, he locked them out and waited until they caved in. When the NBA television contract with NBC expired in 2002, he was able to broker a unique deal with three media entities – ABC/ESPN, TNT and AOL Time Warner – that allowed the league to grow its resources during a time when TV ratings were sagging in the post-Michael Jordan era and media executives scoffed at the idea of using cable TV as the main vehicle for promotions.
ABC/ESPN, TNT and AOL Time Warner have since extended their partnership with the NBA through 2015-16, so it can’t be all that bad, and league execs have nearly $800 millions to smile about.
Stern is hyper sensitive when it comes to protecting the well-being of his business. He persevered through an ugly brawl in Detroit five years ago and lived to tell about it, so he knows how to put a positive spin on major issues.
Now, with a potential referee scandal staring him in the face, Stern has once again felt the need to defend his territory. Instead of backpedaling and becoming defensive, he went on the offensive and decided to face this potentially explosive issue head-on, which would explain his recent revelation.
In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen to discuss the future of the league, the NBA commissioner said this about the possibility of opening discussions regarding betting on NBA games: “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. 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.”
Stern added: “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.”
Some observers, including Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News, questioned the timing of Stern’s latest statement, especially with the Donaghy case still fresh on people’s minds.
Lawrence wrote: “After Donaghy, it should have been nailed shut, for good, by Stern himself, because the entire scandal happened on his watch. Stern is known to be a visionary, but going where baseball’s Bud Selig and the NFL’s Roger Goodell wouldn’t dare go is not what we expected from pro sports’ top commissioner. Stern made a mistake, at the very least.”
A mistake? Hardly.
Stern is very careful and meticulous when it comes to addressing his beloved league for public consumption, and he just won’t throw darts on a board and hope one of them would stick. Besides, he did not make any official commitment to legalized gambling. He chose his words wisely and the gist of his comments suggests that he’s “open to a dialogue” or “would consider possibilities.”
Sherman strongly believes that having the NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas in 2007 made a big impression on Stern, with a little nudge from the Maloofs.
“[Stern and the league office] were closed-minded before. But by having the All-Star game here, they have developed a relationship,” Sherman said. “And I’m sure the Maloofs have a lot to do with educating him on how it works. It’s not a free for all, and it’s not scandal after scandal. There are rules and regulations.”
Two years ago, the Maloofs convinced Stern to let the Palms take bets on every team but the Kings. Now that Stern seems to be leaning toward possible discussions regarding wagering in the sport, Joe and Gavin Maloof will surely lead the campaign in speeding up the process in getting this unprecedented legislation approved.
“I’m thrilled to hear him say that,” Joe Maloof recently told Yahoo! Sports. “I think it does two things: First, it legitimizes gambling. It regulates it. That’s the most important thing. It’s clean. It’s honest. It’s fair.
“And then it creates a tremendous excitement for your product. People react differently when they have a bet on a game versus when they don’t. This is going to bring in great interest. If it’s regulated properly, this can be a tremendous revenue source for the league.”
Sports betting is the proverbial elephant in the room. You simply can’t ignore it. How do writers, broadcasters and analysts determine a favorite or an underdog? Through point spreads, of course.
Countries outside the U.S. allow sports betting, including Canada where the Toronto Raptors play. Stern likely won’t pass up an opportunity to form partnerships outside the States to increase the global popularity of the NBA. Wagering on sports is legal in many European markets where basketball fans are growing exponentially.
According to reports, TV ratings have actually increased in the two seasons since the Donaghy story originally broke and it hasn’t deterred the bettors.
“That seems to be overblown,” Sherman said of the Donaghy controversy. “It has had no effect at all on the way people bet.”
The one thing most people can bet is that Stern will leave no stones (or chips) unturned if and when he decides to officially open the sports books to all NBA consumers.
This article also appears on Covers.com.