During his first several months in the office of NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver has generated a lot of good will for himself and the Association with his handling of the Donald Sterling situation, transparent policy-making, openness to new ideas for fixing the lottery and embrace of advanced metrics. That said, the honeymoon period has not quite ended, which made it especially interesting to hear his comments at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York:
It’s inevitable that, if all these states are broke, that there will be legalized sports betting in more states than Nevada and (the NBA) will ultimately participate in that. If you have a gentleman’s bet or a small wager on any kind of sports contest, it makes you that much more engaged in it. That’s where we’re going to see it pay dividends. If people are watching a game and clicking to bet on their smartphones, which is what people are doing in the United Kingdom right now, then it’s much more likely you’re going to stay tuned for a long time.
Silver drops a hornet's nest of buzzwords in that quote, touching on all sorts of political, social, and moral issues. While his words are pragmatic, as we've already come to expect from Silver, the tone is a bit off considering Silver presides over the NBA, which has dealt with gambling scandals both real and alleged just about the entire time Silver has been with the league. Among sports which capture national attention, it's arguable that only boxing, horse racing and baseball are more closely associated with gambling in this country, especially after the Tim Donaghy scandal.
Then there's former Commissioner David Stern's opposition to New Jersey's attempts to legalize sports gambling back in 2012. At the time, Stern characterized the plan as an attempt by the state and Governor Chris Christie to profit at the expense of the NBA and other sports organizations. Now, just two years later, Stern's successor is embracing the idea as a potential revenue stream. If gambling does become widespread outside of Nevada and New Jersey (which is attempting legalization again), the NBA's position might come across as a bit too opportunistic and greedy.
"Welcome to the world of organized sports," you could say, but this is potentially dangerous ground for a league which has battled money-related image problems since at least the 1970s. Even today, you don't have to look hard to find potential NBA fans who've been turned off by what they see as spoiled players and sticky-fingered owners tainting the sport. By embracing gambling in this way, Silver isn't likely to help that image problem among the middle-America households the NBA always claims to covet.
Of course, much of Silver's job as Commissioner revolves around not only maximizing the investment of owners in their teams, but also finding new revenue sources which benefit both the owners and the players. This happens either by increasing sponsorship dollars or increasing the league's exposure domestically and internationally. By being among the first to express a desire to tap into the $4 billion legal arm of the nearly $400 billion industry that is American sports gambling (in addition to the UK, which was not mentioned idly in the Commissioner's comments), Silver is displaying another facet of the progressiveness which has already defined his tenure as commissioner.
If everything works as Silver predicts and the "inevitable" does occur, the NBA can expect to grow its wealth exponentially over the coming years, above and beyond even what we've come to expect these days in the wake of the $2 billion sale of the Clippers and the expected monster television deal which is looming on the horizon. No doubt that, in the eyes of many, Silver is taking a shrewd business step by coming out in support of sports gambling; in the eyes of others, he's embracing a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance that's similar to the justification used by public officials who've embraced marijuana legalization.
Ultimately, it may cost the NBA some of the fans it's worked so hard to recruit. But if fans walking out the door are passed by throngs finally attracted to the NBA through the avenue of gambling, Silver and his owners aren't likely to lose too much sleep over it.