Last Friday, at a Fordham University sports law forum in Manhattan, the NFL’s top lawyer was asked about the NFL’s current stance on legalizing sports gambling.
The ongoing effort to repeal PASPA, the 1992 federal law that banned sports betting almost everywhere but Nevada, has ramped up recently. Changing sports gambling law is an effort that NBA commissioner Adam Silver has publicly supported and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has hinted at supporting. This month, MLS commissioner Don Garber joined the club, saying at South by Southwest, “It’s time to bring it out of the dark ages.”
But not NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“The NFL’s view is that it’s not legal in most states,” said Anastasia Danias, chief litigation officer for the NFL. “And we are all for following the law. I know we are looked at as the ‘No Fun League’ for a lot of reasons, including that, but we are focused on the integrity of our game.”
Three days later, on Monday, 31 of the NFL’s 32 team owners voted to let the Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas, America’s gambling capital.
So, for how much longer can the NFL ward off sports betting? And for how much longer can the NFL say that its stance is based on protecting the “integrity” of its game?
As Frank Schwab at Yahoo Sports writes, “The NFL has treated Las Vegas like it was the plague for many years.” The league even has a rule in place that forbids a gambling executive from being an NFL team owner, though many believe the rule is outdated and, if tested, would crumble. (Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson was originally on board to help finance the Raiders’ stadium in Vegas, and told Yahoo Finance that he expected to get an ownership stake in return.)
If you ask the American Gaming Association, which advocates for casinos and gaming companies, sending a team to Vegas “demonstrates how far gaming has come,” it said in a celebratory statement sent immediately after the NFL owners vote became official. “The gaming industry currently partners with professional teams around the country and we look forward to soon doing the same in Nevada.”
To be sure, the AGA is a lobbyist; it’s in the AGA’s interest to say that a team in Vegas boosts the momentum for legalized sports betting. But clearly there are others who think the NFL owner vote was good news for Vegas: shares of local casino companies MGM Resorts, Wynn Resorts, and Las Vegas Sands all saw a small pop from the news.
At the very least, by relocating a team to a stadium one mile from the Las Vegas Strip, the NFL will become a lot closer, physically, to gambling activity and big casinos.
But that doesn’t mean the league will change its stance.
“The funny thing is, in many ways it won’t move the needle at all” says Kate Lowenhar-Fisher, a gaming attorney in Las Vegas with the firm Dickinson Wright. Her argument: even though the NFL is allowing a team to call Nevada home, that doesn’t mean it has to support gambling anywhere other than in Nevada.
“We are all going to have to confront the reality that there’s no difference between a team located one mile from the Las Vegas Strip and its books, vs. a team located 400 miles,” Lowenhar-Fisher says. “In this day and age, with all the connectivity, and the fact that wagering can happen on my phone, using an app, in the state of Nevada, you can’t tell me it makes any difference in terms of game integrity.”
Indeed, Goodell and the NFL could argue that moving a team to Vegas doesn’t necessarily damage the integrity of its product.
Whether the public agrees is a different question.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.