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Raiders' Relocation Shifts Tide For Legalized Gambling

April 17, 2017
To borrow an expression from a long-ago football coach, the occurrence of pro sports franchises relocating is "rare but not unusual."

During the 21st century alone, seven teams from the four major sports leagues relocated permanently (or as permanent as it gets). And that does not include the NFL's future move of the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas, which should happen in 2020 depending on the Vegas stadium construction timeline.

However, it is the Raider relocation that will leave its mark on sports like none other in nearly 60 years. Arguably, it was the Dodgers and Giants moving from Brooklyn and New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, in 1958 that sparked the spread of pro sports west of the Mississippi, even though the NFL already had two teams on the West Coast.

And just as the flight of the Dodgers and Giants westward launched an inevitable pro sports migration (league expansions included), the Raiders' relocation will affect another inexorable progression in sports -- this one being toward broader legalization of sports gambling in America.

To be clear, there is no immediate direct connection between the two, meaning the Raiders' move and whether fans will be able to pop into the nearest casino, or even tap their smartphones, to place a sports bet in the near future. Even so, it will certainly be viewed as a watershed moment, even more so than the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights beginning play in an area that's just a short stroll from The Strip in October.

First, let's take a look at what the NFL's decision to allow the Raiders to relocate will not do. It will not affect the most recent legal challenge to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), the 1992 federal law that gave Nevada a monopoly on single-game sports betting and allowed limited sports wagering in three other states while barring sports gambling everywhere else.

For several years, New Jersey has laid siege to PASPA in various courts with no success. It is now taking its fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, largely basing its argument on the notion that PASPA infringes on states' rights, in this case the right to regulate or even choose to not regulate gambling within its own borders.

New Jersey has lost every court battle it has waged targeting PASPA with the five major sports organizations in America -- NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NCAA -- on the other side.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, New Jersey first must convince the high court to even hear the case. That will play out during the spring and summer. If Jersey clears that hurdle, then the justices will hear arguments and, eventually, make a ruling. If the appeal runs the full course, the decision won't come until next year.

Ryan Rodenberg, a professor of sports law analytics at Florida State University, filed an amicus brief in support of the Supreme Court hearing the case. Among the points Rodenberg makes in his brief is that prior to passage of PASPA in 1992, the Department of Justice actually opposed the law, in part because it gave regulatory authority (something that's usually in the hands of government) to sports leagues.

However, with the current New Jersey appeal focused narrowly on constitutional issues, Rodenberg said, "It is unlikely that the Raiders' move to Las Vegas will have any meaningful impact on the current lawsuit pending at the U.S. Supreme Court."

While it's always difficult to handicap how the Supreme Court will rule, hardly anyone thinks this case is the end of the road, and looking ahead, Rodenberg added, "The shift in NFL policy will almost certainly come up in the early stages of the next lawsuit involving PASPA's partial ban on legalized sports betting."

The evolution of the sports industry's view of sports wagering is measured these days in various comments made by league executives.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver's famous op-ed in the New York Times in 2014 flatly stated, "the laws on sports betting should be changed."

On the eve of the current baseball season, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said on ESPN's Mike & Mike radio show that MLB is in the midst of educating team ownerships so baseball "is ready to join in what I think is going to be a dialogue about how sports gambling regulation in the United States should be changed."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been less enthusiastic about the prospect of legalized sports betting, but then he made a startling comment regarding the Raiders once league owners approved the team's relocation, 31-1, in March. 

The issue was whether the league would oppose wagering specifically on the Raiders after they moved to Las Vegas. Goodell said the league was not considering such an embargo "in large part because you have the regulatory environment there, which actually could be beneficial in this case."

Uh, did everyone hear that?

The commissioner of the NFL actually said legal sports wagering -- and attendant regulation -- could be beneficial. Beneficial for what? Well, obviously ensuring the games are on the square.

In conceding that point, the NFL commissioner echoed exactly what proponents of legalizing sports wagering have said all along. Regulation brings more scrutiny and helps protect the integrity of the games.

You can bet on this: Goodell's "beneficial" comment is the sort of utterance that will find its way into court filings and in congressional or state legislature testimonies when sports wagering is considered.

Of course, Goodell wouldn't have even been in the position of having to reconcile allowing wagering on an NFL team headquartered in Las Vegas absent the Raiders' move.

"Look at the English Premier League, they have betting operations in the immediate vicinity of some of the most hallowed pitches in the world," said Andy Dolich, who has been an executive for teams in all four major sports, including 15 years with the Oakland Athletics and a turn as COO of the San Francisco 49ers. Plus, fans are demanding more engagement, he said.

"As long as legislators and the leagues are confident that they have the internal controls to protect the games," said Dolich, who now runs a sports consultancy, Dolich & Associates, in Los Altos, Calif., "the legalization of betting is inevitable."

Perhaps, but Goodell and at least some NFL owners are still officially opposed to broadening sports gambling, and the argument remains the same as it has been for decades -- legalized gambling poses a risk to the integrity of the game. And that's where the Raider relocation becomes pivotal.

The U.S. Supreme Court could uphold PASPA and say what many courts have said about other laws that were flawed but not necessarily unconstitutional: Congress created the problem, and Congress should fix it.

And when that happens, and the discussion of sports wagering shifts from the judicial to the legislative, the reality of the Las Vegas Raiders will have the NFL's logic-defying "integrity of the game" objection taking its place alongside the drop-kick and leather helmets.

Issue 232: April 2017