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Dick Cass, Ted Leonsis Shed Light On Future Of Gambling In Sports

January 19, 2018
Recent public comments by two high-level area sports executives bring into focus the inevitable future of sports during the next few decades.

In one instance, Ravens president Dick Cass tried to assuage disenchanted fans in what amounted to an open letter in late December referencing noticeable swaths of empty seats at M&T Stadium during the season.

In the other instance, Ted Leonsis -- owner of the NBA's Washington Wizards, NHL's Washington Capitals, WNBA's Washington Mystics and Arena Football League's Baltimore Brigade and Washington Valor -- flatly stated on a podcast, "To me it's the only thing that will save the NFL."

The "it" to which Leonsis referred to is sports gambling.

That and other comments reinforcing Leonsis' opinion about sports gambling were made on a podcast with Bram Weinstein not too long before the Cass letter was sent.

On the surface, Cass' concerns about empty seats at Ravens games, a phenomenon attached to player protests during the national anthem and on-field disappointments, and Leonsis' opinion about sports gambling may not appear to directly intersect -- but these threads eventually entwine.

The NFL's iron grip on America's attention and wallets is beginning to loosen, as evidenced by slipping TV ratings and unoccupied stadium seats.

For some time, the NBA, NHL and even Major League Baseball have had to scrap to capture fan interest while all the NFL had to do was kick off on Sunday.

It could be argued that's why NBA owners, such as Leonsis and the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban, as well as league commissioner Adam Silver, have been bullish on sports wagering. They understand what it means to compete for fans and they are progressive and proactive when it comes to fan engagement.

Let's admit it: Having a financial interest in a sports event makes for engaged fans.

That's a lesson that will dawn on NFL owners as well, if it already hasn't.

Leonsis' advocacy for legalized sports wagering is rooted in pragmatism.

"It's not like people aren't gambling," Leonsis said on the podcast, comparing it to the Prohibition era when folks imbibed routinely in speakeasies.

Leonsis went on to enthusiastically describe the evolving world of sports wagering that includes real-time betting on unfolding events as a game is in progress, a concept that's been tinkered with for years in Las Vegas and overseas and has been made more practical with advances in technology.

And that's where Leonsis got around specifically to football, noting that the natural pauses between plays presented wagering opportunities with the augmentation of play-by-play odds analysis.

Now, that's how you keep fans riveted to game action.

In his letter to fans, Cass talked of the Ravens organization's lofty goals and worthy aspirations. He emphasized the team's commitment to community service and offered that sports can be a unifying influence. 

"When the Ravens win, we can bring families and the community together," Cass wrote. "We've done that before, and we can do it again."

There is no fault to be found in what Cass wrote. However, there are deeper issues at work when it comes to the NFL's popularity. The controversial events of 2017 -- as they affected game attendance and TV ratings locally and elsewhere -- simply exacerbated what was already happening in the fan universe.

Tedious stoppages for replays that sometimes create even more controversy; player suspensions; legal battles over those suspensions; horrible Thursday games; and serious injuries occurring at epidemic rates are among the issues with which the NFL must grapple.

Eventually, the NFL -- even if it can mitigate some of the aforementioned problems -- was going to find out that it needs to fully embrace gambling to hold its place with fans, especially in another decade or two. What occurred in 2017 will simply hasten that moment of realization.

***

Sports gambling figures out of Nevada in November produced a couple of historical events. For the first time, sports wagering handle at the state's legal bookmaking operations exceeded $500 million for three straight months.

Handle is the total amount wagered and should not be confused with revenue.

To put the financials in perspective, sports bettors wagered $538 million in November and the bookmakers kept $9.8 million (that's about 1.8 percent). If you figure that sounds low, you're figuring right. The average hold on sports wagering is closer to 5 percent or better.

For November, the books got smacked on baseball betting because of the timing of the World Series Game 7 Nov. 1 and the fact that it was the Houston Astros who beat the Los Angeles Dodgers. That perfect storm created another historical footnote.

For November, Nevada books paid out $11.5 million on baseball, which reportedly was an all-time single-month loss for that sport. All those futures bets on Houston placed throughout the year hit the bottom line of the November ledger. But as already pointed out, other sports had the bookmakers in the black overall, although by a slim margin.

Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Issue 241: January / February 2018