The Threat That Legalized Gambling Poses to Professional Sports

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) places his first two bets at the Borgata Casino during the first day of sports betting in New Jersey on June 14, 2018. Photo by Edwin J. Torres/New Jersey Governor's Office.

Maryland is poised to follow in the footsteps of neighboring states that have legalized sports betting.

A measure backed by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), approved overwhelmingly in the House of Delegates earlier this month, is moving through the state Senate.

And a lawmaker who sponsored sports gambling legislation last year has pledged that the General Assembly will approve a bill before lawmakers leave Annapolis on April 12.

The focus of debate in the legislature this year has been on minority business participation — making sure Maryland doesn’t replicate what happened with medical marijuana, when Black entrepreneurs were shut out when licenses in the lucrative new industry were awarded.

Gambling advocates have lobbied the legislature to boost the number of both “bricks and mortar” and mobile licenses, claiming that the more venues there are, the more likely it is that businesses run by people of color and women will benefit.

All that remains, it would appear, is for the final details to be nailed down.

But a scholar and journalist who has tracked the impact of gambling around the world — both legal and illegal — has a warning for states like Maryland.

Declan Hill, a University of New Haven professor and the author of two books on sports gambling, said states must insist on stricter federal oversight of the industry.

Without it, he said in an interview, “there’s a wave — a tsunami — of match-fixing that nobody is preparing for in this country.”

Before a Supreme Court 2018 ruling, sports gambling outside of Nevada occurred underground.

With sports wagering about to be both legal and convenient (as close as your phone), observers expect a huge increase in the amount of betting that occurs in Maryland.

Hill warns that if no one is tracking unusual patterns in the wagers that are placed, match-fixing schemes orchestrated by people involved in organized crime will go undetected.

“We need an integrity board to make sure that we can see what’s going on in the gambling market in live time,” the Oxford-educated scholar said. “And if you’re not an illegal bookmaker, why would you care about that data? Let’s get it out there. Let’s get it shared.”

If the U.S. fails to oversee patterns between betting trends and match outcomes, American sports will become mere “theater” — a phenomenon Hill says has already happened abroad to a significant extent.

“One of the reasons that American sports are growing internationally is because they still have a high reputation for integrity. But unless we get this right, we’re going to risk that integrity. We’re going to risk our competitive advantage.”

Hill insists he supports the legalization of gambling in the U.S. — to get it out of the shadows, wrestle at least some of it away from organized crime, and make sure “that it’s properly regulated and taxed.”

But he warns that there are insufficient efforts to combat the spread of gambling addiction that is endemic in Europe.

“It used to be, say in 2005, a bunch of guys would sit down and watch a soccer game, and they would be wholly interested in the soccer game,” he said. “Now, they’ll have 20 phones open, multiple different betting accounts going, and they’re consuming the sport in the way that [people who bet on horses] consume horse racing.”

“That is the long-term danger for American sports, that they cease to be primarily athletic competitions and they slowly and gradually transform into vehicles for gambling.”

Hill’s advice for state lawmakers across the country is not to believe the promises from industry lobbyists. Also: prepare for them to come back in a year or two, seeking a reduction in the state’s share of the action.

“As soon as the law gets passed, they’ll start whining for them to lower their taxes,” he said. “And they’ll start claiming that they haven’t really affected the illegal gambling market — and if they are going to compete, they need to have lower taxes.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.