by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Talk about the story that never ends! The Garden State’s ongoing attempts to legalize sports wagering have begun to remind of one of those seemingly endless, tedious treks on the New Jersey Turnpike. We at TGS feel like we’ve been on this sports gaming ride all of the way north from the Delaware Memorial Bridge...and we haven’t even reached the Vince Lombardi Travel Plaza on Exit 17. But it has been a compelling and important storyline that has demanded our attention over several editorials the past two years.

Developments, however, are hardly abating as this story has now morphed into something even bigger than New Jersey’s well-publicized challenge, and recent attempted end-run, around PASPA (Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act), a 1992 law which allowed select states (Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana), but not New Jersey, to be “grandfathered� by the feds to accept sports wagers. Yet another crescendo in this matter was reached last week thanks to none other than NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who earlier had raised some eyebrows with pro-gaming comments made at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit back in September. But this time Silver would go beyond raising eyebrows to effectively moving the tectonic plates of the debate, thanks in large part to his New York Times op-ed piece last week that extolled the virtues of a nationwide legalized sports gaming environment.

With Silver now entering the discussion and so many angles to the latest developments (including New Jersey’s challenge and its progress in US District Court), we’re spreading commentary over multiple TGS issues. Next week, we will delve further into Silver’s New York Times piece as we need a bit more time to digest the consequences of his editorial, which has upped the ante in the ongoing debate regarding further legalization of sports wagering.

For the moment, however, we can mention an important distinction between Silver’s NYT op-ed and other recent challenges to existing sports gaming law (specifically New Jersey’s well-chronicled attempts), in that the NBA commish is urging that new changes be taken up through Congress, and not the federal courts. To this point, there has seemed little appetite to attack the status quo via any other means than the courts. But an alteration, or an abandonment, of PASPA through new legislation might soon be on the table. And while the prevailing attitude of sports gaming proponents, at least until this point, has been that change through Congress would be akin to turning a battleship around in a river, having someone as high-profile as Silver on record suggesting change could cast an entirely different light upon the situation.

In the meantime, various anti-sports gaming forces, sensing public sentiment moving quickly in the opposite direction, have resorted to their old playbooks filled with scare tactics about any potential evils, perceived or otherwise. A recent editorial in the Newark Star-Ledger (which has not avowed an anti-sports gaming stance in the past) addressed the latest attempts by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and State Senator Raymond Lesniak to de-regulate sports betting in the Garden State as a means to bypass PASPA, and would indirectly stumble into many of the old and tired arguments used by sports-gaming opponents.

In its November 7 piece, the Star-Ledger suggested Christie and Lesniak, thanks to their de-regulation argument, were effectively inviting organized crime to infiltrate the industry; the headline of the editorial was "Coming Soon To A Casino Near You: Mob Rule." The piece concluded thusly. “Sports betting is a massive global industry already controlled to large degree by organized crime, and to legitimize it will only incentivize the mob to spread its influence. Right here (New Jersey).�

(Hmmm. And the mob hasn’t been in New Jersey before?)

Having been involved on the periphery of sports wagering for nearly six decades, and personally having grown up around the horse racing industry, we’re aware of many of the potential trouble spots that can arise regarding the games themselves. And while there has been the occasional rogue element (like disgraced NBA ref Tom Donaghy) who has been able to compromise professional sports results in the states, those examples are few and very, very far between. Indeed, the major pro sports in North America might be better insulated from match-fixing than the White House is from curious interlopers.

To better set the framework for this angle of the debate, we suggest you read a new book entitled The Big Fix by investigative reporter Brett Forrest. Forrest, who has been a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and others, conducted an exhaustive narrative on the corruption involved in wagers on international soccer matches, following the former head of security for FIFA, Chris Eaton, and his attempts to identify and root out various crime syndicates, mostly Asian-based, that have manipulated hundreds of soccer matches over the years.

Forrest’s book reads like a novel as it explores the darkest recesses of sports wagering and exposes a web of match fixers who bribe players, influence officials, and stage fake matchups, often with the cooperation of national soccer federations. Among the more intriguing passages in the Forrest book are those that deal with the new markets that have emerged in places like China, and the mechanics of how the Internet has precipitated fantastic growth in online betting sites which have also improved options for the gambler, no longer hamstrung by a handful of sports books who would possess a quasi-monopoly on the marketplace.

But Forrest is also careful to point out that the “marketplace� for any corruption exists far from the major domestic soccer leagues in Europe, where player salaries often can equate to what their American sport counterparts earn. Much easier to manipulate are the lower-divisions and more obscure domestic leagues in Europe and Asia, as well as the many bogus “friendly� country vs. country exhibition matches, where it is easier to find complicit forces, especially referees (who are more susceptible to bribes, as they are even in American pro sport), to influence a result

While international soccer presents countless opportunities for schemers to manipulate, Forrest also details scenarios that are almost impossible to imagine being replicated in American pro sports. Moreover, Forrest also reminds the reader how the major European bookmaking operations, much like their legal counterparts in Nevada, have various safeguards in place to prevent from being “burned� by the dishonest gambler.

As long as legal bookmakers are in business, whether or not they are regulated by any government agency, they will intend to turn a profit, and incentivized to keep their houses in order. Which is exactly what TGS founder Mort Olshan reminded readers in his memorable book, Winning Theories of Sports Handicapping, published in 1975. “It is the tinhorn gambler--not the bookie--who profits from corruption,� said Mort almost 40 years ago. “The storekeeper requires an honest point spread and an honest game to keep his percentages operating.. Only a fool would establish a marketplace for crooks, and the bookmaker is nobody’s fool.�

Next week: Further review and reaction to Adam Silver’s op-ed, and a New Jersey update.

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