Betting on the Future: Imagining the NBA Fan Experience with Regulated Gambling

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterMay 5, 2015

Rich Pedroncelli/AP Images

What are the odds LeBron James scores 10 points in a game when guarded by Jimmy Butler?

Will the Clippers score 20 points in the paint when Dwight Howard is on the court?

What are you willing to wager that the Hawks shoot 40 percent from the baseline corner against the Wizards?

Those questions pose not only the topics of some granular NBA debates, but also the future of the sport for the millions attending games. For those are the sorts of questions many might be wagering on nightly should sports betting become federally legalized throughout the U.S. and the NBA develops a wagering structure for fans in arenas and at home.

"It's pretty simple—just look around the world to see where betting is legal," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told Bleacher Report. "That's what we will be doing, and then as technology gets better, we will invent new things. Something that is also important: The NBA is in more countries where betting is legal than where it is not."

Indeed, B/R has learned, through sources involved with the situation, that the NBA has been in recent negotiations with several global sports betting companies, which include but are not limited to Bwin.party and William Hill. One of them could soon become the league's official partner in Europe's regulated markets, which allows for betting on American pro sports.

"The NBA has seen the success that English Premier League soccer clubs have had with sports betting operators, and they're following that same model," a source with knowledge of the discussions said. "They've seen the naming rights and the size of those deals, and they understand that it's an opportunity to open up another revenue stream overseas, in the hundreds of millions of dollars."

The simple fact that the NBA, which declined official comment on the potential deal, is in these discussions is noteworthy. For more than two decades—after Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 1992 prohibiting almost all states from authorizing sports betting—the league has opposed the expansion of legalized sports betting, and only eight years ago it dealt with the Tim Donaghy referee scandal.

Disgraced ex-NBA referee Tim Donaghy during his 2008 trial.
Disgraced ex-NBA referee Tim Donaghy during his 2008 trial.Louis Lanzano/Associated Press

The agreement is projected to be finalized later this summer for the start of next season as a multiyear, multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions. It would include cross-platform branding on the NBA's European broadcasts and the sports betting company's sportsbooks. For example, the NBA and sports betting company would be able to have logo placement on each other's television, media and other promotional properties.

Since last fall, the NBA—led by commissioner Adam Silver—has put on a full-court press in the sports betting arena, more so publicly than any other American major professional sports league. Silver stirred up the conversation on regulating sports betting last October in an interview with B/R's Howard Beck (video below). Silver also wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times on Nov. 13, 2014, just one day after the NBA announced an equity partnership with FanDuel, the No. 1 daily fantasy sports company that offers prizes—the first deal of its kind involving a pro sports league.

And while Silver's internal task force continues to explore the potential for legalization of sports betting, he inspired an entire panel on the topic at February's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.   

"This is not something that came out of the blue in any way," said Dan Spillane, the NBA's‎ vice president and assistant general counsel, at the Sloan conference. "This is something that we had been studying for some time. We've had conversations with people in the gaming industry, with sports representatives from other countries where sports betting is legal. We've done a lot of homework on this issue leading up to [Silver's] public position."

So what could the American landscape look like one day in the NBA, and what kinds of wagers and betting applications could there be for fans?

The main targeted platform for the evolution of sports betting is the mobile phone. At least two NBA teams—the Kings and Sixers—have started to test loyalty programs, within their mobile apps, that feature fan incentives, such as tickets, merchandise and team interaction.

The Kings' experiment includes a way for fans to earn points for prizes by engaging in fantasy games and predicting scores. The Nets, in March, became the first NBA team with a fully launched mobile loyalty program, called Nets Advantage. Fans can earn points for prizes by tweeting, reading a news article on the team's app or making a purchase using the team's eWallet mobile payment system.

The fan rewards represent a steppingstone for the mobile applications to one day having betting features.

"For example, you can get 10 loyalty points if you can guess if a player is going to have 20 points and 10 rebounds tonight, or get 10 percent off if you are the closest to the pin in a mobile game," a Kings front office executive said. "I think there are ways short of gambling now [such as the Kings' mobile loyalty program being tested] that are very clearly interesting to people, and I think that just continues to set the balls in motion for what will happen when gambling for money is finally approved. The groundwork is being laid today for a more sizable change in the future."

A screenshot of the Nets Advantage mobile loyalty program, with the fan redeem points listed.
A screenshot of the Nets Advantage mobile loyalty program, with the fan redeem points listed.Courtesy of the Nets

Added Sixers CEO Scott O'Neil, "If you can get every fan to walk in the building and download your app over the course of a season and then gaming becomes legal, it's certainly the way you get there. But it will be a pretty rigorous and sophisticated approval process—security, payment systems, age verification—that will be federally and likely state-by-state regulated. But we know it's coming."

The Sixers and New Jersey Devils, under the same ownership group, already have a first-of-its-kind partnership with Bwin.party related to online gambling, not specifically sports betting. Once online gambling is potentially approved in Pennsylvania, the Sixers will be able to engage their local audience with Bwin.party—perhaps also with the company's patch on the team jerseys, which Silver envisions in several years.

Similar to the structure in the English Premier League, many around the NBA envision in the future that any league-wide licensing deal between the league and a sports betting company would also involve one of its data providers: NBA.com, STATS, SportVU, Elias Sports Bureau or another analytics service. And they could all get a take off of each wager transaction, just like a casino. The league would also benefit financially from selling its rights to a sports betting company for promotional purposes.

"There are dozens of companies that are now in the U.S. setting up their systems for when [legalized sports betting] happens," said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing and public relations guru who used to run PR for the Knicks and Sixers.

Favorito even believes FanDuel and DraftKings, the two biggest one-day fantasy sports gaming platforms who have partnerships with around a dozen NBA teams, are also in play.

"That's why they're in this business—it's for when sports betting becomes legal," Favorito said of FanDuel and DraftKings, the latter of which also has a business relationship with B/R. "They'll be in the mix."

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is leading the American pro sports movement for legalized sports betting.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is leading the American pro sports movement for legalized sports betting.Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Interestingly, while the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006 made online gambling illegal—it's regulated, however, in Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey—it gave an exception to fantasy because it was viewed as a game of skill, not of chance. The NBA and FanDuel have a unique partnership that other pro leagues don't have.

"We're paying attention to the conversation around sports betting, but FanDuel is a daily fantasy company," said Justine Sacco, the company's director of communications. 

Another application to watch in this space is Fanamana, which calls itself "the first mobile live-action fantasy sports game." The app, which currently focuses on Major League Baseball, enables users to pick their own batters and earn points based on their production. In a recent article in The New Yorker on the future of fantasy sports, Fanamana co-founder Dan Cook said, "We went from season-long to daily, and I figure the next step is in-game. That's where it's obviously headed."

At the heart of any foray into wagering, though, is the integrity of the game on the court and online. That's an issue the league hopes to address through monitoring the flow of information. Any licensing agreement with a sports betting company would see the stats managed by one of the league's data providers, translating to more favorable, well-informed wagers set by the sports betting company.

As for the games on the court, the NBA could hire a valued service like Sportradar to monitor fraud and match fixing. The company analyzes betting patterns and movements worldwide to identify suspicious activities, and then provides educational tools and services for leagues and teams to raise awareness for illegal betting practices. Internally, the NBA, since the Donaghy scandal, has a mandate that all league and team employees are required to annually participate in anti-gambling rules training, which mentions a lifetime termination for any sports betting, fixing and tipping.

Silver brought up the importance of tracking in a recent ESPN The Magazine article, saying, "That's the pragmatic approach."

Wagering on Stephen Curry's productivity in transition may be possible should betting on NBA games be allowed in the near future.
Wagering on Stephen Curry's productivity in transition may be possible should betting on NBA games be allowed in the near future.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

"That's why you see this huge focus with the NBA on information," said agent Warren LeGarie, who worked with Silver to establish the Las Vegas Summer League in 2004. "That's why [the league] is tied into SAP, this analytics stuff, and they're so supportive of Sloan that Adam will show up. What [the league is] trying to do is to make sure that they master all the informational technologies and control it as much as possible.

"Because ultimately, what is gambling about? An edge in information. So what [the league] is saying is, 'If we have the best information, why wouldn't people come through us when they're betting? That way, we know we can control the legitimacy. It's in our best interest to keep the games honest and transparent.' In all fairness, who's better at setting the lines on a game? The league. It won't even be close."

But that won't be all.

The fluid nature of the NBA game also provides a bigger incentive for live in-play, micro-level bets. According to one prominent sports betting company in England, 75 percent of all the bets it receives happen after a game starts. In Nevada and overseas, there are already player and game props—sports betting terms—such as will James Harden score 30 points, or will the Clippers and Rockets combine for more than 200 points in a game?

In the future through the NBA's potential licensing agreements involving the data providers, those props could be much more varied and detailed. For example, will Stephen Curry make three transition three-pointers in a game? Or will the Grizzlies shoot 50 percent within five feet of the rim? It could even be as detailed as betting on Tony Allen's steal percentage (the approximate of how often an opponent possession ends with a steal). When it comes to advanced analytics, there is arguably no other American major pro sports league that rivals the NBA.

"None of that has been done before," said Marc Brody, Bwin.party's former head of sponsorship who's now the senior director of sponsorship for DraftKings. "And that's where sports analytics come into play, and that's something that sports bettors would love. That's what's going to make people watch basketball and sports in general. There's a more intrinsic value to engagement; you're now invested in the outcome."

There could also be simpler bets (as in will a player make the next two free throws?) to even off-the-court bets (as in will a fan sink the half-court shot at halftime?).

"The options are limitless," said Ryan Rodenberg, assistant professor of forensic sports law analytics at Florida State University, at the Sloan conference. "Advertisers and broadcasters would love that. It would make live sports even more DVR-proof than they already are."

A screenshot of Bwin.party's current in-play betting options for an NBA game.
A screenshot of Bwin.party's current in-play betting options for an NBA game.Courtesy of Bwin.party

Smaller, in-play bets could be set as high as $500 and available for just a few seconds at any time, while the game outcome—the most popular bet, and one that would need to be made before a game—could be set as high as $50,000, according to Matthew Holt, ‎CG Technology's vice president of business development. Most of CG's in-play bets from fans are between $25 and $50, which include wagers on made or missed free throws, the first team to score 10 points and the first team to make a three-pointer.

CG, Nevada's largest mobile wagering company, according to Holt, takes those kinds of bets, which are based on information and the liquidity in the markets. If there's a demand from bettors for other types of wagers, the company considers adding them.

Since CG started mobile and in-play wagering in Nevada in 2008, about a dozen companies in the state have followed suit. Holt said CG Technology would be interested in working with the NBA one day, if sports betting became federally regulated. Silver recently confirmed that the league has been studying its business.

"There is a lot of work to be done," Holt said. "The leagues and firms, like ours, are constantly researching what the best path is for legalization for everyone and how we are all affected."

While there is popular belief that the legalization of sports betting is years, not months, away—"It's inevitable and I'll be surprised if it doesn't [happen]," Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said at the Sloan conference—there is the thought that Silver's recent run through the media circuit to push for sports betting, including ESPN and The New York Times, is motivated by 2017. That's when the NBA and NBPA collective bargaining negotiations begin, and the league has lobbyist efforts in Washington, D.C. Two years away might be too ambitious, but Silver has his associates in mind.

"It's what the NBA owners want. Adam's got to figure out ways to make more money," Favorito said. "If you want to keep the game affordable to the common fan, if the salaries keep going up and if the amount of inventory gets split more and more among the teams, you have to continue to find more places to generate new revenue. The gambling and gaming space, as it becomes legal, will be a revenue stream that will only be surpassed by broadcast, which is in the billions already."

A rendering of inside the Kings' upcoming arena in 2016. Wi-Fi connectivity in every NBA arena will be crucial for in-play betting.
A rendering of inside the Kings' upcoming arena in 2016. Wi-Fi connectivity in every NBA arena will be crucial for in-play betting.Courtesy of the Kings

While the NBA has been doing its homework on sports betting, a representative with the players' association said it's also been looking into the matter. Both sides could share massive league revenues from the potential licensing opportunities with sports betting companies. To note, sports betting is currently only legal in Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon, while Indiana, Minnesota, New York and South Carolina are trying to get bills passed.

Now just imagine for a second all of the money that could be made from the regulation of sports betting—just through a single NBA game.

"There could be 10,000 things you can bet on in a game," Favorito said. "Ten thousand times 19,000 people in a building wagering; you do the math. You're talking billions of dollars. The other thing that it does is it keeps people at games.

"So if you're wagering on something and you're waiting for it to happen in the fourth quarter, you're more likely to stay at the game regardless of what the score is. Then you buy more hot dogs, soda and merchandise, and not have to leave the arena. It becomes much more of a fan experience."

Stay tuned—this is one future you can strongly bet on.

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.