Pros shunned sports bets 1 year ago. Now, leagues are all-in

SECAUCUS, N.J. (AP) — American professional sports leagues used to fight sports betting as an existential threat until the U.S. Supreme Court handed them a loss. They widely lost again when state legislatures rejected their pleas to be cut in on the action under new laws.

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Now, nearly a year after the high court cleared the way for any state to choose whether to take wagers, the leagues have completely changed their tune to embrace the private deals offered via legalized sports gambling, both in young markets and prospective ones.

Numerous sports have inked marketing deals with gambling companies to become official sports betting providers, agreements that include a lot of cross-promotion and the ability for sportsbooks to use a wealth of official league data, which often goes beyond offerings of other providers.

Leagues and even individual teams now have employees whose main job is to seek out new business opportunities involving sports betting. An example: Major League Soccer is considering putting the names of bookmakers on player jerseys.

What a difference a year makes.

Only Nevada had offered bets on single games before May 14, 2018, when the Supreme Court struck down a law that had limited sports betting to four states that met a 1991 deadline to legalize it, siding with a challenge brought by New Jersey.

Now, eight states offer sports gambling, a few others are close to legalizing and dozens more are considering it.

Keith Wachtel, executive vice president of the National Hockey League, said the Supreme Court ruling changed his league's view "drastically."

"It created an opportunity for fan engagement. Our data gives us a new opportunity to look at sports betting, and it opens up a whole new amount of data for our fans," he said. "Player speed, hardest shot: you can (soon) bet on those things."

Joe Januszewski, executive vice president of baseball's Texas Rangers, said his game has long been known as "a slow, languid, unfolding pace game" that has been trying — with mixed results — to get younger people interested.

"With the next set of fans, that may not speak to them," he said. "We look at the burgeoning gambling and betting space to make our game more engaging for a whole new audience. The expansion of betting is how baseball is going to evolve in the 21st century."

Likewise, Scott Kaufman-Ross, head of fantasy sports and gaming for the NBA, is excited by ever-more involved fans.

"We know the person watching basketball is the most likely person to bet on basketball," he said. "And the person betting on basketball is more likely to watch more basketball."

Speaking Wednesday and Thursday at the Betting on Sports America conference, league and team officials unanimously embraced an industry they once fought so hard. Concerns about integrity and scandal have given way to optimism about licensing deals and surging fan bases.

Significantly, most executives said sports betting revenue is minor compared with broadcast rights and ticket sales. Its real potential, they said, is drawing new customers.

"Sports betting is about fan engagement," said Bill Ordower, executive vice president of Major League Soccer. "The revenue is second. We're excited about new ways for fans to connect. If you're betting on a game, you're more engaged with it."

Wachtel, the NHL executive, said part of that is because legalized sports betting is still relatively small.

"Look five years down the road where projections are that 40 percent of the country will be able to bet on a mobile device," he said. "That's a scale we haven't been able to reach."

Shelly Cayette, vice president of global partnerships for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, said the challenge includes unifying the focus on sports betting toward fans.

"It's now getting everybody to see clearly that sports betting is a platform that allows the sport of basketball to grow, and that's our goal," she said. "We can't stay in business unless we continue to grow. And we now get to engage more with our fan base."

In one 24-hour period last fall, the National Basketball Association partnered with Sportradar and Genius Sports to distribute NBA betting data to sports betting providers in the U.S., and Major League Baseball partnered with MGM Resorts to become an official gambling partner in the U.S. and Japan. MGM Resorts previously reached similar deals with the NBA, WNBA and NHL, and has a deal with the NFL's New York Jets to promote its properties and mobile app to fans.

FanDuel joined with the NHL and its New Jersey Devils franchise shortly before that for sports betting and fantasy sports play, and additional deals have since been inked.

Even teams in states where sports betting is not yet legal are engaging in talks with gambling companies to be ready to move quickly if legalization happens in their states, executives said.

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