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How NBA sparked the American sports gambling gold rush

by David Purdum, ESPN Chalk


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — On a Saturday afternoon in October, the race and sportsbook at the Borgata Hotel Casino is packed with horse racing enthusiasts cheering on the ponies.

No one is paying attention to what’s hanging on the wall, but it’s a big deal, a sign of a monumental shift in the American sports landscape.

In the front-right corner of the sportsbook, above the betting windows, the iconic, official red-white-and-blue NBA logo is on display right next to the lit-up oddsboard showcasing all of the day’s point spreads. It’s glaring, visual evidence of the thawing relationship between two of America’s favorite pastimes — professional sports and gambling — as well as a precursor to a high-speed, data-driven evolution that is coming next.

“A lot has changed,” said Scott Butera, president of interactive gaming for MGM Resorts, which owns the Borgata. “What’s really changed is the fan base and the way they’re changing how they consume sports.”

Some would argue that the bigger agent of change has been the evolving attitudes of the professional leagues, which have been able to quickly pivot off their long-held, staunch opposition to sports betting.

For six years, the NBA, along with the NCAA, NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL, fought New Jersey’s efforts to allow sports betting. The leagues claimed they would suffer “irreparable harm” if sportsbooks opened in Atlantic City. Now, the leagues and their teams are partnering with those same sportsbooks.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal statute and opened a path for states outside of Nevada to legalize sports betting, and a race to profit off it kicked off. In the first five months since the Supreme Court ruling, the NBA, NHL and even the New York Jets have partnered with MGM Resorts, the prominent gaming company that owns properties in a half dozen states. Prudential Center, home to the New Jersey Devils, is dedicating space to multiple sports-betting-sponsored lounges, where odds will be on display and bets can be made on the sponsoring bookmaker’s mobile app. This week, the Oakland Raiders signed a deal with Caesars. More team, league and venue deals are expected to follow.

The American sports betting gold rush is on — and it all started with a discussion between a forward-thinking commissioner and the CEO of one of the largest bookmaking operations in the U.S.

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