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Team sale reflects growing ties between professional sports and gambling

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For years, professional sports organizations such as the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball prohibited alcohol companies from purchasing advertising in stadiums and arenas that could be seen on television, out of respect for efforts to combat drunk driving.

But in 2009, in the depths of the worst recession since the Great Depression, those same leagues found themselves scrambling for cash as their biggest sponsors — automakers, banks and others — cut back on marketing. Suddenly, they began signing multimillion-dollar contracts with companies that made rum, tequila, vodka, and other alcoholic beverages, and the advertising was posted for all to see.

It was a sign of how justifications can change overnight, especially when it comes to money. The sports world was reminded last week when Miriam Adelson and her trust sold $2 billion worth of stock in Sands Corporation, a casino operator, to buy a professional sports team, which turned out to be the Dallas Mavericks. (The purchase must still be approved by the league’s board of governors before becoming official.)

“The Adelson and Dumont families are honored to have the opportunity to serve as stewards of this great franchise,” they said in a statement.

For decades, most major professional leagues largely kept the video gaming world at bay. They banned players, umpires and owners from betting on sports, to protect game results from any trace of impropriety, a stance that dated back at least a century to the famous Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Some leagues also prohibit owners from holding stakes in casinos. For example, Dan Rooney, the principal owner of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers, had to buy out his brothers’ stake in the team because they owned racetracks in New York and Florida. The NBA had no such rule and has had owners tied to casinos, including Tilman Fertitta, the current owner of the Houston Rockets.

“If play is allowed freely at sporting events, normal game incidents such as bad snaps, missed passes, turnovers, penalties and play calls will inevitably fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of sharing points or match-fixing,” the NFL commissioner said. Roger Goodell, said in 2012.

Yet in an era where sports betting — once restricted to casinos like Las Vegas or through bookmakers — has been legalized in dozens of states, the leagues’ old approach seems quaint. Although restrictions remain on players, referees and owners betting on their own sports, gambling has otherwise been embraced by the mainstream sports establishment.

They removed restrictions on casino and sports betting advertising in stadiums and on television. Some stadiums, like FedEx Field in Landover, Md., home of the NFL’s Washington Commanders, contain sports books. Sports betting companies now put their names on stadium signs and buy TV ads during games, including the Super Bowl, with all kinds of promotions to attract new customers.

The leagues also made an about-face by operating in the birthplace of sports betting, Las Vegas, which was banned for years. Today, the National Hockey League, the Women’s National Basketball Association and the NFL have teams in the city. Last month, Major League Baseball owners unanimously approved allowing the A’s to leave Oakland and head to Las Vegas. The NBA, which has hosted all-star games, summer leagues and a new season tournament in Las Vegas, could add an expansion team to the city in coming years, giving every major professional sport a team in a place where leagues once avoided.

“Leagues are constantly reevaluating their businesses as laws change, social mores change and different companies and categories become larger,” said Marc Ganis, a consultant to many teams and leagues. “This includes reviewing ownership rules, sponsorships and advertising.”

The NFL’s embrace of Las Vegas may have been most surprising, given the league’s conservative reputation. The Raiders won approval to move to the city in 2017. The league held the Pro Bowl and college draft on the Strip. And in February, the league’s flagship event – ​​the Super Bowl – will be played in Las Vegas, removing perhaps the last vestige of any distance between town and city.

The reevaluation of leagues has been both practical and strategic. The biggest break came in 2018 after the Supreme Court ruled a law banning sports gambling in most of the country unconstitutional. Dozens of states quickly approved the legalization of sports betting, eclipsing the amount spent in Las Vegas. The NFL now allows owners to own stakes in casinos that do not offer sports betting, although it prohibits owners from owning more than a 5% stake in casinos that allow sports betting.

“Las Vegas is acceptable, not so much because of us but because gambling is almost everywhere now,” said Michael Green, a historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The Strip is as legitimate as any big business.”

At the same time, the image of Las Vegas as a desert oasis with crowd-driven casinos and nightclubs changed dramatically in the 1990s, when the Strip was transformed into an urban theme park where parents could take their children. Many visitors now come as much to see shows like U2 at the Sphere or the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza as to visit the casinos.

And although Las Vegas is relatively small, with a population of around 2.5 million in the area, it has been able to support teams like the NHL’s Raiders and Golden Knights because the city is a destination all the year, attracting around 40 million people. tourists every year.

“There is a whole new demographic exposed to sports gambling by visiting Las Vegas,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of racing and sports betting operations at Westgate Resorts.

Mr. Green noted that the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and the Mob Museum, both of which opened in 2012, also gave the city a glimpse of sophistication it lacked. He recalled that just 20 years ago, the NFL blocked Las Vegas from buying ads during the Super Bowl, a decision that now seems outdated.

“Remind me,” he said, “where will the next Super Bowl be?”

Kevin Draper reports contributed.

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