Ted Leonsis was never a gambler. An entrepreneur, a businessman, a philanthropist, an investor — but never much of a gambler. So he’s perhaps an unlikely torchbearer for one of the biggest shifts the sports world has seen in the 21st century. But here he is, with something that feels more like a grand vision than a high-stakes bet: a certainty that legalized sports gambling will soon change the way fanatics who fill stadiums and arenas, who wave signs, who slather colorful paint on their bodies and scream themselves hoarse, will experience live sports.
In some ways, it’s inevitable, he figures. Society has become more accepting of gambling, but that’s almost beside the point because Leonsis — and much of the sports world — is starting to view sports betting as a distant relative to the dice-throwing, backroom card games and jangling slot machines typically associated with casino-style gambling.
“I liken sports betting more to Wall Street. . . . I don’t believe it’ll be considered a game of chance,” says Leonsis, the former AOL executive who heads up Monumental Sports and Entertainment in Washington.
“I think it will be a game of skill, just like you can be a day trader — you can be at Goldman Sachs, making billion-dollar bets on companies.”
Leonsis, 61, has the distinction of owning seven professional sports teams, including the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals. So when he talks about how legalized sports betting will change the fan experience, he’s thinking about every sports league and every sports fan in the United States.
For years, most American sports leagues have resisted gambling of any sort, scarred by match-fixing and point-shaving scandals that still stain history books. But in recent years, public attitudes have relaxed, and many of the major stakeholders slowly have shifted their stances.
In May, the Supreme Court effectively shut down the federal law that outlawed sports betting in most places outside of Nevada, allowing individual states to decide on their own whether they want in on the lucrative sports gambling business. It’s an industry that some believe topped $100 billion as an underground market and some analysts think could grow into a $6 billion to $16 billion industry, depending on how many states get onboard.
Five states have cleared the way for sportsbooks, and more than 20 others, plus the District, are debating legislation and could start taking bets in the coming year or two. As sports gambling becomes more widespread, it will become increasingly folded into the fabric of the games Americans love to watch.
It’s potentially a booming business that could bolster teams and leagues while changing the way even nongamblers engage with the action. If Leonsis’s vision proves true, it will transform arenas, intellectualize the games and beef up the statistics and data used in each sport.
Leonsis’s vision is particularly grand and notably progressive.
He thinks his 20-year-old arena in Chinatown, the home of the Wizards and Capitals, in addition to one of his Arena Football League teams, will be transformed in the near future to an entertainment super-plex of sorts, buzzing with life and action.
The arena will open in the morning and attract crowds during the lunch hour, happy hour and every hour in between. The allure: sports betting. Televisions and betting windows will abound. “Screens everywhere,” Leonsis says. The area around the arena and in many spaces inside the building will resemble high-tech sportsbooks, the kind found in high-end, Las Vegas-style casinos. There will be betting windows and sporting events from all over the world being broadcast on walls of television screens.
The sportsbooks won’t be limited to traditional wagers — winner, loser, total points scored — but will have a variety of prop bets and perhaps the biggest development of all: in-game betting options.
That means fans can bet on specific plays nearly in real time. Will the Capitals score on the upcoming power play? There will be a line instantly. Will LeBron James miss this next free throw? Fans are a couple of taps away from placing a bet. Will the Wizards make a basket on their next possession? There will be odds for that, too — and everything imaginable over the course of the game, potentially keeping fans engaged at the times when the action lulls and games turn dull.
Leonsis calls it the “gamification” of sports, a new reality in which, like the athletes in the spotlight, the fans in the stands also will find themselves rooted in competition that’s centered around the action in front of them, staking their money on informed speculation as much as a lucky hunch.
“I try not to call it gambling. Gambling to me sounds like rolling the dice, not knowing what the outcome is,” he said. “And gamification, powered by big data, you have all of the information that you need to make a very, very reasoned decision.”
In real time
While there are obstacles to overcome, Leonsis’s vision isn’t a far-fetched, distant scenario. In fact, one professional league is on the verge of testing the gambling waters next year, which surely will draw the interest and curiosity of owners and league officials across the sports world.
Charlie Ebersol saw a huge opportunity when he began brainstorming a new professional football league. He wanted a high level of play, of course, in addition to certain safety measures and novel incentives for players. But he also wanted to engage fans in a way no American sports outfit ever has.
He felt there was an opening in the marketplace — a hungry, football-loving audience and certain avenues the NFL and other leagues weren’t exploring.
When the Alliance of American Football launches in February, it will include a digital platform that allows fans to play a fantasy-type game tied to the action on the field, and it will allow and encourage fans to place real-time bets on the action in front of them.
“Every single play, you have a 12- to 17-second pause at a minimum in which you can enter a bet on a play that has a plethora of potential outcomes,” Ebersol says, “bordering on an impossibly high number of possible outcomes.”
Leonsis loves to note that an average football game has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 minutes of actual action, giving fans plenty of idle time between plays. He long has said legalized sports betting could save the NFL, and Ebersol’s experiment next year could go a long way toward testing that theory.