In 1950, America was waking up to the problem of organized crime. U.S. Attorney General J. Howard McGrath convened a conference, primarily of big-city mayors, to discuss the root causes of the rackets (the word “mafia” had not yet entered the popular lexicon). Gambling, he said, was a fundamental nuisance in a country that was fundamentally opposed to the practice.
Although a few states (including Nevada) permitted some gambling, McGrath told the gathering that the overall public policy of the United States “condemns organized gambling and makes its activities illegal.” Sen. Estes Kefauver later amplified this theme during his chairmanship of the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Thanks to their television exposure, the hearings made Kefauver a national political force (which he parlayed into the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination) but did little to stop Americans from gambling. If anything, they helped Las Vegas by prompting the cleanup of illegal casinos in the rest of the country.
In that atmosphere, professional sports — whose legitimacy has at times been tainted by gambling-related scandals from the infamous 1919 Black Sox to college-basketball point shaving — were right to distance themselves from gambling. It was mostly illegal and, even where it was allowed, was not well-regarded by the rest of the country. With the United States nearly unanimous against gambling, legal or otherwise, this was a no-brainer.
Today, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch would have to concede that the basic public policy of the United States is pro-gambling. All but six states run lotteries, taking in nearly $74 billion last year. Every National Football League team plays in a stadium in which gambling is as close as the nearest convenience store.
Still, the announcement that the National Hockey League had awarded an expansion franchise to a group based in Las Vegas was, to some, a shock. This was the first big league to base a team in Las Vegas, a city that, thanks to its gambling and sports betting associations, was for many years taboo. The NFL has even refused to air commercials touting Las Vegas — scrubbed of all gambling references — during the Super Bowl.
But it’s no longer so easy to insulate sports from gambling by keeping it away from the Strip. The public embrace of games of chance goes beyond states using lottery sales to plug school budgets: Gambling is unquestionably a public policy tool at the federal level, too. Casino gambling on tribal reservations has, since the Reagan years, been endorsed as a solution to endemic underdevelopment on Indian lands; tribal casinos bring in about $29 billion annually from Connecticut to California. Starting with New Jersey but continuing through the Deep South, Midwest, and into the cities of the North, states have legalized commercial casino gaming, which garnered more than $40 billion in revenues last year.
In 2016, the only big-league sports franchise not in a state with legal gambling (lotteries, horseracing, bingo or casinos) is the Utah Jazz. Even so, Salt Lake City is less than two hours down Interstate 80 from the blackjack tables and video poker of West Wendover, Nev.
We accept that big-league sports are deeply woven into the fabric of the United States. And we are just starting to realize that big-league gambling is now, too.
The difference, the NFL might say, is that Nevada allows straight-up sports betting, which no other state in the nation does, and in Nevada casinos, alongside the slots and crap tables, one can bet against the spread.
You can’t bet legally on sports in most states, but that hasn’t stopped a booming trade in illegal bookmaking and inventive ways of skirting the law. Many Americans like very much the prospect of risking a little of their money to test their acumen in picking winners; that’s what made the meteoric rise of daily fantasy sports possible.
And the leagues, it appears, are not so opposed to betting on sports as they’ve been in the past. Last year, teams from the NFL — the pro sports business that has been most adamantly against legal sports betting — wasted little time in signing partnership and sponsorship deals with DFS operators, even though it’s immediately clear that DFS satisfies most definitions of gambling. Not that the opposition was not without historical justification: From Shoeless Joe Jackson to Pete Rose, illegal sports gambling has been a malevolent influence on sports. The key word, though, is illegal. The legal sports betting industry has a long track record in Nevada (as do its counterparts in other nations, most prominently in Britain) that suggests prohibition may not be the answer.
So the NHL’s decision to award an expansion franchise to Las Vegas is not such a huge step. NHL cities from Montreal to Phoenix have casinos nearby, and casino advertising has been gracing the boards in arenas throughout the league for years. The league has held its annual awards show in a progression of Las Vegas casinos since 2009 with no known ill effects. It’s impossible to argue, at this point, that either casinos or Las Vegas and hockey haven’t meshed well. Finally, there’s the economic reality that Las Vegas has an arena ready for play and an ownership group willing to pony up a half-billion-dollar expansion fee. In sports, as in the baccarat pit, money talks.
The past half-century of gambling expansion shows that, when push comes to shove, governments will gladly endorse gambling if it means adding something to the bottom line. It is not surprising that professional sports teams, in many ways a microcosm of the social, political, and economic games that define American life, are following suit. In that light, seeing a team lace up with skates in Las Vegas is not surprising at all.