That’s his vision. In navigating this wild and unstable new terrain, most influential sports figures have tiptoed since the gate-opening Supreme Court decision 17 months ago. Leonsis is walking briskly, if not jogging. He’s not waiting to see what will happen. From the beginning, he has been fascinated with inventing the future.
You can admire his foresight. You can worry about the potential for recklessness. You can hate his moneymaking ambitions. It doesn’t matter. Leonsis, who owns the Capitals, Mystics and Wizards, wants to be at the forefront of shaping all of these loose possibilities into a cutting-edge reality.
He was talking openly about ideas until Thursday. Now, he has made his first significant public move by announcing a partnership with British bookmaker William Hill. Assuming that the deal clears a few hurdles with the city, the NBA and the NHL, Capital One Arena soon could be attached to a sportsbook and even function like a vast casino during live events.
The plan puts Leonsis in the role of industry leader — or guinea pig. While he enters the venture with great exuberance, there’s also a need for caution as he sets an example (or becomes a cautionary tale) for blurring the line between sports and betting.
Leonsis is sensitive to perception, which is why he mostly describes the partnership with William Hill as a landlord-tenant arrangement. But he also talks of William Hill putting kiosks in the arena, mobile wagering from seats and the potential for proposition bets involving the live events.
In making the announcement, Leonsis characterized William Hill as “no different than McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts.” But this relationship is fully dissimilar to other arena tenants because William Hill’s business will be tied to what’s happening on the court or ice in a manner that far exceeds a Chick-fil-A free throw promotion. It makes the partnership much more complicated to manage on many levels, including game integrity and the in-game experience for fans.
If you’re a big fan of the local team who also enjoys gambling (and can do so in moderation), in-arena betting will have an additive effect. That’s mostly positive, I suppose. But as any smart businessman would, Leonsis wants to use gambling as an incentive for new fans to come to games. That would set up an interesting level of conflict, probably passive-aggressive in nature, between loyalists and gamblers just interested in making a few bucks.
People come to games for all kinds of reasons: love of team, sense of community, civic pride, family fun, dates, to see and be seen, the bizarre enjoyment of heckling. So I won’t wax on about the purity of watching an athletic event, but when you throw hardcore gamblers into the event, you’re talking about new customers with way more personal and financial interests than the average fan. Put too many of these people in the building, and it changes the entire vibe.
There is also the likelihood of a significant alteration in the interaction between spectators and athletes. Most of us desire to watch professional sports live because we appreciate the competition, the athleticism and the drama. In short, we are there to enjoy a performance, to be entertained, to bear witness to the unknown. And now the doors will be open, in theory, to a large concentration of people heavily invested in an attempt to forecast the unknown.
It’s the gamification of games. It can be fun when you’re guessing whether Alex Ovechkin will score in the second period just to guess. But when a gambler bets his rent on it, and Ovechkin doesn’t deliver? Uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing about going to a casino, as opposed to some sports version of one: You know the deal. The house always wins. You’re trying to defy the odds, get lucky, hope for the right cards or the ideal roll of the dice. When it doesn’t happen, there is really no one to blame but your own foolishness. In an arena, when Bradley Beal fails to help you win a bet, you might get delusional and blame it on him. The possibility of anger is obvious. Fostering an environment for ticked-off wagerers could be dangerous, and the divide between fans and players is already wide and burdensome.
If he gets his way, Leonsis must be careful not to allow the game to become background noise while chasing the gambling dollar. As is, there are too many distractions at sporting events. The event itself can’t become merely the music at the party.
Leonsis understands the challenges. He understands he has a responsibility to keep sporting events family-friendly and enjoyable for children. But he’s also the owner of multiple sports franchises. He wants to make as much money as possible.
“Everyone will be watching,” Leonsis said. “We understand our social responsibility and that everyone will be watching how this works and how this rolls out.”
And there’s one key factor in how Leonsis views sports gambling: Many of us consider it to be a financially risky game of chance. Leonsis considers it to be much more of a game of skill. He often talks about using data to unlock the secrets of sports.
As a creative mind, he likes the idea that gambling could inspire a new viewing experience in which sports leagues partner with tech companies and bookmakers to make special use of all of the statistical information tied to athletics. In an ideal world, such collaboration would benefit more than bettors. It would stimulate minds and change the way we watch sports. It would attract more interest and create more revenue possibilities as viewers transition from traditional television to online streaming.
When Leonsis dreams, he can be captivating. He can also inspire skepticism because, until recently, gambling had always been considered detrimental to sports. But he sees something, even if you don’t, and he is proceeding to follow that vision. Let’s just hope he does so with ample caution.