AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — The phones started going off simultaneously, like popcorn. The ACC’s athletic directors and conference executives were all gathered around a conference table for the first session of the conference’s spring meetings when the entire landscape of sports in the United States changed.
The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday morning that essentially legalized sports gambling — overturning a Federal law that had prohibited individual states from allowing it, beyond those grandfathered in — is a game-changer for the NCAA, college conferences and every professional team and league. It was already on the agenda for discussion tomorrow at the ACC meetings, but now takes on immediate importance.
And even if North Carolina isn’t among the early adopters, with two dozen or so states that appear primed and ready to take the leap, its teams and schools are going to have to reckon with the consequences. A billion-dollar underground industry is about to come into the light, and it’s going to affect everything from the atmosphere at games to television ratings to how sports is covered in this country. You can bet on it.
In many ways, this is long overdue. Sports betting has gone on undeterred in Las Vegas and through overseas outlets and illegally for years, and the idea that legalization would somehow encourage shenanigans or tarnish the integrity of the NFL or NBA or college football or basketball was archaically puritan.
“As easy as it is to place bets online and everywhere else,” North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said, “I don’t think it’ll have a significant immediate impact.”
In the longer term, though, everyone in college and pro sports is going to have to reckon with legalized gambling. Regulated and taxed, it’s a revenue stream that should long ago have been tapped for the public’s benefit instead of driven underground. The mechanics of how to do that, and the role NCAA and the pro sports leagues will play, remain undefined.
Nine of the ACC’s 15 schools are located in states that already allow either casino or pari-mutuel gambling and figure to be ahead of the curve on legalization, New York and Pennsylvania especially, and there’s still the possibility of federal regulation, so it’s going to impact Duke and North Carolina and N.C. State and Wake Forest no matter what the state of North Carolina does, like it or not.
“I’m going to have to learn a lot more about gambling,” N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow said.
That will extend to compliance in particular, as schools wrangle with inevitably changing NCAA and internal regulations guidelines on sports wagering — everything from the unavoidable expansion of NCAA championships to states that allow it to setting policies for their own athletes and policing them.
It doesn’t take much to see a glimpse into the future: Online betting on horse racing is widespread in states where it’s legal; all it takes is a valid address and a credit card to get started, and there’s wide-open competition among different consortiums and even a TV channel that shows nothing but races — and has its own betting site, too. Or take a seven-hour flight to England, where fans place bets on soccer games and everything else at old-school bookmaker’s shops, even inside stadiums.
Meanwhile, European fans can engage in live, in-game wagering from their seats on their phones throughout. If teams are worried about fan engagement in stadiums and arenas now, wait until fans can bet on the next play. It’s coming, sure enough.
All of that’s down the road. At the moment, people are already gambling on ACC and NHL games in North Carolina. Just not legally. That’s all going to change. For the ACC athletic directors, and everyone else in the business, the only question is how and when, and what to do about it.
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