Among many parts of public policy and federal law that may change under President Donald Trump, some in the sports world are wondering if the former casino owner might be particularly inclined to support the legalization of sports betting.
It is an effort that has seen a groundswell in the past few years, arguably reignited thanks to an influential and well-received 2014 op-ed in the New York Times by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, arguing in favor of changing the law. “Despite legal restrictions, sports betting is widespread,” Silver wrote. “It is a thriving underground business that operates free from regulation or oversight… The laws on sports betting should be changed. Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards.”
Trump may be inclined to agree—or at least, those with skin in the game hope so. They believe that his past as a casino owner in Atlantic City, among other things, might make him favorable to a change in gambling law, although he did not overtly address the issue on the campaign trail.
Where Trump appears to stand on sports betting
The closest Trump has come to commenting on the issue recently was in an interview with Fox Sports Radio host Colin Cowherd in November of last year. Cowherd asked, “Are you pro- or anti- fantasy [sports] and gambling?” Trump replied, “I’m okay with it because it’s happening anyway. Whether you have it or you don’t have it, you have it… it’s all over the place.”
He also signaled support back in 1993, when he spoke to an NBC reporter in New Jersey about the effort to peel back the then-new federal ban on sports betting. “It’s vital to keeping your taxes low, it’s vital to the senior citizens, and it’s vital to putting the bookies out of business,” he said. “Everybody wants it, we do polls showing 80% in favor.”
Trump’s spokesperson declined to comment for this story. “There’s no reason to believe that expanding prohibition is on his agenda,” writes the DC nonprofit research firm R Street, “or that he would be opposed to greater liberalization, especially if it can create or increase revenue streams for his economic agenda.”
The American Gaming Association is among many that are optimistic about sports gambling’s chances under Trump. The lobbying group, which represents casinos and gaming companies, has sent a memo to Trump’s transition team urging him to support sports betting, and on Tuesday afternoon will hold a press conference to discuss the memo.
In a statement sent ahead of time to Yahoo Finance, the AGA says, “We’re encouraged by President-elect Trump’s acknowledgement of a vast illegal sports betting market and his previous support for legalizing betting in New Jersey. The status quo, a $150 billion illegal market, is unsustainable and we look forward to working with the Trump administration and the new Congress to make progress on this.”
The two relevant federal laws in question are the Interstate Wire Act of 1961, which made it a crime to use wire communications to place bets, and the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, or PASPA, which banned sports betting everywhere except Nevada (with additional exceptions in Delaware, Montana, and Oregon, and for jai alai and parimutuel horse-racing). The AGA estimates that $90 billion will be bet just on football games this year (pro and college), and that 98% of the bets will be made illegally under PASPA.
A recent AGA study using Nielsen data concluded that if sports betting were legalized, the number of regular-season sports viewers betting on games would jump from 40 million to 57 million, or 36% of the NFL audience. In other words, big TV networks have a stake in this movement as well. And pro sports leagues have been gearing up for what may be an inevitability.
PASPA is, for now, the central enemy and target of the gaming industry’s effort—an effort that has gone into overdrive recently, spurred by the rise of daily fantasy sports contests, which were just recently expressly protected under a new bill in New York State. But if PASPA were repealed, the Wire Act would have to be next to go, because it applies to Internet betting (often called “e-gaming”).
Like many Republicans, Trump opposes higher taxes and regulation, which might also match up with repealing PASPA. On the other hand, Republicans in general tend to be anti-gambling, and changes to federal sports law would not be up to Trump, but to Congress.
Republicans will have full control of Congress, and regardless of what Trump wants, that “could have a negative overall impact,” for sports betting, writes Florida attorney Dan Wallach at Sports Law Blog. “The possibility exists that a Republican-controlled Congress could enact legislation banning online gambling, and thereby roll back the clock for those states (e.g., New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada) that have already entered the online poker space.”
In addition, Wallach points out, new gambling legislation would likely go through the Commerce Committee, currently led by Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who has repeatedly voted against Internet gambling. Vice President-elect Mike Pence has also come out against online poker. And finally, Trump’s choice of attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is extremely conservative.
It’ll be up to Sessions to enforce the Wire Act, R Street says, and what he does or doesn’t change with regard to sports betting “comes down to how much freedom Trump gives Sessions to set an agenda.” Sessions’ office did not reply to a request for comment.
We may end up getting a good indication of where Sessions stands on these issues very early on in the Trump administration. As R Street writes, “The feds like to score public relations points around the Super Bowl and March Madness.” Trump’s inauguration is on Jan. 21, Super Bowl 51 is on Feb. 5, and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins on March 14.