OAKLAND — Adam Silver did his annual year-in-review press conference at the NBA Finals on Thursday night, and it was rather bereft of bombshells.
This was not too surprising in a league that is enjoying considerable success at present, and on the one spot of controversy, a Finals rematch for the four straight year, the commissioner offered the hint of a possible significant shift in the way the NBA conducts its business. Cleveland and Golden State have the largest payrolls and pay the most in luxury tax penalties, he noted. But before he could even get out the words “hard salary cap” — an instrument that would have made it nearly impossible for the Warriors and Cavaliers to assemble their present lineups — Silver backed off. “That’s for another day,” he said, killing the headlines about a labour war before they could even be written.
It was a session bursting forth with reasonableness, and continued so when the subject turned to gambling. Silver has been a proponent of legal sports-wagering since his early days on the job, beginning in earnest with a newspaper op-ed four years ago that called for bringing gambling “out of the darkness” in the U.S. and submitting it to proper scrutiny and regulation. At the time, it was a huge change in position for the head of one of the major North American leagues, as evidenced by the fact that Silver’s contemporaries all but shrieked Homer Simpson-style and reiterated long-held positions that their sports would be horribly tainted by legal wagering, even though that wagering was already legal in Nevada.
And so, Silver can’t entirely be accused of trying to make a quick buck with a push for an “integrity fee” that would give a cut of gambling proceeds to the NBA now that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling last month, cleared the way for all states to follow the way of Nevada if they chose. He’s been out here saying this for years.
Silver said on Thursday that his league deserves a slice of gambling revenues partly to pay for the increased enforcement measures that it will have to implement, but also as a royalty payment.
“In the case of the NBA, we’ll spend roughly US$7.5-billion creating NBA basketball this season,” he said. “And to the extent that product is then used for casinos, betting parlours to make money on, we feel, just in the same way that a musician receives a royalty for the music that’s being played, that we should receive some sort of royalty.”
This is at least a more honest explanation of what the league wants. The NBA already has “integrity provisions” in place to monitor suspicious betting activity because gambling already takes place in Nevada and other international jurisdictions, and the league hasn’t requested a cut of that. But because widespread gambling in the United States is expected to be a major revenue windfall, the NBA simply wants to maximize the amount its owners can collect from it.
It’s a logical position, if not a little shameless. U.S.-based sports leagues have for decades acted like they were shocked — shocked! — to learn that wagering takes places on their games, and now here they are lining up to get a fat slice.
Hours later, the reality of Silver’s position on legalized gambling, and the hornet’s nest it could open up, was clear for all to see. Game 1 of the series turned on two late plays: an offensive charge on Kevin Durant that was changed to a blocking foul on LeBron James after a replay review, and J.R. Smith’s baffling decision to not attempt a shot after he secured an offensive rebound with four seconds left in a tie game.
The first of those moments is as uncomfortable as it gets for an officiating controversy. A call was made in real time and then, with some time to reconsider it, the referees decided to go to replay to see if James was outside the restricted area under the basket. The Cavaliers felt that decision was wrong; there was nothing to review. Once the replay was examined for that one reason, it opened the door for the officials to switch the call for any reason. This wasn’t a case of using replay to correct a clear mistake, a foot on the line or a shot after the buzzer. It was a judgement call in real time overturned by a timeout review that isn’t otherwise allowed outside the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
Such incidents are difficult enough for a league to explain; the Cavaliers were convinced on Thursday night that they had been screwed. Now imagine that taking place when there are millions of dollars being wagered on games in any number of states, and the NBA is collecting a portion of all those bets. Consumers already hate it when games turn on strange late calls; imagine what they will feel when that call costs them thousands of dollars. (And while we’re here, had gambling been legal everywhere when Game 1 took place, you’d have to think the prevailing theory among some fans for Smith’s late-game blunder would be that he bet the Warriors.)
Gambling on the NBA is, as Silver noted a few times on Thursday, already legal in a limited way. But if it comes out of the darkness in earnest, the glare on endings like what took place in Game 1 will be awfully bright.
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