When introducing gambling into sport, it is always difficult to strike a balance. Many fans love sport for its own sake, and may feel awkward or even offended about the introduction of a financial element to a game. And while others might be happy for people to gamble on a sport, they may worry that the changes to data access that these sponsorships offer could come back to hurt the game.
This was a minefield that the National Basketball Association, or NBA, had to navigate when it first permitted gambling sponsorships back in 2018. As a result of the changes, several companies – including household names such as MGM – have taken up the offer. What exactly were the consequences though? This article will explore what transpired – and whether the game has really been affected by the change in policy.
A history of protest
Gambling sponsorships have been a thorny issue for many years in American sport – and not just in the NBA. Established leaders in many sports, including NFL, have been opponents of the process – with the NFL claiming as far back as the 1960s that gambling was the sport’s primary threat. When the Supreme Court in favor of sports betting occurred in May 2018 (fueling the partnerships), references were made to “point-shaving” – a scandal that hit the college basketball scene back in the 1950s, which saw match fixing occur in order to profit from a certain outcome.
The NBA has now announced that it will permit sports gambling companies to advertise on a range of its public-facing channels as well as to use NBA brand assets themselves. The first major partner was the casino firm MGM – this was made public in mid-2018. As part of this deal, MGM will be permitted to use NBA imagery, including logos – though this sort of right will also be available to other firms in the space. Other firms, including Betstar, have already muscled their way in and got their hands on a slice of the sponsorship pie.
The game’s integrity?
Perhaps the main criticism of the introduction of gambling sponsorships in the NBA and elsewhere is that they dilute the integrity of whatever match is being played, and that they give fans and observers – and even players, in the case of match fixing – skewed incentives. Watching a sports game as a fan is usually an equality-oriented activity, as all fans have the same kind of stake in the outcome: they either want their long-established team to win, or they are neutral. When gambling is introduced into the mix, however, some observers begin to use the game as a way to attempt to make a profit.
Whether or not this has affected the game’s integrity, however, remains to be seen. The sport certainly hasn’t been placed under significant existential threat in the way that the NFL leaders of decades gone by predicted would happen to their sport: millions still watch, and lots also place bets themselves at sites. Over time, though, it will begin to become clearer whether or not the NBA-watching public have indeed lost trust in the sport.
The NBA has a wide range of data that it collects on players, teams, performance and more – and with two conferences, three divisions in each, and 82 games per season taking place, this data quickly mounts up. Some of this is either publicly available or is compiled by others, but a lot of it remains entirely within the preserve of the NBA authorities. When MGM signed its deal with the NBA, it quickly became apparent that part of the package was access to this data in order to enhance its customer offer.
While in principle, there may seem to be nothing wrong with that, it’s now the case that a gambling company has access to data sources that other organizations – such as sports news outlets, or fan groups – wouldn’t necessarily have. Perhaps once the full impact of developments like these is known, the perception of the sponsorship packages may change.
On the whole, it remains to be seen just what sort of effect gambling sponsorships might have. Given that the first gambling sponsorship agreement only occurred midway through last year, the long–term effects are not yet clear. There’s no sign of sportsbooks agreements like these killing off the game – but with everything from data access to game integrity to think about, it’s not out of the question that they will be perceived negatively in the future.