The NBA is not the only professional league in the United States taking a close look at sports-betting legalization.
"I have talked to the commissioners in the other leagues about [legalizing sports betting]," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in an exclusive interview with ESPN The Magazine in late January at the league's Manhattan office. "I leave it to them to make any public statements they want to make on it. I will say that certainly all of them are interested in having a better understanding of the issue, and I know have assigned people in their organizations to study intensively the issue as well."
In addition to the conversations between the commissioners, there have been other private meetings between counsel for the leagues to discuss the pros and cons of legalization, multiple sources with direct knowledge told ESPN.
While discussions are ongoing behind the scenes, Silver is the only active commissioner to publicly support legalization. He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in November that called for Congress to create a federal framework and allow states to authorize betting on pro sports.
The other major professional sports leagues are not on the same page. The NFL says its opposition to legalized sports betting has not changed. Major League Baseball, while transitioning to new commissioner Rob Manfred, declined comment. The NHL's Gary Bettman has been the only commissioner to speak out since Silver's op-ed.
"I think there needs some attention to be paid to what sport is going to represent to young people," Bettman said in an interview with CNN. "Should it be viewed in the competitive team-oriented sense that it is now, or does it become a vehicle for betting, which may in effect change the atmosphere in the stadiums and in the arenas?"
"There should be federal legislation on this issue, in part to avoid what is happening now. My greatest concern is that there will be in essence a hodgepodge of regulations controlling sports betting that will vary from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction and will make it increasingly difficult to monitor betting on our very own sport."
NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Sources with direct knowledge of the meetings came away believing the NHL is more open to legalization than Bettman's comments indicate. The NHL did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The NHL is currently considering placing a franchise in Las Vegas and, like all the leagues, is participating in daily fantasy sports.
"While I wouldn't categorize [daily fantasy] as sports betting," Silver said, "on the continuum of no betting at all and legalized betting, it's certainly somewhere on the spectrum, but not yet sports betting."
Although he may not have the full support of the other leagues, Silver says NBA owners approve of his approach. Discussions on the issue have been taking place between the owners for several years, but until the other leagues come on board, it remains complicated for owners like Ted Leonsis of the Washington Wizards. Leonsis also owns the Washington Capitals of the NHL.
"Some of our owners are also owners in other leagues, so it's something that they also want to talk to the commissioners in the other leagues about," Silver said. "I think most of our owners' view on the issue is that they're comfortable with us taking a leadership position on the issue, but again are also mindful that it's a complex issue, and is one that will ultimately require a legislative remedy, and not one that is necessarily at the top of their to-do list, in terms of active lobbying."
Silver said the NBA is not currently taking an active legislative approach, but others are. Sen. John McCain, speaking last week on ESPN podcast "Capital Games," said he also believes it's time for Congress to hold hearings to discuss legalizing sports betting.
In addition, two U.S. Congressmen, Frank LoBiondo and Frank Pallone of New Jersey, have introduced federal bills to amend the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the 22-year-old federal ban on state-sponsored sports betting. LoBiondo and Pallone are hoping Silver's stance sparks interest in their bills, but both are also wary of the other leagues' resistance.
"As long you have the other major leagues saying that 'this is evil and bad' and 'we don't want it,' that will be an excuse for many to just stay away from it," LoBiondo said.
Meanwhile, three states, New York, Indiana and South Carolina, have introduced bills to legalize sports betting this year. Minnesota state representative Phyllis Kahn has told ESPN that she'll be introducing a similar bill early in this legislative session. New Jersey has been fighting in court against the sports leagues, including the NBA, to bring Las Vegas-style sports betting to its ailing casinos and horse racing tracks for four years. That case is headed to appeals court in the spring.
"It's my personal view that there should be federal legislation on this issue, in part to avoid what is happening now," Silver said. "My greatest concern is that there will be in essence a hodgepodge of regulations controlling sports betting that will vary from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction and will make it increasingly difficult to monitor betting on our very own sport."
The NBA has spoken with the English Premier League about how it handles the betting on its matches and has studied financial models in jurisdictions where sports betting is legal, like China, New Zealand and the U.K.
In September, New Jersey State Sen. Jim Whelan and State Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo sent a letter to the NBA offering a .25 percent commission fee off bets. According to Whelan's office, the NBA responded and expressed interest in discussing the issue but has not followed up.
"We're not ready to take a position on which model is the right one for the NBA," Silver said. "We do know that the more information that is centrally aggregated, the better chance we'll have of spotting irregular activity on our sport. And that is happening now in the state of Nevada; so we have relationships with the betting companies in Las Vegas, so that we are notified if there's any irregular activity. But we're also aware that that's a minuscule percentage of the overall betting on our sport."
Silver also addressed the gambling scandal involving former NBA referee Tim Donaghy in 2007. Donaghy admitted to betting on games he officiated and passing along inside information to gamblers. He was convicted and served 15 months in federal prison. Silver said the Donaghy scandal helped shape his new thinking on the legalization of sports betting.
"The Donaghy controversy also made me aware how important it is that we have a way of monitoring irregular activity on our games," Silver said. "But for the FBI knocking on our door and notifying us about Donaghy's betting, none of the systems that we then had in place had captured any betting by Tim Donaghy."