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Volume 21 No. 2
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NCAA wants no part of betting, but ruling could force change

The NCAA’s long-standing position against gambling on college games is about to receive a stiff challenge.

 

The governing body of college sports wants an exception if the Supreme Court lifts the ban on sports gambling, a move that would keep wagers on college games illegal. 

 

But separating out college games from pro games would come with its own set of complications, said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the American Gaming Association. The reason: An exclusion for college sports would fuel illegal betting on the black market and ultimately be counterproductive for the gaming industry. Close to a third of the handle in Nevada comes from betting on college games.

 

Besides, many athletic administrators believe that if gambling becomes legal, they’d rather operate in a regulated environment versus an unregulated one.

 

“Gambling is happening on NCAA games, gambling right now is happening illegally,” said Jennifer Roberts, associate director of the International Center for Gaming Regulation at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “It’s better to have a system where it is regulated, and you have protections that monitor wagering activity.”

 

NCAA President Mark Emmert said the organization will not make wholesale changes to its approach on gambling, at least until the Supreme Court rules and maybe not even then, but new wagering laws could still have an impact across the country. 

 

The most obvious change could come in the way the NCAA selects championship sites. Nevada, the lone state where single-game wagering is legal, is not permitted to host NCAA championships, even though the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences stage events there. But if 20 to 30 states institute legal gambling, as expected, the NCAA will likely have to loosen those restrictions. It would have a hard time prohibiting half of the country from hosting NCAA championships. 

 

“If it’s going to happen, the NCAA will have to reshape their own protocols around it,” said Tom McMillen, the former congressman and now CEO of LEAD1, a professional organization for Division I FBS athletic directors. “They’re not going to say that 30 states can’t host championships. That would be ludicrous. But you’re not going to see the NCAA deal with it until something is decided.”

 

The combination of college sports and gambling often evoke memories of high-profile point-shaving scandals.

 

But in Las Vegas, where gambling on individual games is legal, former athletic administrators at UNLV say they felt more secure knowing the betting patterns were being regulated as part of a legal wagering system versus one that’s illegal and unregulated. If a UNLV athlete wandered into a sportsbook on the Strip, just three blocks from campus, it didn’t go unnoticed.

 

“We received a notification if somebody even sat down at a table,” said Jim Livengood, who was the athletic director at UNLV from 2009-13.

 

That’s what leads many campus administrators to counter the NCAA’s notion that gambling should remain illegal.

 

“When I was there, we’d go into the sportsbooks just to make sure we didn’t have athletes in there,” said Marshall AD Mike Hamrick, who was UNLV’s AD from 2003-09. “It’s just something that we had to deal with [at UNLV], and now for everybody else, it’s coming.”

 

Neither legal nor illegal gambling is foolproof when it comes to the potential for fixing games.

 

“The players come from a more vulnerable universe,” said McMillen, who has been proactive about educating his membership about legal gambling as it comes across the horizon. “When you can just walk into a casino and place a bet instead of betting on a phone, you might have more potential for abuse.”

 

But Roberts said: “When you have wagering, and it’s regulated, you have rules, you have consumer due diligence, integrity monitoring, line monitoring to see patterns on wagering. When you have a state-regulated activity, they can have closer communication with the NCAA and its schools.”

 

In Nevada, the state used to prohibit any bets on UNLV or Nevada games in the 1990s, but that law was repealed “because of the confidence in the system,” Roberts said.

 

Unlike the NCAA, pro leagues such as the NBA and MLB have advocated for legalized gambling that would pay the leagues a cut of the handle — what’s commonly called a 1 percent “integrity fee” or royalty. Emmert said the governing body is not interested in seeking revenue from gambling.

 

The revenue piece “is not something that anybody that’s in college sports thinks is appropriate for colleges and universities,” Emmert said at the Final Four.

 

But for schools in the states where it might soon be legal, like West Virginia, there could be both revenue and expense implications. Hamrick said he anticipates additional expenses to better equip Marshall’s compliance staff, possibly with more staff to work with the state on monitoring.

 

So, he’d like to see more opportunities for revenue coming from legal wagering. Some athletic departments already accept lucrative advertising and sponsorships from casinos and resorts in their states — sportsbook William Hill has advertising at UNLV. In states where gambling would be new, sponsorships from sportsbooks and casinos could represent new revenue.

 

“Just my opinion, but yes, if gambling becomes legal, we’re going to need more resources,” Hamrick said. “If somebody is going to benefit, why shouldn’t college athletics benefit just like the NBA and MLB? I can tell you we’re going to have extra expenses.”