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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred Warms to Sports Betting Legalization

In series of recent interviews and public statements, commissioner of Major League Baseball Rob Manfred has softened the sport’s longstanding stance opposing legalized sports betting.

In an episode of ESPN’s investigative news series Outside the Lines which aired on February 2, Manfred discussed his personal views on the contentious sports betting debate, as well as the official position of MLB and its 30 ownership groups. Manfred revealed that the commissioner’s office and league owners planned to revisit the issue:

“Gambling in terms of our society has changed its presence on legalization, and I think it’s important for there to be a conversation between me and the owners about what our institutional position will be.”

Manfred’s comments come at a time when the national consensus regarding the current federal sports betting prohibition seems to be crumbling.

Industry lobbying groups like the American Gaming Association (AGA) have become more active in recent years, launching campaigns to educate lawmakers and league stakeholders about the prevalence of gambling within modern society.

Per the AGA, more than $1 billion was wagered on MLB games through Nevada’s legal sportsbooks in 2016 – just a fraction of the $400 billion in estimated illicit wagers on all sports recorded last year.

As states like New Jersey press their case against the federal sports betting ban – known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA) of 1992 – former proponents of the prohibition, including the National Basketball Association, have reversed course.

In November of 2016 the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, penned an op-ed for the New York Times urging Congress to establish the regulatory framework for federal sports betting legalization.

Silver also mentioned collaborating with fellow commissioners from North America’s “big four” professional sports leagues – which have historically opposed sports betting – to lead the lobbying push on Capitol Hill.

Currently, the National Hockey League and commissioner Gary Bettman are maintaining a “no comment” stance on gambling, given last year’s announcement that an expansion franchise would be based in Las Vegas. As for the National Football League, commissioner Roger Goodell has flatly stated that the league “remains very much opposed to gambling on sports” – despite the AGA’s recent revelation that Americans wagered $4.7 billion on the Super Bowl alone.

Manfred was asked about joining Silver and the NBA in the effort, but he declined to embrace the idea of repealing PAPSA to the same extent:

“I understand the arguments that Adam made, and I think the most appropriate thing for me at this point … is to wait until I’ve had a chance to deal with the owners on this topic.”

A few days after the ESPN segment aired, Manfred spoke at the All Markets Summit in New York City, where he continued to outline the league’s revised position:

“There is this buzz out there in terms of people feeling that there may be an opportunity here for additional legalized sports betting. We are reexamining our stance on gambling. It’s a conversation that’s ongoing with the owners.”

The notion of repealing PAPSA, or establishing the means for individual states to set up their own regulated sports betting industries, has gained steam since the election of President Donald Trump. A former casino owner, Trump has repeatedly gone on record in support of reevaluating PAPSA’s relevance in the current marketplace:

“Well, what I’d do is I’d sit down with the commissioners. I would be talking to them, and we’ll see how they feel about it.  Some would not want it, and probably others – and I’ve read others maybe do.”

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