Reaction from the major North American professional leagues to the Canadian government's plan to legalize betting on single sports events ranged from indecision to resignation mixed with anger to active opposition.
NBA commissioner David Stern said Thursday his basketball league is opposed to gambling on its games but indicated there is not much it can do now that a private member's bill on Parliament Hill is close to becoming law. Bill C-290 has support from all of the major parties, was approved by the House of Commons and passed a second reading in the Senate. But it is only now, with the bill needing only a third and final reading, that it is getting attention from the sports leagues.
"We know gambling exists around the world," Stern said and then took a swipe at the Canadian government. "We accept the status quo and understand that governments who are basically hungry for money will do just about anything regardless of its demonstrated impact on its citizens."
Stern was referring to the risks of compulsive gambling from the establishment of casinos by governments. However, politicians in favour of the bill say the benefits outweigh that risk. They say the estimated $8-billion to $10-billion wagered in Canada annually on single games now mostly goes to organized crime because such sports betting is illegal. Legalizing the practice will create jobs in casinos, frustrate organized crime and create revenue for the provincial governments, which are in charge of gambling in Canada.
Major League Baseball is making a belated attempt to thwart the bill, as two senior executives, including Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, appeared before a Senate committee on Tuesday to argue against it. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said his league also plans to appear: "We are hoping for the opportunity to formally voice our concerns before the Senate in the near future."
Reaction from the two major professional football leagues in North America was mixed. The NFL does not have a Canadian-based team, although the Buffalo Bills play one regular-season game per year in Toronto. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league takes "the same position as the other sports leagues. We oppose gambling on our games."
While some think legalized betting on single games will boost interest in the Canadian Football League, those who run it are not sure. A league spokesman said, “With our focus on the 100th Grey Cup, we haven’t had the opportunity to examine the legislation in any detail and have yet to develop a formal position on it."
Stern indicated the federal legislation is so close to being passed, with no significant opposition, there may be no point in trying to fight it.
"In the face of a bill that's going to be passed we'd have to look at whether we're going to waste the government's time by making a sort of perfunctory trip up there," he said. "We'll have to examine it and see where it goes."
Beeston told the Senate committee that legalizing betting on single games would "increase the chances that persons gambling on games will attempt to influence the outcome of those games. High rollers have high incentive to induce players to fix games or to shave runs or points."
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he is "very proud of [Beeston's] testimony and that of Tom Ostertag [baseball's legal counsel]. I agree with it 110 per-cent. I have the same position on this issue that every other commissioner does: I do not think it is healthy for the sport in any way, shape or form."
In the U.S. the sports leagues are more active in the fight against governments that legalize betting on single sports events. Major League Baseball, the NHL, NFL and NBA joined forces to file a federal lawsuit in August against New Jersey. They argued the state's plan to legalize sports betting in its 12 casinos and four racetracks violates a 1992 federal law that restricts sports betting to four states - Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon.
Once the Canadian law is passed, it will be up to the provinces to decide if they want to introduce single-game betting in their casinos. Given the support for the bill among all political parties it seems the provinces will take advantage of the legislation.
This means people will be able to bet on games played by the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, the NBA's Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC of the Major Soccer League. All three teams are owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, but MLSE president Tom Anselmi declined to comment in detail.
A statement issued by an MLSE spokeswoman said, "We are familiar with Bill C-290. However, any discussion about the legalization of sports betting is a league matter. Our teams would take the lead from the NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer."
With files from Jeff Blair