Ex-NBA Commissioner Stern Made Remarkable Pivot On Sports Betting Legalization

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Former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who passed away on New Year’s Day at age 77, was often quite willing to speak rather, well, sternly and provocatively on controversial topics.

But gambling may be the topic on which the man who grew up in North Jersey made his most extreme 360-degree turn. After being adamantly opposed for years, Stern learned how to stop worrying and embrace wagering.

Stern was won over in part by his successor, Adam Silver — one of his proteges — who in 2014 famously wrote a New York Times op-ed piece that made him the first commissioner to come out in favor of sports betting.

Two years later, Stern echoed Silver’s pitch at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) event in Las Vegas.

“There’s a lot out there that’s being bet illegally,” said Stern, a graduate of Teaneck High School in Bergen County. “If we can fix this, it would be a big hit to organized crime.”

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But Stern also endorsed Silver’s stance that while federal regulation would be highly beneficial, state-by-state legalization would be “all over the place. We’re not going to have our game, or any game, pecked away by individual state bureaus of political patronage.”

Stern and Silver have lost that battle so far, of course.

What won Stern over to sports betting

It was just over a year ago that I caught up once again with Stern — who I knew from covering the NBA throughout the 1990s — on the topic. Why, I wondered, had Stern shifted his approach on sports betting? Was it as simple as accepting Silver’s rationale? Not exactly.

“I have changed my tune, and I now see it as ‘not negative’ — but only if the leagues receive a fee for their exclusive statistical data,” Stern told me at a sports business event in Manhattan.

The specific catalyst, he said, was “when the leagues started to embrace daily fantasy sports” — which for Stern, as for many others, was similar enough to sports betting as to be a distinction without a difference.

In another interview in 2018, Stern called the opposition to legal gambling “a quaint, old perception of mine that had to undergo some changes.”

Those changes came about even as Stern clinged to a sliver of the old skepticism. At an April 2019 sports betting event, Stern said, “If someone comes down at the end of the game and the team is winning by 22 points and they take a shot or they don’t take a shot that might or might not have a consequence for making the over or the under, they’re going to have people shouting, ‘Shoot! Shoot!’ or ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’

“And whatever the player does, he’s going to be damned one way or the other, so there’s going to be a little bit of that at the fringes.”

The two sides of Stern

Stern even became an investor in some gambling startups, including ShotTracker, which he said would play a key role in enabling sports betting operators to offer in-game betting with up-to-the-second fresh betting lines.

For Stern, the brave new world was something to embrace. Only two months ago, he said, “I’m fascinated that sports betting is actually going to be here, and I’m curious about where it’s going to take us and what’s going to be important.”

While still serving as commissioner in 2012, Stern was deposed in the federal lawsuit that the NBA and other sports leagues filed to try to stop New Jersey from offering sports betting at its state’s racetracks and casinos.

“The one thing I’m certain of is New Jersey has no idea what it’s doing and doesn’t care because all it’s interested in is making a buck or two, and they don’t care that it’s at our potential loss,” Stern said, while aiming a barb at then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

“A governor, who’s a former U.S. Attorney, has chosen to attack a federal law — which causes me pause for completely different reasons, since I’ve at times sworn to similar oaths about upholding the law of the United States,” Stern added.

Those words were consistent with Stern’s testimony in a U.S. Senate hearing in 1991 about the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that ultimately passed a year later only to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.

But in the end, Stern was willing to revise his opinion based on changing circumstances.

“You have to look to the future,” he told The Washington Post in 2018, “or you die.”

Photo by Lev Radin / Shutterstock.com

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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