Looking at my Venmo app the past couple weeks one might think that sports gambling in the US was legal. Gambling related debts have shown up frequently in my feed in the aftermath of the Super Bowl on the payments sharing app. But with the reintroduction of a bill to Congress that would make all online gambling illegal, bettors might want to start relabeling their Venmo gambling debts as “groceries.”
With sports gambling legal in only four states, the vast majority of wagers are placed with local bookmakers or offshore gambling sites. Mirroring Prohibition-era legislation and the US war on drugs, American gaming laws are puritanical, archaic, and often counterproductive. Some estimate only one percent of sports wagers are made legally and third-party “runners” often place bets at legal sportsbooks to launder money for criminals.
Which makes it odd that a group of Congressional Republicans would reintroduce a bill titled Restoration of the Wire Act (RAWA), named after the 1961 law criminalizing wagers made over wires. The legislation would outlaw online gaming, save for fantasy sports, which is exempted by the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA). Fantasy sports are classified as a game of skill (poker is somehow not), so it is legal at the federal level, with 40 states having laws on the books that follow suit.
You may have been able to surmise RAWA hasn’t been met with unified Republican support given this isn’t its first trip through Congress. In fact, in an interview earlier this year Senator John McCain said about legalized sports gambling, “We need a debate in Congress. We need to have a talk with the American people, and we need to probably have hearings in Congress on the whole issue (sports gambling) so we can build consensus.”
This coming after Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, stepped forward in an op-ed for the New York Times, calling for Congress and other professional sports leagues to explore legalizing sports gambling, writing, “I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.” Quickly getting past the irony of the fact that the NBA was the last pro sports league to have a point shaving scandal, Silver’s stance is more pragmatic than bold.
It turns out that casinos, who stand to benefit the most from a lack of competition, are the influencers behind the reintroduction of RAWA by Congressional Republicans. As Steven Silver of Above the Law Redline wrote, the ringleader behind the casino industry’s push to pass RAWA is Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner. Silver, a former sports reporter and lawyer, noted Adelson, “has openly admitted that he would be willing ‘to spend whatever it takes’ to halt the spread of gambling over the Internet.”
Adelson has been using his deep pockets to influence US gaming legislation as well as to finance the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, which, as the USA Today notes, “warns of children gambling on their smartphones and tablets.” This last bit is nothing more than laughable moralistic cover and obfuscation for the real issue at hand — protection of Adelson’s business interests.
Alison Siciliano, of the Coalition for Consumer and online protection said in response to the reintroduction of RAWA, “casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has relentlessly twisted the arms of members of Congress to pass an ill-conceived ban on Internet gaming.”
With fantasy sports apps like FanDuel and DraftKings predicted to handle more entry fees than all Las Vegas sports books combined by the end of this year, it’s easy why Adelson sees online gambling as a threat to casino gaming. However, with online gambling’s increasing popularity and power players like John McCain and Adam Silver sticking their necks out for legalization, it’s unlikely Sheldon Adelson will have enough firepower to shut down the entire enterprise.