Ted Leonsis was never a gambler. An entrepreneur, a businessman, a philanthropist, an investor — but never much of a gambler. So he's perhaps an unlikely torchbearer for one of the biggest shifts the sports world has seen in the 21st century. But here he is, with something that feels more like a grand vision than a high-stakes bet: a certainty that legalized sports gambling will soon change the way fanatics who fill stadiums and arenas, who wave signs, who slather colorful paint on their bodies and scream themselves hoarse, will experience live sports.
In some ways, it’s inevitable, he figures. Society has become more accepting of gambling, but that’s almost besides the point because Leonsis — and much of the sports world — is starting to view sports betting as a distant relative to the dice-throwing, backroom card games and jangling slot machines typically associated with casino-style gambling.
“I liken sports betting more to Wall Street. . . . I don’t believe it’ll be considered a game of chance,” says Leonsis, the former AOL executive who heads up Monumental Sports and Entertainment in Washington. “I think it will be a game of skill, just like you can be a day trader — you can be at Goldman Sachs, making billion-dollar bets on companies.”
Leonsis, 61, has the distinction of owning seven professional sports teams, including the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals. So when he talks about how legalized sports betting will change the fan experience, he’s thinking about every sports league and every sports fan in the United States.
For years, most American sports leagues have resisted gambling of any sort, scarred by match-fixing and point-shaving scandals that still stain history books. But in recent years, public attitudes have relaxed, and many of the major stakeholders slowly have shifted their stances. In May, the Supreme Court effectively shut down the federal law that outlawed sports betting in most places outside of Nevada, allowing individual states to decide on their own if they want in on the lucrative sports gambling business. It’s an industry that some believe topped $100 billion as an underground market and some analysts think could grow into a $6 billion to $16 billion industry, depending on how many states get onboard.