Besides being an owner of NBA, NHL, WNBA, G League, and esports franchises, as well as an innovator and investor in the data and technology realms, Ted Leonsis is also a devout pragmatist.
That is why, he believes, common sense and common good should prevail throughout most of the country, including Massachusetts, when it comes to finally getting around to legalizing sports betting.
“To me, pragmatism always works — you follow the money,” Leonsis said in a recent Zoom interview. “It’s not like [sports betting] is Juul, where we created something bad and fooled people on doing it. People were doing [sports betting] and it was inconvenient. I always felt, ‘Imagine if you made it convenient and clean and managed; I bet it will grow the pie, not shrink it.’ ”
Leonsis’s first sports betting play appears to have found the right ingredients.
The Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill, which is located inside Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena that Leonsis and his Monumental Sports company own, is the first sports book in the nation in a stadium or arena where professional sports are played.
In its first 12 months, said Leonsis, the sports book is expected to take in $250 million in bets.
“Think about that,” said Leonsis. “Imagine you opened a new anything and in the first year you had $250 million. It’s not like people are saying, ‘I’m not going to go to the game, I’m going here.’ We’ve grown the pie.
“Where was that money before? I’d have to say a bunch of it was being spent in the underground or going to a place where it was legal. It’s $250 million; it’s the fastest-growing new business in Washington, D.C. The whole block here is closed still — no restaurants, nothing — and we opened a beautiful new restaurant. A couple thousand people can eat there.”
The Massachusetts House and Senate have yet to agree on a sports betting bill to send to Gov. Charlie Baker. While Beacon Hill deliberates, four of the five states that border Massachusetts — New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut — have either activated or approved sports betting legislation.
Because New England is so condensed an area, and it’s relatively easy to place a legal bet on your phone if you are within the border of a state with legal sports betting, it’s safe to assume that Massachusetts bettors are already heading over any available border to place bets, and maybe eat and shop while there, further padding out-of-state tax revenues.
It’s a car-centric scenario that really can be replicated in only one other spot in the country, and that’s the D.C. metro area, with Maryland and Virginia, where sports betting is legal, bordering D.C., and three other states with sports betting — West Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania — within a two-hour drive.
When NBA commissioner Adam Silver visited the sports book at Capital One Arena, Leonsis said, a customer approached him and asked, “Hey, is Russell Westbrook playing tonight?”
Of course, Leonsis and Silver had to stay silent, but Leonsis said he later asked the customer for his story. The customer said he and a friend used to spend weekends in West Virginia not only to play golf but to visit a sports book.
“Here, I’m saving money,” the customer told Leonsis. “The money I would spend on travel and the hotel room in West Virginia, I’m using here.”
The legalization of things such as cannabis, gambling, and daily fantasy sports can drive consumers to travel. Leonsis bristled at the recollection of a pop-up on his sports betting app that essentially said, “You, sir, are a criminal, you are breaking the law, you can’t do this,” when he drove from New Jersey into New York, where online betting is not yet legal. “That makes no sense,” he said. “I’m no different in these last five seconds than I was in New Jersey.”
Leonsis said that after he presented the D.C. sports book at the NBA owners’ meetings, “Nine owners said, ‘Thank you, we were scared, we wanted someone else to go first. Can we come down and understand and see what you’ve done?’ ”
Even if the Wizards or Capitals are playing on weekend nights, Leonsis wants to use the arena’s empty seats in the daytime for patrons to watch the NFL, Premier League soccer, or cricket games broadcast on the arena’s main video screen, with betting kiosks nearby.
He still believes casual bettors need an Apple Genius Bar-type of resource to help them understand the process and make it friendlier. He also concedes that sports books, as well as esports, need to be more welcoming to families, especially women.
And he emphasizes that resources need to be used to provide help and hotlines for problem gamblers and that leagues have to place a priority on technological and human integrity safeguards to prevent a calamitous scandal.
Leonsis believes that the more leagues can keep up with the times and think of themselves as technology companies that produce content and embrace sports betting partnerships, the better. He also advocates for state legislatures to acknowledge and embrace data and technology to craft smart, safe, and consistent sports betting policies.
“I believe in thinking differently, being pragmatic, and that sports betting’s just one indication,” said Leonsis. “I think there’s way, way more upside and goodness to it than what people would argue. I hope it happens in Boston. It should happen in Boston.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.