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How the NBA is planning to cash in on legalized sports betting

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The fight for sports betting heads to Supreme Court (3:30)

On December 4, the United States Supreme Court will hear what could be an historic case, Christie v. NCAA, which has the potential to change sports betting in the country. (3:30)

THERE'S 1:09 LEFT in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, and the Cleveland Cavaliers have called timeout. It's tied. Will it be LeBron James who takes the shot? Or Kyrie Irving? How about J.R. Smith? What are the odds?

What if someone in Detroit could have placed a legal bet on that during the TV timeout? Or Denver? Or maybe someone sitting in the fifth row at Oracle Arena with his or her smartphone?

This could be heading toward reality as the Supreme Court gets set to hear arguments in Washington in a seminal case in sports history. Christie v. NCAA could usher in widely legalized sports betting outside of Nevada. First in New Jersey, then likely in more states within the next few years and, potentially, the entire country.

Interested parties have been preparing for this for years. One company, William Hill, spent seven figures to build a sportsbook at a racetrack in New Jersey, ready to open for business within days of a favorable ruling. Lawmakers have introduced legislation at the state and federal levels waiting for the kind of push the Supreme Court may be about to give. Media companies have launched ventures ready to cater to a new marketplace. And the NBA and several of its owners have positioned themselves to be at the front of the line to siphon money from new revenue streams.

It's also the opportunity for a once-promising politician who has seen his star fade, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to have his name on a piece of history that could launch a game-changing industry.

"In the end, we're right on this," Christie said in an interview last week. "What we really believe is that the leagues have had tremendous influence in trying to make sure this never happens."

All of the major pro sports leagues and the NCAA have been involved since 2011, when New Jersey voters first passed a referendum to allow sports wagering. The leagues have collectively sued New Jersey twice to stop it, once in 2012 and again in 2014. After New Jersey lost several times in lower courts, the Supreme Court surprised lawmakers by deciding to hear the case last summer as it hinted it may be willing to overturn the previous ruling.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the NFL ownership remains against sports betting expansion, even though the Raiders are moving to Las Vegas. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred hedged on the issue last summer, saying if the laws changed, then baseball needed to be a part of creating safeguards.

"[All the leagues] are going to come to conclusion that this is part of the future. Why are we living in a fantasy world? You have $190 billion last year bet illegally in the U.S. on the major sports leagues and the NCAA," Christie said. "I think what it's all about is money, and in the end, they want a piece of the action. And if they wanted that, they should've negotiated with me a long time ago."

The NBA is looking to be a leader in the space, entering into strategic partnerships, opening the door to major casino sponsorships and seeing a number of owners invest directly into the sports betting industry.

"When it comes to sports gambling, the NBA is Secretariat in the Belmont compared to the other leagues," said gaming law expert Daniel Wallach, comparing the NBA's head start to the legendary horse's 31-length victory in 1973. "The NFL is still in the starters gate. The NBA is preparing for legalized widespread betting on its games and is ahead of the other leagues in positioning themselves to get a piece of the potential action."

MUCH LIKE THE NFL, the NBA and former commissioner David Stern were opposed to sports gambling for decades. In December 2012, as sports leagues were fighting their first lawsuit to halt sports wagering in New Jersey, Stern made the league's then-position clear in a deposition.

"[There's] a long list of reasons why we think it's best that there not be gambling in our games if we can help it," Stern said in 2012. "The one thing I'm certain of is that 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 our potential loss."

Last year Stern said: "Do I really have to explain to you why I don't want Chris Christie regulating our games?"

"When it comes to sports gambling, the NBA is Secretariat in the Belmont compared to the other leagues."

Gaming law expert Daniel Wallach

Christie, who has been pressed by some to drop this case, always brushed off Stern's comments and the rest of the pro sports leagues' warnings.

"If I was worried about every slight I've taken over the last eight years, I wouldn't be able to stand up," Christie said. "He can say whatever he wants to say. In the end, we're right, and he's wrong."

In fact, there has been a strong and aggressive about-face by the NBA led by commissioner Adam Silver. In fall 2014, Silver penned an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the legalization of sports betting on a federal level. "The laws on sports betting should be changed," Silver wrote. "I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight."

Silver's stunning proclamation came alongside the NBA's investment in FanDuel, a daily fantasy sports website that was considered gambling by many states' attorneys general.

Still, the NBA has remained a plaintiff against New Jersey because legalization would come without regulations the NBA wants in place. Silver prefers changing the federal laws and creating a unified commission that would set rules and oversee sportsbooks instead of a state-by-state approach. That is how sports betting is governed in countries where it's legal, such as Australia, where limits are placed on certain kinds of bets in order to lower the chance of match fixing.

"It's not, to me, an issue of whether I'm pro or con sports betting; we know now that it goes on largely underground," Silver said on ESPN's Golic and Wingo last week. "If you have 50 states all competing against each other, it could be a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of ultimately how to do the best job of protecting consumers and the integrity of our league."

In addition to regulations, Silver and the other leagues hope to eventually lobby Congress to get a piece of bets on each league. Currently, there's a 0.25 percent federal tax on sportsbook wagers in Nevada. Last year, when the state had a record $4.5 billion in sports betting, the government's take was over $110 million. On a national scale, such a taste for sports leagues would be significant money.

"That's why the NBA needs to win this case against New Jersey, because otherwise the toothpaste might be out of the tube and you could end up with a patchwork of states all doing their own thing," Wallach, the gaming attorney, said. "Given how fractured the current political landscape is, it could take years to come up with a solution in Congress."

However it plays out, Silver has put the NBA in the pro-gambling camp and his predecessor has joined him. Last year, Stern made clear his own change of heart when he was a featured guest at the annual Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. "The belief that gambling will lead to bad things is an outdated notion," Stern said at the event.

As the lawsuit trying to block Christie trudged through the legal process, the NBA moved forward with several measures that backed Silver's direction and positioned the league to profit from changes in the laws. At the center of the NBA's strategic preparation is a partnership it began last year with Sportradar, a European-based sports data company. Sportradar has a reputation for monitoring and investigating match fixing across the globe. But its primary role is to sell services to the international gaming industry.

This year Sportradar took over the NBA's real-time data distribution, an extension of the league's work in this area. Real-time data enables sportsbooks to reliably set odds and take action for the lucrative live-betting market as games take place. If the information is delayed or flawed, it could affect the integrity of the wagering.

The NBA made this data partnership, which Forbes reported to be worth $250 million to the league over the next six years, with this in mind. But it was for only the overseas betting markets. If sports gambling was further legalized in the U.S., it could create a new revenue stream for real-time data that the NBA could sell.

"You can make a bet after every stoppage in play in offshore books now," said Haralabos Voulgaris, a high-stakes bettor who is based outside the U.S. "All the big money on the NBA is being bet offshore."

But that could change. In-game wagers could also be well-suited to NFL, NHL and MLB games. Three NBA owners -- Charlotte's Michael Jordan, Washington's Ted Leonsis and Dallas' Mark Cuban -- have recently invested in Sportradar, in part because they see the possibility of explosive growth in the United States.

Investment in casinos is another way the NBA differs from its peers. The NFL and Major League Baseball don't permit owners to also own casinos. Not so in the NBA, where new Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta owns the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert owns casinos in several states. Miami's Micky Arison and Philadelphia's Joshua Harris run companies with significant casino ownership.

"Why are we living in a fantasy world? You have $190 billion last year bet illegally in the U.S. on the major sports leagues and the NCAA."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

There are other maneuvers afoot as well. The NBA became the first major American sports league to introduce jersey sponsorships this season. Those are potentially ideal to be sold to sportsbooks with in-game wager options that want to appeal directly to their market: fans with smartphones watching the game live.

All of the current jersey sponsorships are three-year deals. By the time they come up for bid again, the sports betting industry could be thriving and buying ad space.

In England, where sports betting is legal, the Premier League has become a model for how to monetize casino advertising. Last season, half of its teams had major casino partnerships, many of them in the form of jersey sponsorships, in deals worth tens of millions of pounds. Silver, who is an avid Premier League fan, could see the same sort of future for the NBA, both in jersey ads and in on-court ads. The league has expanded on-court and basket standard advertising over the past several years, with FanDuel and competitor DraftKings already active in that space with numerous teams.

SPORTS BETTING WAS banned by the federal government in 1992 with the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). Four states were grandfathered in, but only Nevada was permitted to have widespread sports wagering. Coincidentally, PASPA was also spearheaded by a New Jersey politician, former New York Knicks great Bill Bradley, a U.S. senator. At the time, the NBA's Stern was a strong supporter of the bill.

Citing PASPA, the District Court of New Jersey overturned the law Christie signed three years ago. It was upheld by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia last year by a 2-1 vote, the majority again citing PASPA.

But last summer, the Supreme Court agreed to hear New Jersey's final appeal. The issue before the court is not about gambling policy. Instead it's a test of the 10th Amendment, which guarantees states the rights to make laws that are not delegated by the Constitution.

In 2016, the Supreme Court overturned 79 percent of the cases it picked to hear, including both cases from the 3rd Circuit. So even getting the case picked up by the court marked a turn in fortunes for New Jersey.

The court is expected to rule by the late spring or early summer. The scope of the decision could determine whether other states could immediately follow New Jersey's lead. Mississippi and Connecticut are two that have taken legislative steps to do so.

The oral argument pits two heavyweight attorneys against each other. The leagues have hired Paul Clement, who has argued more than 80 cases in front of the Supreme Court and successfully represented the NFL against Tom Brady. New Jersey is led by Ted Olson, who famously won the Bush v. Gore case in the Supreme Court to settle the 2000 presidential election.

"It's like Ali vs. Frazier," Wallach said. "People will be lining up the night before to get in to see it."

William Hill, the British bookmaker that also operates in Nevada, is so convinced New Jersey will eventually win that it spent $1 million on a sportsbook facility at Monmouth Park, a short drive from New York City. It's idling as a restaurant at the moment but could be in position to come online quickly. If the court rules in New Jersey's favor, fans could be making bets on the NBA playoffs there next spring.

Last month, MGM International announced it was building a $7 million sportsbook facility at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City ahead of a potential favorable ruling.

"I've got it at a 4-to-1 favorite the court overturns PASPA," said Jimmy Vaccaro, who is the director of sports marketing at South Point Casino in Las Vegas and has been a bookmaker for the past 40 years. "There's a decent chance we're going to have expanded sports betting by the 2018 football season."

All these ventures come with the belief that sports betting will eventually be supported by the White House. President Donald Trump is a former casino owner in New Jersey, but his administration is against New Jersey in the upcoming case. Trump's solicitor general, Noel Francisco, has been granted 10 minutes of oral argument time to present the government's position in front of the Supreme Court.

Trump has said he wants to talk to the commissioners of the sports leagues before endorsing a change to the laws.

"We wouldn't do it lightly, I can tell you," Trump said earlier this year. "It will be studied very carefully. But I would want to have a lot of input from a lot of different people."

One of those people might be Christie, who famously campaigned with Trump last year. The governor said he hasn't spoken to the president on the matter, but if this case goes the way he believes, he won't need assistance from Trump to make a bet next fall.

"I would love to go to Monmouth Park and be able to place an early bet on the Dallas Cowboys," said Christie, a friend of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "If the betting line was favorable."