Opinion: A four-sport alliance attempts to shift the politics of gambling in Georgia


Fifteen months ago, on a hot August evening, the top executives of Atlanta's four professional sports teams – the Braves, the Hawks, the Falcons and Atlanta United – gathered at the War Horse, a private dining club on Northside Drive.

Over steaks and a bit of paperwork, they agreed to band together and attempt a fundamental change in the politics of legalized gambling at the state Capitol.

“At our core, we’re all huge sports fans,” Steve Koonin, CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, who was one of the diners. “We got ourselves aligned, and have worked together really, really well as a unit, because we all want to do the same thing. We all want an illegal activity to be made legal. And we want it to be taxed.”

On Monday, a year and change later, the umbrella organization that the Big Four will use to make their case was unveiled: The Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance. Signing onto the cause, in addition to Koonin, was Derek Schiller, president and CEO of the Braves; Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Falcons; and Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United.

The quartet is calling for a new state law – the initial strategy is aimed at avoiding a constitutional amendment – to legalize wagering on professional sports via mobile phones and the Internet. Betting on the sacred Southern institution of college football would remain illegal – as would wagering on professional minor league teams.

All would be regulated by the Georgia Lottery Commission. State revenue generated would go to the HOPE program.

Right about now, you’re wondering how this is different than any other push we’ve seen over the last decade – all unsuccessful — to expand gambling in Georgia beyond the lottery. The answer is twofold.

First, previous conversations have focused on casinos – er, destination resorts – and horse-racing facilities. Those would become, critics have argued, physical magnets for unsavory activities. This sports-wagering proposal would be architecturally invisible and thus, one could argue, more politically digestible. Even betting kiosks would be barred from the three metro Atlanta stadiums involved.

The ball clubs say they will not partake of any proceeds from licensed wagering outlets. “We would not book bets, take bets. I imagine they would be advertisers, but that would be about it,” Koonin said. “We’re not the house. We’re not bookies. It’s pure opt in, via the phone.”

The larger reason to treat this effort as something different is the fact that previous gambling expansion efforts have originated with entities located beyond Georgia’s borders. The best example may be that day in 2015 when Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson parked his limousine on the Mitchell Street side of the state Capitol – so that he could have a chat with a few of the more important people inside.

This would be the first gambling initiative instigated by home-grown institutions, which matters – economically and politically. Also note that the four franchises offer a bipartisan balance, which could become important in January.

The Braves’ move to Cobb County in 2017 has made the team a GOP favorite. National Football League stats say fans of the Falcons list slightly Republican. The Hawks and Atlanta United, meanwhile, cater to a Democratic demographic, if age and race are any guide.

The timing of the four-sport effort is no coincidence. In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal ban on commercial sports betting in most, but not all states.

The New York Times quickly offered up this forecast of the coming revolution: “Placing bets will be done on mobile devices, fueled and endorsed by the lawmakers and sports officials who opposed it for so long. A trip to Las Vegas to wager on March Madness or the Super Bowl could soon seem quaint.”

The dinner at the War Horse in Atlanta came three months later.

Possibly, you’re baffled by the sports quartet’s claim that they don’t intend to make any direct profit off the bets placed on their players. Although they do want some control over what kind of bets are placed – nothing that can be easily “fixed,” like who makes the first foul in a basketball game, or whether the first pitch in an inning is a ball or strike.

And they want control of the statistics that might be used by the betting world – batting averages, completion stats and such.

So why do they want this? All four sports now live in a fractured TV universe with declining viewership. Video streaming is the uncertain future. Koonin, the Hawks CEO, said the Atlanta teams are taking a lesson from European soccer on the link between sports betting and fan investment in a team.

“How do you raise a generation that loves going to the games, but has the attention span of a goldfish?” Koonin asked. “It’s about engagement. The economic benefits go to the state. And an illegal activity becomes legal.”

Last spring, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill to permit sports betting. The governor allowed it to become law without his signature. The Atlanta alliance thinks Georgia could see more than the $50 million a year in state revenue the Tennessee initiative is expected to generate, but they’re using that figure as a starting point.

Success in Georgia’s Legislature next year could depend on whether backers choose to pursue a simple bill that would require majority approval in both chambers, or a constitutional amendment that would require two-thirds passage – and approval in a November referendum.

Last month, the Office of Legislative Counsel, in an opinion written in response to a request by state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, a horse-racing advocate, noted that our state Constitution isn’t as clear on the topic of sports betting as it might be.

It forbids casino gambling and pari-mutuel betting, but sports betting falls into neither category. Which allows for the argument that “the regulation of other forms of betting and gambling rests with the General Assembly,” wrote Stuart Morelli, deputy legislative counsel.

But that’s not a sure thing. “Because there are even odds on whether or not the Georgia Constitution currently prohibits sports betting, the only surefire way to avoid years of protracted litigation over the matter would be a constitutional amendment,” he advised.