“Care to make it interesting?”

The gambler’s come-on is familiar, but today’s professional sports leagues struggle to interest both fans and their own players, who are increasingly disinclined to participate in the sports they are paid millions to play. The National Basketball Association, for example, has imposed new rules limiting the number of players who can take “rest” days for any given game. Uninjured superstars riding the bench in games they consider unimportant doesn’t encourage attendance or viewership. After all, if the players don’t care, why should the fans?

While network viewership has declined generally with the rise of cable and streaming services, the NBA has retained a significant share of its pre-streaming network-viewer base. Attendance at games, though down slightly from its peak, remains highly profitable. Ticket prices have risen consistently, as young fans and those hungry for event-driven entertainment still long to see professional basketball games in person.

Despite this relative success, the NBA has pursued various gambits and rule changes to boost fans’ and players’ interest. The league this year introduced new, minimum-game requirements for players to qualify for awards, which are often tied to lucrative incentives in players’ contracts. It fines teams for unnecessarily sitting out star players and prohibits them from resting multiple marquee players in the same game. The league also created a new in-season tournament, modeled after those in European sports, called the “NBA Cup,” in which all 32 teams compete on special courts painted with custom graphics.

What NBA commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t given similar attention to is the rise of legal sports gambling and the associated risks to the league’s competitive integrity. Advance knowledge of a player’s availability for a given game has major implications for gamblers and sports-betting services. On March 25, for example, ESPN reported that the NBA was investigating Toronto Raptors center Jontay Porter for having left two games early in which his statistics fell below the prop (short for “proposition”) betting lines. So-called prop bets allow gamblers to wager on whether a player will record more or fewer than a given number of points, rebounds, assists, and more. While the league hasn’t released specific allegations, the sportsbook DraftKings announced on March 20 that Porter-related wagers were the biggest prop-bet moneymaker for that night’s NBA games. Porter is a marginal player on a low-paying contract, so the flurry of successful bets coupled with his having exited the games raised league and media suspicions.

The Porter story may remind NBA fans of their league’s biggest gambling scandal, which involved referee Tim Donaghy, sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2008 for conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting wagering information through interstate commerce. Donaghy, whose misdeeds came to light in 2007, had allegedly sought to manipulate point margins through his officiating. Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert recently evoked the Donaghy scandal after he was issued a technical foul for rubbing his fingers together in a “money” gesture toward referee Scott Foster, a known associate of Donaghy’s who was not implicated in any wrongdoing. Gobert told ESPN: “I’ll take the fine, but I think it’s hurting our game. I know the betting and all that is becoming bigger and bigger, but it shouldn’t feel that way.”

Players and owners alike have an interest in maximizing revenues to sustain players’ pay and grow teams’ profits. Doing so requires fan support, and maintaining that support demands that fans perceive the league as credible. Fans will turn away if they suspect that players are shaving points, however.

Keeping competitive integrity intact will be an ongoing challenge for the NBA as it looks to build its young and relatively affluent consumer base. Bettors’ interest in prosaic regular-season games has served the NBA’s bottom line, but the league has so far been lucky to avoid another scandal. Gambling has long been a presence in professional sports, but the NBA and other major sports leagues’ enthusiastic embrace of the activity, which they now aggressively market, has changed the equation considerably. As all gamblers know, the only thing certain about luck is that it is bound to change.

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Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images


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