6 questions for American Gaming Association’s Sara Slane on sports betting decision

In the years leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the American Gaming Association ran a campaign arguing that legalization would bring sports betting out from the shadows by allowing it to be regulated.

SVP of public affairs Sara Slane, who was instrumental in the AGA’s campaign, dished on the association’s strategy and next steps.

When did you begin working on the campaign?
We began back in the beginning of 2015, after the commissioner of the National Basketball Association [Adam Silver] came out and said he wanted to see legalized sports betting [in a November 2014 guest editorial in The New York Times].

We spent the first part of 2015 looking at sports betting and how it operated and whether or not Nevada operators would view it as a threat if it expanded. [Nevada was grandfathered in when PASPA was made law in 1992.]

Our board members agreed that PASPA was a failure and was not shutting down the illegal market and we adopted the position in 2015 that we wanted to see PASPA repealed. We had a dual press strategy, looking at the courts to see what was being pursued and also working on the congressional potential in the case that PASPA would not be repealed.

What approach did you take?
The overarching campaign was about communications and softening the ground with influential legislators as well as members of media to tell the story of why PASPA was a failure and build the case about why it needed to be changed and the law struck down. We didn’t run up to Capitol Hill and introduce a bill. We wanted to do the groundwork first.

What firms did you work with?
We worked closely with the High Lantern Group on this issue. We also worked with former regulator A.G. Burnett. We worked with BerlinRosen, Forbes Tate Partners, and Monument Policy Group.

Did the spread of legal gambling, once found only in Nevada and New Jersey, help make your case?
Casinos are omnipresent now. There’s some form of gaming occurring in 40 states around the country. It supports 1.7 million jobs and is a $40 billion industry. When people are surveyed, we have numbers that are high – nine out of ten people say they don’t have a problem with gambling.

So there’s been a fundamental shift in the acceptance of gambling. And casinos’ contributions in local communities with the employees they hire, not even counting the amount of money they pay in taxes, created this perfect environment to talk about why you needed to legalize regulated sports betting.

There’s a perennial debate about whether Supreme Court judges consider public opinion when making decisions. Do you think your campaign shaped this decision?
Well, the court cited us twice and it’s pretty remarkable that we were viewed as a resource. And the case we built was obviously compelling. We filed an amicus brief in the case and we also filed one before then, when the court was considering picking up the case.

You do a million different things, knock on doors, make phone calls, and you never know what exactly works. But if the results end like this then [the effort was worth it].

We built a very comprehensive communications and research plan to support the argument we were making. In those arguments we wanted to talk about two things: integrity and economics. We built all our research and comms plans about those two things and also about the acceptance of the public at large.

What are the next steps? Each state must also legalize and regulate sports betting and there is still opposition to gambling. Will you be lobbying state legislatures to grow the market? And will you address integrity fees?
We have not engaged or lobbied on a state by state basis yet. I just saw some polling on the topic and [many people] really don’t know that when they are betting on sports, it’s illegal.

And so, it’s almost part of our culture. It’s just so widely accepted, it’s part of what people do. This is why the state decision [the court struck down PASPA on a state’s rights basis] is such an important one.

Gaming, for the most part, is decided on a state-by-state basis. And that’s why PASPA should have been struck down. It’s really up to the states.

Phase one was running the campaign about why PASPA was a failure. Phase two is about implementation and making sure the best policies are in place to shut down the illegal market and move consumers from illegal to legal betting.

As an industry group, we’re looking to create alignment with key stakeholders. It’s part of the discussion we’ve been having over the last three years. And we’ll continue to lead those discussions.

Everyone involved has taken the past 24 hours to say “Wow, this has happened. What do we do next?” We now just need to hone in on that and achieve alignment on the next steps.

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