UNCASVILLE, CONN. — Ever since the dark days of 1919, when the Chicago "Black Sox" conspired with gamblers to rig baseball's World Series, America's pro sports leagues have treated gambling as if it were a kind of toxic sludge: It spawned corruption, which corroded fans' confidence in the game, so they wanted it buried far, far away.
But these days, with gambling fast becoming a mainstay of America's entertainment culture - and with a multitude of sports leagues competing for attention - there are signs of a growing, if uneasy, reattachment of the two realms. It's a tentative embrace that has big potential payoffs - and subtle but significant risks - for both sides.
In a first for American sports, the Mohegan Sun casino inked a deal last week to buy a pro team. Starting in May, the newly rechristened Connecticut Sun of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) will play its home games in an arena inside one of the world's most profitable casinos - roughly 30 yards from slot machines and roulette tables.
Some see the deal as a brilliant, synergistic marketing move in a region that is wild for women's basketball and increasingly taken with gambling. Others see it as desperate gambit by a struggling league - or even a trial balloon by the NBA, whose board of directors is on record as backing placement of an NBA team in Las Vegas. That would mark a significant shift in the proximity of pro basketball and gambling, as Nevada is the only state in the nation where sports betting is legal.
In addition, the recent bankruptcy of two pro hockey teams is sparking speculation that one may move to Las Vegas, a fast-growing and wealthy metro area.
Still another hockey team, the cash-strapped Calgary Flames, is pushing to put a casino inside its arena. And baseball, meanwhile, continues its ferment over whether to end Pete Rose's lifetime banishment from the game for betting on his team.
Commissioner Bud Selig had seemed amenable to the idea. But then recently, Rose was reportedly spotted betting on sports in two Las Vegas casinos, which hurts his case.
To boosters of the moves afoot, it all seems an entirely natural evolution. "We're in the entertainment business," says Mitchell Etess, Mohegan Sun's vice president for marketing. The new deal not only pulls a new attraction - and fans - into the casino complex, but when the Sun's games are broadcast nationally on TV, "We'll get a huge amount of exposure for our brand," he says.
Indeed, the trend appears largely driven by the increasingly popular view that gambling is entertainment, not a vice: The gambling industry appears to be using a sports connection to further bolster its image as a mainstream source of recreation. "It helps give us legitimacy," says Saverio Mancini, a Mohegan Sun spokesman, of the WNBA deal.
Yet many are skeptical. The NFL, for one, is nervous about even a hint of official ties to gambling: It rejected a Las Vegas tourism ad slated to run during the Super Bowl. Moreover, the Republican takeover of the Senate is breathing new life into a bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona that would ban betting on amateur sports - with Nevada being the key target.
Critics also say the Mohegan Sun deal could open the door to bigger partnerships that carry large risks. "Pro sports would just fall apart if the public believed the games were rigged," says former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent.
He cautions against a growing view of sports as mere entertainment for the masses, not as a competition between individuals or teams. Pro wrestling, for instance, is all about drama. "People like wrestling because it's good guys against bad guys - and by and large the good guys win." But it's not real competition. "Sport is a contest with rules and supposedly equal opportunities" that harks back to the ancient Greek ideal of sound minds and bodies. Gambling is a threat to that, "not because betting is so wrong, but because it leads to attempts to rig games" and thus risks a loss of true competition.
There are risks for the gaming industry, too. If its connection to sports is seen as a corrupting influence, a backlash could begin. In the extreme, "One thing that could bring down legal gambling in the US is if it looked like it was a threat to our children," says I. Nelson Rose, a gambling expert who teaches law at Whittier College in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Indeed, many sports leagues - including the WNBA and the NBA - pitch themselves aggressively to kids. Experts also note that underage gamblers are twice as likely to become addicted.
For now, skepticism about the sports-gambling partnership may help deter corruption or other malfeasance, says Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "For sporting events at these casinos," he says, "the scrutiny will be greater than anyplace else."