WASHINGTON — A new, gambling-focused telecast of Washington Wizards games is just the appetizer to what the team and its TV partner hope will be a more substantial main course: giving fans the ability to place bets in real time while watching games at home.
Whether that idea comes to fruition will depend on laws in the states where Wizards games are shown on the regional network NBC Sports Washington. But the concept shows how legal sports betting continues to change the way sports are presented to the public.
The new telecast was scheduled to debut Friday. NBC Sports Washington will continue to present conventional game coverage on its main channel, but its supplemental channel, NBC Sports Washington Plus, will offer what it calls a "free-to-play predictive gaming contest" while the Wizards host the Milwaukee Bucks.
"From a fan perspective, I'm sure fans would want to be able to sit on their couch, press a button and place a bet. That's the best fan experience that can happen," said Damon Phillips, general manager of NBC Sports Washington. "Will that happen? That's something that has to be sorted out over time."
For now, the contest will offer roughly 30 free proposition bets on the performances of the teams and individual players during the game. Fans can enter their guesses on the NBC Sports Washington website, and those who predict the correct outcomes will be entered in a drawing for a $500 cash prize. The network plans to produce eight gambling-focused telecasts this season.
City lawmakers in Washington voted just last month to legalize sports gambling. The law has yet to take effect, but legal betting is likely to launch sometime this year. Delaware and West Virginia, which are part of the NBC Sports Washington viewing area, already have legal sports betting, and lawmakers in Maryland and historically gambling-averse Virginia are expected to consider it during this year's legislative sessions.
Last May, the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting when it struck down a 1992 law that limited gambling on sports to Nevada and three other states. Since then, sports books have opened in seven states.
In addition to betting at casinos or other physical locations, Nevada, New Jersey and West Virginia allow betting anywhere within their borders via a mobile app. The new District of Columbia law also allows mobile betting but only through a yet-to-be-developed app provided by the city's lottery.
None of the state laws or the city's bill specifically address the prospect of placing bets through a TV screen, which illustrates the novelty of the concept being developed by the Wizards and NBC Sports Washington. Ted Leonsis, who owns the Wizards, the NHL's Capitals and the WNBA's Washington Mystics, has been a vocal proponent of sports betting as a way to engage fans and bring in new revenue.
Whether the city lottery app could accommodate prop bets offered on the NBC Sports Washington telecast is unclear. But the Wizards are open to exploring the possibility.
"If this performs well, we would seriously contemplate a larger rollout of similarly programmed events and potentially tie to an actual betting experience," said Zach Leonsis, Ted's son and a senior vice president for the ownership group, Monumental Sports and Entertainment.
There are no casinos in Washington, but the new law allows sports books at the city's sports venues, including Capital One Arena, home to the Wizards and Capitals.
The D.C. Council approved the sports gambling bill with little debate on the merits of the policy, with supporters and city officials arguing it would bring in millions of dollars in revenue. Marie Drissel, a civic activist who led a successful effort to quash online gambling in the city earlier this decade, said betting through a mobile app or TV screen raises a host of concerns, from minors placing bets to federal workers gambling illegally on the job. The D.C. Lottery is prohibited from selling or advertising its products on federal property.
"I think it's a disaster for the government to be running gambling that with only one click, (you) lose your money. The entire transaction takes 30 seconds," Drissel said. "It's too easy and there's no way to prove it's not a child."