“Here’s looking at ads, kid” is the new mantra across the sports-industrial complex. Sure, the doomed relationship of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca comes to a head when Rick looks into Ilsa’s eyes and delivers his immortal line. But even their hopeless 1942 love affair seemed to have more of a chance than the once unthinkable marriage between professional sports and gambling that we’re witnessing today. The product? Near inescapable betting propaganda spread across sports media with a mission to trap its audience in a habitual cycle of cash burning. Unlike in Casablanca, however, no jackpot is large enough to buy you letters of transit to a land where North American sports coverage is free of these advertising bombardments.
But what are decades of skepticism and caution around sports gambling worth when the monetary potential can reach Vegas-like heights? The explosion of sports-betting-related content has resulted in an onslaught of television commercials, radio spots, and promotions that have been embraced by media outlets small and large. If you’ve seen any Knicks or Devils games on one of the MSG channels over the past year, you know how desperate the powers that be are to get their message into your head. Returning from a commercial break, or even on a split screen during the game, a message from FanDuel might appear reminding you of the odds for that very game and telling you that it’s not too late to place a bet. And just like that, the pro sports leagues who helped demonize gambling are now interrupting their programs to persuade you to blow your money on betting.
And boy oh boy, is that a dramatic shuffling of the deck.
Sports betting was so taboo back in the day that Major League Baseball banned one of the most famous faces in the sport — and arguably the greatest pure hitter ever — Pete Rose, after it was found that he was placing bets on his own team. A manager at that time, in 1989, Rose denied the allegations, but the MLB reached its own conclusions. The Cincinnati Reds legend would no longer be permitted to manage, and would also be annually denied entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame — as a player. That’s how bad a stain gambling was on the MLB: Rose’s unrivaled accomplishments on the field were canceled by a transgression years later as a manager.
In fairness to them, the major sports leagues were given ample reason to avoid any connection to gambling. The mid-to-late 20th century saw a handful of point-shaving scandals — agreements by individual players to fix the offensive output of their team to better suit point spreads — in NCAA basketball. Of course, there’s also the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, which saw the team throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for cash considerations from crime boss Arnold Rothstein. And the NBA took a hit in 2007 when basketball called a foul on referee Tim Donaghy for conspiracy; the zebra had been passing information such as player injuries, referee-player relationships, and more to bookies in exchange for cash. On the ice, the NHL’s biggest scandal included two Boston Bruins teammates, Billy Taylor and Don Gallinger, who in 1948 were found to have bet for and against their own team. Even as recently as this month, hockey’s troubled San Jose Sharks winger Evander Kane was accused of betting on and throwing games in recent seasons. Kane has vehemently denied the allegations, which were made by his wife in the midst of a divorce, but the league was quick to launch an investigation, given the severity of the claims. Meanwhile, the NFL is actually the cleanest of the four major sports in this regard, but even they have had players over the years ousted for betting on football games.
Obviously, no sports league ever wants to be at the center of a gambling scandal, large or small. The appearance of integrity is a monumental pillar for the success of professional sports. But the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a law instituted in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush that prevented states from regulating and taxing sports betting, was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2018. That meant individual states — and, by extension, the leagues — could now legally explore the near limitless potential for revenue through partnerships with major gambling organizations.
So have the leagues prioritized cash over the sanctity of their respective games?
Uh … yeah. What else would you expect?
These concerns over the integrity of North American sports aren’t part of some loony conspiracy theory that asserts faceless suits are secretly scripting the outcomes of games. Even former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has expressed serious unease over the normalizing of sports gambling. A part of that skepticism comes from the fact that he was a member of the Georgetown College basketball team, who in 1961 beat an NYU squad that was later found to have been point shaving.
“I still worry about some young guy and someone says to him, ‘Take the money,’ ” Tagliabue said of the incident, via USA Today. The former commish also stated that he never would have allowed an NFL team to move to Las Vegas, as current commissioner Roger Goodell has done with the Oakland Raiders, who now coexist in Sin City with the NHL’s Golden Knights. And who could say that pro sports players are less inclined to supplement their income today than they were years ago, when gambling was illegal in most places and access was far less direct? In matters great and small, complacency is often the death of standards.
Speaking of greater matters, the growing proliferation of sports-gambling advertising and its media presence cannot be overstated — according to ESPN and ad-measurement company iSpotTV, the most prominent sports-betting companies accounted for more than 10 billion television ad views from September 1, 2020, through March 31, 2021. Since 2018, out-of-home ads — billboards, posters on the subway, broadsides on busses — have increased by a whopping 193 percent. In March alone, $4 billion was bet with U.S. sportsbooks.
The outreach of sports gambling goes far beyond commercials, though. Aside from the incessant ad spots on the tube, radio stations, and billboards, legalized gambling has transformed the sports content we already consume. Along with interruptions on MSG and other networks for live betting updates, ESPN has adapted well to the times, by adding betting coverage in the form of shows such as Daily Wager and the podcast Behind the Bets with Doug Kezirian. Missed those shows? Well, ESPN has even added odds to their classic scrolling ticker at the bottom of each television channel. Elsewhere in sports media, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo interjects his takes on daily bets every morning on MLB Network, and he’s not the only talking head to adopt the new content. Still, you’d think Russo might’ve thought twice about hopping on this bandwagon, considering his voice-over role as a Mets commentator in 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, a devastating character study starring Harvey Keitel that features the dire results of a gambling addiction (among others). Elsewhere, even celebrities and athletes like Rose — who’s on the record saying that he’s lost more money than gained through gambling, and that true betting experts do not exist — have jumped in on the fun by offering their picks and being featured in ad spots.
Aside from the implications of fully integrating sports gambling into sports coverage for new generations of young fans, there’s a more immediate demographic that seems particularly overlooked with the programming overhaul: gambling addicts.
According to the International Center for Responsible Gaming, approximately one percent of the U.S. population has a gambling problem. And while that isn’t as pervasive as other problems, such as alcohol or drug abuse, it still puts well over three million Americans into a corner of addiction that undoubtedly goes under-reported. It would take a leap of faith to believe that this figure won’t rise with ongoing legalization across the country and ads that pound home the same message as the creepy ghosts of the twins in The Shining: “Come play with us … forever, and ever, and ever.” Tales of troubled gamblers can be heard locally on WFAN’s program Hello, My Name is Craig. Host Craig Carton covers all the hits: Massive debt. Lost savings. Blown college funds. Families destroyed. Dips into substance abuse. In many ways, severe gambling addictions can be as catastrophic as any substance-use disorder.
And it will be easier than ever to get someone hooked, with the emergence of mobile betting; while that hasn’t yet reached the finish line in the state of New York, daily fantasy sports (DFS) have been around since long before PASPA was erased in 2018. A monetized version of classic fantasy sports, DFS apps by the likes of FanDuel and DraftKings allow bettors to build a lineup for any given day or week for the price of an entry fee. Usually competing against thousands of other contestants, bettors are promised incremental prizes for finishing higher and higher in the standings.
Entry fees can be as low as cents on the dollar, but more costly tournaments naturally yield higher prizes. You may be asking why organizational behemoths like FanDuel and DraftKings would waste their time with 50-cent buy-ins. Well, why does Costco have a free-sample cart set up in every aisle? They want you — no, need you — to want more. The only difference is that Costco doesn’t send push notifications to your phone to remind you how easy it is to get started sampling. A couple of quarters becomes a couple of dollars real quick, and if you make a profit you’ll start wondering just how much more you would’ve made in one of the more expensive matches. This thing leads to that, and before you know it you’re playing, well, “forever, and ever, and ever.” Between the cheap cost of playing and oh-so-helpful reminders, it’s almost like they do want to hook you. But major gambling enterprises would never try to exploit the highly profitable pains of addiction.…
And remember, there’s more on the horizon, as traditional betting moves to mobile devices. Could legislation similar to that which began the Marlboro Man’s long ride into the advertising sunset back in the early ’70s ease these concerns? Perhaps. However, sports-gambling advertising already has some regulations in place (at least in New York), including the requirement for “problem gaming assistance notifications” — “If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, call the National Problem Gambling Helpline,” etc — and that ads must not run in programs where the majority of the audience is under 21 years old. Though it’s doubtful the inability to run commercials on a Nickelodeon chyron will hurt the industry much.
Plus, there’s the fact that advertising regulations won’t affect the integration of betting content into sports-media programs themselves. But hey — good luck going after Disney (ESPN’s parent company) and all the other big guys at that overladen table.
While we’re on the topic of futile pursuits, let’s address sports fandom in general.
Let’s face it, rooting for your favorite team requires a bit of delusion no matter who they are. The odds are never in a fan’s favor, yet we continue to watch and whoop and weep over the course of hundreds of games per year across the four major sports and more. While the highs are delightful, they’re also few and far between when compared with the inevitable lows. After all, only one team per season can be crowned. Such is the nature of fandom: We watch our teams loyally and cheer their victories, crucial and trivial, all in the hopes of one day seeing them stand alone atop the heap.
But throw $50 on the table and … maybe it would be okay if the Jets allowed an extra touchdown to Patriots tight end Hunter Henry. I put him in my DFS lineup, after all. And out of a long 162-game season, the Yanks dropping the one game I have money on wouldn’t kill me. They’ll pick that game right back up when Baltimore comes to town. Right?
I’ll admit, as a fairly inexperienced gambler with just a handful of low buy-in DFS matches under my belt, I’ve rationalized the pluses of my teams losing for even the most middling of payouts. Sure, watching the Yankees blast their way to victory is great, but six bucks is six bucks.
The point being, the prospect of becoming a successful bettor is counterintuitive to the fandom of the individual. As a serious gambler, you have to bet against your own teams if you really want to win — unless your team was the 17–0 Miami Dolphins in 1972. Because if your club had been the Patriots in 2007, you probably would’ve lost it all when they fell to 18–1 at the Super Bowl. This is no new concept. But the widespread availability of gaming and the apparent desire of the industry to turn casual sports fans into regular bettors implies that this degradation of fandom will only grow more rampant. It’s a sad by-product of the post-PASPA age.
Call me old-fashioned — or better yet, pour me one as a remedy for all these gambling come-ons blaring in my ears all day — but let’s slow down a bit, shall we? We all know that we can place bets on anything from points scored by the Jets (take the under) to how many Yankees get caught picking their noses on camera (just kidding … for now). We don’t need to be held hostage with our eyes forced open Clockwork Orange–style to understand our options. And maybe the conglomerate of million- and billionaires across professional sports, sports networks, and the gambling industry should give a little thought as to how their barrage against the athletic landscape affects the traditions of their products, and, more important, their consumers.
Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. What happens when we’re five or ten years into the legalization of this enterprise? Could they possibly shove any more down our throats?
Tell ya what, whatever the line is, I’d take the over on that one. ❖