Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 1 April 2024

HOW THE WEST IS ROTTING AT THE CORE

 

Online Gambling Is Changing Sports for the Worse

Betting should be legal, but pro leagues and major networks are undermining the value of sports in a bid to get in on the action.
Illustration of a mouse cursor spinning a basketball shaped like a coin.

For the past twenty or so years, my friend Chad and I have gone to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament. Memory often fails when it comes to gambling, but I believe the only year we’ve skipped was 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the tournament a week or so before the scheduled tipoff. March Madness in Vegas isn’t a pretty scene—picture hundreds of red-faced, middle-aged men in quarter-zip sweatshirts hugging Coors Lights to their chests in a slightly self-conscious way—but the first round has thirty-two games to bet on, and tradition is tradition, I guess.

This year, the crowds felt light. Prior to the pandemic, you’d expect a thirty- to forty-five-minute line for the betting window at the Venetian sports book. Today, most of those windows, which used to house dour tellers who would print out your bets on little tickets, have been replaced by automated kiosks, which provide you with a wider variety of bets than their analog counterparts but make the whole experience feel frictionless and disposable. These machines are run by casino companies, many of which have their own apps, which means that, if you live in one of the thirty-eight states—plus the District of Columbia—where sports wagering is now legal, you could have replicated this particular Vegas experience from your couch.

These digital changes bring a veneer of respectability. The local bookie who used to make his money by pumping degenerates, letting them gamble with high-interest loans, has been replaced by an app. The app also allows you to bet on credit, but, instead of your points going to organized crime, they go to Discover or American Express. Touts, the yelling men who would give out 1-900 numbers promising to tell you the right side to bet on in the Dolphins-Bills game, were once relegated to late-night commercials. Now we have so-called betting experts on every major sports network on television. The cleverer ones will flash a chart or talk about trend lines or whatever, then give you their pick.

None of this means that gambling has become a clean business. It just means the action is controlled by people with deeper pockets and greater influence, who can persuade more people into thinking that betting on sports is something other than what it has always been.

Last week, reality leaked out from behind the digital façade. Shohei Ohtani, the most famous baseball player in the world, got tangled up in a multimillion-dollar sports-betting scandal involving his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. On Monday, Ohtani, flanked by a new interpreter, said that he “never bet on baseball or any other sport” and furthermore never “asked anyone to do it” on his behalf. He expressed shock about the whole situation.

For the rest of us, shock, at this point, hardly seems appropriate. Throughout the past three years, there have been a rash of less famous athletes who have been caught and suspended for betting. The N.F.L. has suspended several players for gambling offenses, most notably Calvin Ridley, who was suspended for a full season for betting on N.F.L. games while he was injured and away from his team. Last summer, a college baseball coach was accused of giving information about an upcoming game to a gambler, and was subsequently fired. Earlier this month, a gambling watchdog company called U.S. Integrity flagged a college basketball game between Temple University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham for suspicious betting activity; Sports Illustrated reported that the company had been monitoring Temple for a while. (The school has said that it will act “in accordance with university and NCAA policies,” and that it could not comment further.)

When New York legalized sports betting two years ago, I expressed concern about the speed and the gamification of the new betting apps. But, at the time, I was skeptical that broad legalization would lead to, as I put it then, a “long-term epidemic of problem gambling.” As for cheating scandals, if Romans were gambling at the Colosseum, some hustler was probably out there trying to convince a gladiator to throw a fight. And, though there were more improprieties after legalization than there had been before, the scale and the salaciousness of these scandals didn’t compare to the decades of match-fixing that we’ve seen in Europe and Asia.

I still believe that gambling should be legal, but it appears that the mess that came with legalization might be around longer than I initially thought. The spread of legal sports betting across the country has revealed problems that can’t easily be brushed aside or cloaked in minimizing context. The question for lawmakers today doesn’t seem to be whether these problems exist—they do—but whether those problems are permanent features of legal sports betting or things that will subside once the initial frenzy dies down.

Video From The New Yorker

The legalizations of vices can be followed by gleeful oversaturation, and that period of chaos and moral myopia may obscure what is good about letting people openly engage in something that was previously hidden. The rollout of marijuana dispensaries in New York City, for instance, has been a disaster, dimming the promise of legal weed as a well-regulated, tax-generating industry. This doesn’t prove that marijuana should have remained illegal or that the arguments for legalization are invalid. What it means is that New York screwed up and should enforce its own laws. You can make a similar point about the sale of high-dosage THC edibles that are packaged to look like candy. There’s no need to ban edibles. There’s also no need to allow packaging that might confuse young children who stumble on a stash.

When it comes to sports betting, there are at least two legitimate worries, although it’s still difficult to know exactly how persistent these concerns will be. The first is that the ubiquity, speed, and structure of app-based betting—which favors high-risk, high-reward “parlays” that combine multiple bets—will create an enormous population of young gambling addicts. I remain largely unconvinced of this. Most people aren’t problem gamblers, just as most people can navigate a world of beer ads without becoming alcoholics.

The second worry is more abstract, but also, I think, more substantiated. It involves what commentators like to call the “integrity of the game,” and professional sports leagues aggressively partnering with betting companies, which are currently blitzing the country with a seemingly endless marketing budget. Last week, for example, the N.B.A. announced that it would add in-game betting to its popular League Pass streaming app. This means that a viewer could watch nearly any N.B.A. game on any given night and bet, say, ten dollars that LeBron James was going to miss his first free throw. Maybe James hits it, and the viewer doubles down on James’s next one; perhaps, having lost some money in the first half, the viewer tries to win it back in the second.

Not long ago, if someone told me that they were troubled by this sort of thing, I would have said that the integrity of the game had been undone long ago by exploitative labor conditions in college sports and by a slew of non-gambling scandals in the pro leagues. I would have noted that N.F.L. broadcasts have been revolving beer ads since I was a child, and pointed out that soccer teams in England have had conspicuous betting-company logos on their uniforms for years. How did this latest violation of decorum change anything?

Now I think that legal betting really is changing how people experience sports, in part because of the way sports are now broadcast to them. Gamblers sometimes forget how many people, including children, still watch the games for something other than parlays and prop bets, or that teams, such as the Yankees, the Cowboys, and the Crimson Tide, really do represent more than their business concerns. When every game gets presented as a point spread, and when every shot becomes merely an input in a degenerate’s parlay math, the game feels cheapened. For someone who wants to watch the best athletes in the world compete against one another, it can be alienating to listen to the announcer read stilted ad copy about the upcoming slate of same-game parlays.

And there’s a much more concerning subset of the integrity problem, one that feels more permanent and specific to the style and ubiquity of online gambling. Sports betting may be a trenchant vice, but the bets themselves have changed dramatically. Single-game parlays, or S.G.P.s, in which a bettor strings together multiple wagers on individual statistical outcomes—how many points, rebounds, turnovers a certain player will accumulate—for potentially lottery-like payouts, have exploded in popularity. These bets are far more profitable for the books. According to a study by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a typical bet on whether a team will cover the spread will deliver a five- or six-per-cent return for the casino. An S.G.P., by comparison, will typically return up to thirty per cent. As a result, nearly every sports-betting company relentlessly pushes S.G.P.s, which, in turn, has led to a greater focus on individual players. It’s not that easy to fix a basketball game—you have nine other guys on the court affecting the outcome, not to mention the coaches and the officials. It’s a lot easier to fix your own performance. You just have to grab an extra rebound away from a teammate or maybe kick the ball out of bounds at the end of a blowout, and the odds will be ever in your favor.

On Monday, while I was typing the first draft of this column, the news broke that Jontay Porter, of the N.B.A.’s Toronto Raptors, was under investigation for possible gambling infractions involving prop bets—which include wagers based on the stats a player will accrue over a game. N.B.A. Twitter, perhaps the fastest archivists on the Internet, quickly uncovered amusing footage of Porter engaged in all sorts of on-court activity that now seemed suspicious. (Porter, who has not been available for the Raptors’ past three games for what the team describes as “personal reasons,” has yet to comment on the allegations.) Many of these clips were offered in jest, but, truthfully, this is how many fans now interact with sports. When the player is the prop and the prop fails, the player then becomes suspect. And, when an increasing number of bets are props based on individual player performances, rather than team outcomes, it doesn’t take much to prompt cheating, or to trigger the suspicion of misconduct. At some point, that toxic cloud changes the whole atmosphere of sports fandom. “To half the world, I’m just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever,” Tyrese Haliburton, an all-star guard for the Indiana Pacers, recently told a reporter. “I’m a prop.”

What will all this look after another two years of players as props and another handful of Jontay Porter stories, throughout all levels of American sports? This past Thursday, I stood at the Yahoo Sportsbook by William Hill kiosk at the Venetian and noticed that I could bet props on college players, including those at small schools, the sort where players will never sniff the N.B.A. and don’t get offered the lucrative name, image, and likeness deals that are available to players at larger programs. (This concern, at least, has reached the offices of the N.C.A.A.: on Wednesday, the organization’s president said that he was taking steps to ban prop betting on college athletes.) The next night, I watched parts of an entirely meaningless N.B.A. game between two teams that are actively trying to lose as much as possible in order to secure a better position in next year’s draft. Some of the players on the court were on partial deals that will pay them about as much as a first-year partner at a mid-level law firm. It’s decent money, but that check may only come once for these guys.

There will be more scandals. And there will be things that we never hear about. Sports media has been so overrun with gambling money that you can’t turn on a broadcast or a debate show without seeing a betting segment. Journalists will continue to chase scandalous stories, but, having worked in sports media myself, I can imagine a scenario in which stories get shelved, or upper management quietly reassigns reporters to different beats—not out of an aversion to the truth, or because the stories don’t sell, but because they want to avoid the awkwardness of running a segment about a betting scandal followed by three gambling-app ads and a chatty, mostly nonsensical three-minute segment on the night’s best prop bets. But any such suppression won’t work. The social-media detectives will keep posting their Zapruder-like videos, and everyone will become a suspect, whether they deserve to or not. ♦

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