Corporate Greed Dave Zirin Sports

Sports Betting Is a Tax on Fans—And a Ticking Time Bomb

The industry’s erstwhile disavowal of gambling now seems quaint, as smartphones have made sports betting ubiquitous in professional sports—to the detriment of fans and the games themselves.
Sports Betting at a Las Vegas Casino by Baishampayan Ghose via Flickr

By Dave Zirin / The Real News Network

It was once taken from granted that gambling and professional sports could never mix, for the sake of the fans and the integrity of the games themselves. Those days are long gone. Smartphones have made sports betting more accessible and widespread than ever—and tech companies and sports leagues are in cahoots to reap the profits. Edge of Sports takes aim at this regressive and dangerous turn in the world of professional sports, asking what happens to the games we love when a scandal inevitably strikes.

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden Audio
Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen

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Dave Zirin:  And now some choice words. Okay, look, we need to talk about the new national pastime: sports betting. I’m old enough to remember, lo, the many years ago when Pete Rose was banned for life from Major League Baseball for placing bets on his own team. I remember when sports leagues said they would never put a team in Las Vegas because of the very physical proximity to legal gambling. I remember when the official line was that the integrity of the game and placing bets could not even exist in the same zip code.

Well, fast forward a few decades, hell, a few years, and it’s remarkable how much has changed. Now gambling is as much a part of sports as beer commercials. Smartphones have opened the door to sports betting apps, and the leagues have embraced the lucrative bounty created and generated by smartphone gambling. They’ve jumped on this with the wanton shamelessness of a puppy licking its bowl.

It’s dizzying how quickly the commissioners have made this turn from gambling is evil to selling it to fans as all fun and Americana. I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining this radical shift – It’s money. A ton of it. But it’s not just the league owners panting with their puppy bowls out. Sports media like the trendsetter, ESPN Sports Center and its tall, smoothly bald host, Scott Van Pelt, are always ready with a special sports betting segment. Also, the most esteemed commentators in the sports media world, like TNT’s studio hoops team led by Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, now do their own giggly gambling bits.

In other words, a massive portion of the economic lifeblood of pro sports, from the leagues to the top of the media food chain, is being underwritten by sports gambling – Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s being underwritten by fans making bets they overwhelmingly lose. It’s a regressive tax on fans. Sort of like the lottery, except with one vital difference: It’s privatized. So instead of money going to build roads or schools, it goes into the pockets of billionaires.

Now, I know some, clearly most, will say it’s all good, clean fun. But this isn’t just about sports betting. It’s about access to betting and it’s about the apps. Yes, anyone, especially in the digital age, can gamble whenever one likes. But there’s something called a “hassle cost” that has been eliminated by the apps. Now if anyone wants to lay down some money, there is no need to find a bookie or even navigate a casino website. Just swipe your finger, and as quickly as checking text messages, you are done. They have taken the most dangerous part of gambling – And I do speak from experience here – And that’s that it’s addictive, and they’ve combined it with that other great modern addiction, the smartphone. And for the leagues, it’s been like cracking open Fort Knox.

Now, the phone app giants do have a warning label for gambling addicts, but it’s about as sincere as a lung cancer warning on a pack of smokes. The leagues do not care. And as long as the sweet dough trickles down to players and the now compromised media, no one else is going to raise a stink about this either.

But as Neil Young wrote, the devil fools with the best laid plans, and wow, has old Satan fooled with the plans here, because something incredibly predictable has taken place: The players are deciding, in every violation of every league rule, to place their own bets. As a result, the NFL has just suspended four more players for gambling. And they didn’t get any slap on the wrist, either. These players are suspended for the entire 2023 season. It’s an incredibly harsh punishment for doing what everyone in the sports world is promoting, from the boss to the media interviewing these players after the game.

The sports owners, let’s be clear about this, are terrified that if fans think players are operating in a way that compromises the alleged integrity of the games, the financial hit could be catastrophic. That makes referees as well – Who make a fraction of the players’ salaries – Particularly vulnerable to the allure of gambling, and players know it. The ugliest scene from the NBA season on the court was, for me, when Dallas Mavericks Superstar, Luca Doncic, late in a close game, started to make dollar signs with his fingers in the ref’s face to indicate that he thought the fix was in. Expect more of that.

So it’s Vegas for the fans, owners, and media, and the Vatican for the players and the refs. And this is a recipe for future disasters. Players will gamble. The commissioner’s office will hand out year-long suspensions. And the media will get in deeper with gambling companies they should be covering instead of profiting from.

The early sports organizers way back in the late 19th century were terrified of sports betting, fearful that fans would leave in droves if they felt like the outcomes were manipulated. A little more healthy fear, a little more introspection, a little more critical thinking, and a little less blind devotion to taxing fans would be a step in the right direction. But until there is a massive scandal – And that day is coming – We can only sit back and watch gambling swallow the sports world whole.

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation Magazine. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports, including most recently, The Kaepernick Effect Taking A Knee, Saving the World. He’s appeared on ESPN, NBC News, CNN, Democracy Now, and numerous other outlets. Follow him at @EdgeofSports.

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