Football and other fall sports are returning, and if you’re a sports fan who has been paying any attention at all, you’re well aware that there are now lots of legal sports books eager to take your money.
The explosive growth of the gambling industry came after a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that allowed states to legalize sports betting. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the roughly $1 billion in revenue the industry made in 2020 is expected to multiply by six by 2025.
This rise has been accompanied by a shrill, relentless barrage of advertising that is becoming inseparable from the sports themselves. Fox joins its NFL and MLB coverage now with FOX Bet, an app that allows you to “win Terry Bradshaw’s money” while betting against the network personality and retired NFL star. Viewers of the NBA on TNT are subject to similar pitches from Charles Barkley.
Print journalism has struggled with a decline in advertising revenue since the advent of the internet. Such pressures have weighed heavily on Sports Illustrated, a once-venerable American institution that is now a shadow of its former self since it was bought by media conglomerate TheMaven in 2019. The magazine’s new owners drained Sports Illustrated of its charm with a new clickbait-driven business model that has turned its website into a dismal spam mill.
These pressures are evident in Sports Illustrated’s new “Gambling Issue,” touted in a press release under the headline “Sports Illustrated Bets Big on Legal Sports Wagering.” It’s packed with giddy, breathless coverage of the new bookies who moved in on the Mafia’s old racket, with barely a mention of gambling addiction, point-shaving scandals or the other potential perils of this new world.
It’s a far cry from the humble roots of fantasy sports, which began as obscure play-by-mail games in the 1980s. The internet’s halcyon days saw fantasy sports leagues, which generally involved little if any money, and were played mostly for bragging rights among friends and family.
Fantasy sports came of age as a hardcore hustle in the 2010s with daily fantasy, which involves anonymous one-shot bets against vast markets of other bettors. These services are often advertised with the success stories of the lucky few who’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, enabling them to quit their day jobs. It’s never mentioned that such fortunes can only be amassed if there are large numbers of losers frittering away their earnings through the system.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a sudden, unexpected drop in revenue for sports leagues, and it coincided with a time when a growing gambling industry had plenty of advertising money to throw around. One would hope that these leagues had learned the lessons of history from Major League Baseball’s betting scandals with the 1919 “Black Sox” and Pete Rose’s enormous debts to organized crime during his playing career.
The National Hockey League appears not to have paid attention. The league is now investigating San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, a known gambler who declared bankruptcy in January after signing a $49 million contract in 2018. Kane’s wife this summer accused him of deliberately throwing games for the hapless Sharks the previous season; in his bankruptcy filing, Kane listed $1.5 million in gambling losses and $16 million in unpaid debts.
Gambling addiction is insidious and shameful, the sort of problem from which one suffers in silence. If you or someone you know needs help, it’s available through the federal Department of Health and Human Services by calling 1-800-662-4357. And if you just want to have more fun with sports, look for ways that aren’t as morally dubious.