Wanna Bet On It?

Online Sports Betting

If you’ve been watching the baseball playoffs you’ve been inundated with ads for gambling websites. Oh, sorry, I mean gaming websites that allow casual fans to compete for pots of money based on correctly predicting who would win, by how much, how many total points would be scored, and many other aspects of the game.

But according to them that’s not gambling.

I’m not going to name the sites since I prefer they at least spend some of their profits on paying for advertising and they ain’t giving me any of it. And they do pay a lot. Watch an hour of a playoff game and you will likely see three ads for one particular site, plus there will be some banter (no doubt paid for) between the announcers about said site or the bets you the viewer can place. And make no mistake, you can place bets on just about anything that happens in a game; whether the next pitch is a curve ball or the next batter will hit a line drive or the batter after him will hit a fly ball to the right side that is caught by the shortstop who is playing over by second base because of a shift and will the team in the field continue to employ a shift for the next batter.

All from the comfort and ease of your living room through the miracle of cell phone technology.  What hath Steve Jobs wrought?

And if you thought “wait a minute, I thought sports betting was illegal everywhere but Nevada” you haven’t been paying attention to the Supreme Court. Three years ago the court in a pretty near unanimous ruling said the federal government had no place in preventing states from allowing sports betting. If Iowa wants to let their farmers bet on Hawkeye football who are the feds to tell them no? Interstate commerce and all that.

Once that ruling was announced the floodgates opened. All parties wanted their piece of what everyone knew would be a huge pie. The sports leagues, the statistics companies, the cell phone companies, the television networks, and of course the gambling sites. Sports leagues, which for years ran away from anything that even suggested there was gambling going on involving their games, suddenly were partnering with betting sites to make sure they got their cut. ESPN, having already purchased Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website a few years earlier, poised themselves to be the premier statistician for the new age of gambling. And of course all the networks became even more invested in sports programming. After all, having a money interest in the outcome of every play is a powerful incentive for the viewer to continue watching even during the commercials.

But it is the leagues, and through them the players, who have the greatest interest in fans putting a few bucks down on The Bucks. The cut from the gambling sites will more than offset any drop off in attendance or even, heaven forbid, a drop in their rights fees from television or radio. And the players see revenue from gambling as a piece of the pie they have a right to. This coming winter’s negotiations between Major League Baseball and the players over The Basic Agreement (the rules all clubs and players must have in their contracts) might very well come down to how much of a cut the players get from the gambling sites. After all, it’s their actual performances that are being bet on. Which brings up the issue of whether those performances or even the statistics that accrue from those performances are the intellectual property of the individual players or of the teams they play for or of the league as a whole.

So everyone is gonna make money, what’s the downside?

I had a professor in college whose mantra was “History does not repeat itself. But human nature never changes”.

We know the stories about athletes being tempted and trapped by gamblers. Eight Men Out is the story of one of the fixes going on during the 1919 World Series (go ahead, debate me on just how many were going on). City Dump is the story of the 1951 NCAA and NIT champion CCNY team that got caught shaving points in the year they won BOTH championships. For the uninitiated, shaving points is making sure your team wins by less than the point spread. Again for the uninitiated, the point spread is a made up number created to get people to bet not on which team wins a game, but by how much a team will win. Just this past month Netflix produced a documentary about the 1994 Arizona State basketball team point shaving scandal called Hoop Schemes, part of their Bad Sport series. That series is a litany of bad people doing bad things related to sports. And I haven’t even touched on South American soccer matches where losing might not be just dangerous to your wallet but to your well being as documented in The Two Escobars.

The leagues, the networks, the gambling sites, all claim this can’t happen now, no pro player will risk his $100 million contract on one game and no college player will risk not getting a shot at their $100 million contract by doing some gambler “a favor”. But you don’t need the guy making the big money or the kid about to make the big money to fix a game. You need the player at the end of the bench who is brought in at the end of a game his team is winning by 20 points to ensure the winning margin isn’t 21 points, the scrubinie who is never going to the show, never going to get close to the big lights, but to whom a $20,000 payday is the difference between paying off the debts accrued from the things his scholarship didn’t cover (like food) and bouncing into the real world weighed down by them. Or maybe it’s a referee who sees everyone else on the court or the field making huge dollars and he’s having to trade in his first class air ticket for economy so he can get the dollar difference to help with his wife’s medical bills. Or maybe it’s a groundskeeper who normally rakes the third base line so the home team can take advantage of bunts by their speedy players deciding that this is one game he won’t do that because the bank is close to foreclosing on his mortgage.

When you’re paid in cryptocurrency no one knows you got paid at all.

The bottom line is there is going to be another scandal. Is LeBron James going to shave points? No. Is Tom Brady going to deliberately overthrow his receiver on a critical fourth down? No. Is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gonna swing for the fences and possibly strike out when there’s a man on third and a single wins the game, but the bettors are putting big money on him to homer? Possible, especially if he’s one of the bettors. Is some unknown never will be quarterback gonna fumble on the five yard line in the last two minutes of a game with his team up ten and the spread is 14? I’ll lay you 8 to 5 it will. How about this scenario: since these sites make betting on any game in any college division possible, what’s to prevent a small school president of a Division Three team from telling the head coach to tank a game because they’ve put a huge chunk of the school’s endowment on a blowout win by the other team. Some variation of that is going to happen.

Look I’ve made my share of sports bets in my time. Having a little money on the game always makes it more interesting. But I’ve always bet on either the money line (who will win the game) or the spread or the over/under (total number of points scored by both teams). Those esoteric individual bets like if a certain player will do a particular thing or if a team will attempt a unique play never appealed to me. In fact they always smacked of being a nefarious way for the casino/bookmaker to fleece a gambling addict. Really, if you are going to bet on who the first penalty will be called on in a meaningless mid season football game you need to take a good hard look at your relationship with gambling. But those are the exact bets these sites are egging you on to make.

And soon enough that couple of bucks on the game has turned into a couple of hundred. And even getting the power turned off for non-payment isn’t gonna stop a nation of gambling addicts from making that next bet that’s “just to get me even”. Think I’m crazy? How much time do you spend playing your favorite game on your phone? You’re already conditioned.

The proliferation of these betting sites and the amount of money they are taking in is just going to make them more powerful. I can certainly see a day when those sites begin to have an active and insidious effect on not just one or two games, but on the sports world as a whole. It will be hard for a team to tell them a new player will be replacing an older player who is heavily bet on and not have the sites say “um, we pay you guys a good amount of money and that older player is a big reason why so maybe you want to reconsider that move, with all due respect”.

That might be an offer they can’t refuse.

Oh, and one more thing. These sites don’t just confine themselves to the world of sports. They made book on the 2020 election. And you can get any number of bets down on the 2024 election. Not that that is any reason to be worried.

Only ol’ Hank can take us out of here. Williams I mean, not Aaron.

Shapiro Out