As the ad starts, a woman leaps from a blimp flying over the big game, free-falling in black leather. She lands on the goal post like a character from “The Matrix,” just in time to deflect a field goal — as she warns against safe bets. “Life is a gamble,” says this cyberpunk Lady Luck. In shifting scenes, she joins Joe Namath promising to win Super Bowl III, Evel Knievel jumping his motorcycle over a line of buses, a couple in love getting tattoos. Take a risk, she urges, and be part of the action. 

The clip is a slick TV spot for Draft Kings, one of several online sports betting companies that blanketed February’s Super Bowl broadcast with similar productions. Some showcased celebrity athletes. Others offered free stakes or outsized payoffs to first-time users. All called on viewers to join a trend that has become inescapable. Watch this month’s NBA playoffs and you’ll likely face another barrage of gambling ads, sponsorships and even betting advice from on-air personalities. 

For decades, major sports leagues and the media entities that cover them shunned any links to gambling, real or perceived. Now, sports betting is a massive revenue stream, an expanding industry ruled by tech companies and corporations like FanDuel, BetMGM and Caesars sportsbook. Competing for attention, they sponsor jersey patches, TV segments, podcasts, in-game scoreboard ads, individual players — like Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson — and even ballparks. As recently as 2018, Las Vegas was barred from advertising during the NFL’s big game; but in 2024, the gambling mecca will host the Super Bowl. “At the end of the day, money is money,” NFL analyst Trey Wingo told The Washington Post last August, “and the NFL is really good at making money.”

Some critics are raising the alarm.“They’re marketing to inexperienced betters,” says former gambling addict John Simmons. “Now, you’re not really a sports fan unless you bet on the game, too.” The sudden embrace of an erstwhile societal ill is more than jarring to Simmons, who now runs an online Christian ministry. It’s a harbinger of what’s to come.

“Three years from now, it’s going to be the number one issue facing churches,” he says. “And within five years, this is going to be a nationwide problem.”

What has brought about this seismic change? And where will it lead?

To understand the relationship between sports and gambling, consider the “Black Sox Scandal.” After the Cincinnati Reds won the 1919 World Series, rumors surfaced that the Chicago White Sox had thrown the games. Some players admitted as much to a grand jury, citing $10,000 and $20,000 bribes from a gambling syndicate, though the latter amount was never paid in full. Player salaries ranged from about $4,000 to $15,000 a year. Eight were indicted, along with five gamblers, on charges including conspiracy to defraud. The players — among them the legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson — were found not guilty at trial but were banned from the major leagues for tainting the game’s reputation.

In the business of sports, trust is the lifeblood. If fans can’t rely on games to be decided by sincere competition, through the honest effort and errors of players and coaches, the thrill would lose much of its luster — and that would hurt both ticket sales and ad revenue. No wonder today’s leagues investigate any hint of malfeasance, from underinflated footballs to sign-stealing schemes in baseball and academic cheating in college sports. That’s also why leagues have stood alongside the federal government as it sought to curtail sports betting, a market dominated by organized crime throughout the 20th century. That effort led to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which limited sports betting to lotteries in three states and sports pools in Nevada.

The education of Zach Wilson
Lineage on the line

For the same reason, leagues come down hard on violations related to gambling. Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, was banned for life after betting on games while he was managing the Reds in the late 1980s. Like Jackson before him, Rose is barred from the sport’s hall of fame. In 2007, NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy charges for fixing NBA games and point spreads. He served 15 months in federal prison, ending his career (though he wrote a memoir about the experience).

Any quarrels with these punishments were muted — until March, when Calvin Ridley, the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver who was set to score a massive contract on the free agency market, was banned for a season after betting on football games while he was on the non-football injury list to deal with mental health issues. Critics asked how the NFL could punish a player for engaging in an activity that’s not only legal in numerous states, but helps to fill the league’s considerable pockets. 

The landscape had changed. It didn’t happen overnight. 

Perhaps it dates to 1979, when the journalist Dan Okrent gathered with friends who loved baseball, at a Manhattan restaurant called Le Rotisserie Française. Inspired by a simple game he once played with a professor at the University of Michigan, Okrent developed a baseball league concept to test their knowledge of the sport. Each participant owned a team, picked real major leaguers in a draft and spent an imaginary budget, tracking stats in the newspaper and sharing results via fax. Each anted up $250, and the pot was divvied up among the top finishers at the end of the season. Rotisserie baseball was born.

The game went viral, rebranded as fantasy baseball to skirt the originators’ trademark. It gave ordinary fans a way to feel like part of the sport they loved to watch. Nerds pored over box scores in libraries across the country. New variations cropped up, offering that same experience to fans of basketball, hockey, NASCAR and football. By the late 1990s, the World Wide Web was offering up real-time stats, and websites like Yahoo and CBS Sportsline became ideal platforms for friends and strangers to compete. Some played for fun, others for money.

“Now, you’re not really a sports fan unless you bet on the game, too,” says former gambling addict John Simmons.

FanDuel launched a decade later, spicing things up with daily and weekly contests — and corresponding payouts. A player could sign up in the morning and get paid by the end of the day, a rush in more ways than one. Because fantasy sports were deemed a game of skill, the company wasn’t subject to federal anti-gambling laws. So the company was able to grow through relentless advertising alongside its main competitor, DraftKings, which was founded in 2012. 

Coincidentally, that was the year New Jersey, led by then-Gov. Chris Christie, launched a legal effort to make sports betting possible in that state. The climate seemed right for such a challenge. While fantasy sports played along the margins, traditional betting had also found a home online and, by extension, in living rooms across the country. The advent of privacy technologies like virtual private networks — which shield a user’s identity — allowed users to place bets more easily than ever before, even if they lived in places where betting remained illegal.

In May 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Murphy v. NCAA that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 was unconstitutional. New Jersey had prevailed, and betting was legalized in that state. The decision also opened the floodgates, with 26 states and Washington, D.C., following suit, and more likely to come. That same month, FanDuel was acquired by an Irish sportsbook, which quickly added traditional betting to the company’s portfolio. DraftKings opened its own sportsbook a few months later. In 2021, the year Caesars sportsbook went online, the market for sports betting doubled to $52.7 billion, according to Morning Consult. Perhaps not coincidentally, BetMGM launched this January.

“You used to hear concerns about the integrity of the sport, and you don’t hear that anymore,” says Jimmy Sanderson, a professor of sport management at Texas Tech. “There’s just so much money to be made.”

In the attention economy, gambling also offers a tailor-made path for leagues to stay relevant. With both dollars and engagement at stake, and legal barriers removed, the leagues are embracing the substantial rewards of gaming, and fans seem to love it.

Simmons had never been a fan when he started betting on sports in his early 20s, but he’d already gambled his way into bankruptcy. Online poker offered a thrilling escape from the crushing grief of his father’s untimely death. Casinos were a step up. Realizing he needed help, he registered as an addict with his favorite casinos, so they’d kick him out if he showed up. But sports bookies had no such scruples, and he soon became obsessed. “I would bet everything,” he says. “If there was a game on TV, or if there was a game online — sometimes, I couldn’t even watch the games, but I’d be betting on them because I couldn’t stop.” 

Obsession is the kind of engagement that sports leagues and media outlets hope to achieve.

If that sentiment echoes a typical modern sports fan, perhaps we should not be surprised. Obsession is the kind of engagement that sports leagues and media outlets hope to achieve. Some observers believe gambling is just a new way to achieve that. 

“I see it with my kids,” FanDuel CEO Amy Howe told Fox Business in the run-up to the Super Bowl this February. “They have their fantasy sports teams. This has become such an important part of how consumers engage with live sporting events.” Her company was preparing to offer 550 ways to bet on the game, from the final score to which player might get an interception, from the length of the national anthem to the color of Gatorade splashed on the winning coach. “Everyone can have a little bit of skin in the game.” 

The media isn’t far behind. Sports Illustrated’s homepage features tabs for fantasy sports, betting and SI’s own sportsbook alongside traditional coverage areas. The New York Times lamented the “rising human cost of sports betting” ahead of this year’s Super Bowl, but only after publishing weekly NFL picks against the spread. FanDuel sponsors a segment on the “NBA on TNT” television show, during which its distinguished ambassador issues the “Charles Barkley guarantee,” suggesting games viewers should bet on. Barkley summed up his feelings on “The Steam Room” podcast in March: “I think our whole society has changed on gambling.” 

During an online Q&A in April 2021, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke of a conversation he had with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Baseball is trying to accelerate its game speed to accommodate the short attention spans of 21st century consumers, but Silver told him not to worry. The intervals between pitches are perfect, in fact — just enough time for fans to place bets on whether the next pitch will be a strike, a foul or a groundout. Microtransactions like these are where many analysts believe sports betting could be headed. And Manfred implied that he’s ready to embrace it. “We favored the idea of federal legislation. Having said that, the states have evolved,” he said. “Sports betting is a massive opportunity for fan engagement.”

That’s one way to frame what’s happening: As an enhancement of what already makes sports such a powerful cultural force. People become fans because the teams they support represent an extension of themselves — a phenomenon academics call “social identity theory.” When your team loses, you feel like you’ve lost; when they win, you feel like you’ve won. Sports intrinsically offer fans the perception of skin in the game, and betting just adds to that. “I think it could absolutely drive viewership and drive ratings,” Sanderson observes. However, he asks, “Is that where we want sports to go? Do we want every play to have something riding on it?”

In other words, can sports fans actually have too much skin in the game as betting becomes more ubiquitous? Playing in a seasonlong fantasy football tournament with friends for a $20-per-person pool can give every NFL game a little jolt of excitement at little personal cost. But what happens when you ratchet that up? When betting displaces love for the game or loyalty to a team in favor of the thrill of financial gain, the agony of money lost?  Or an addiction that could change their lives forever.

“The risk for gambling problems has doubled” between 2018 and 2021, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. His organization conducted surveys in those years. The instrument didn’t measure sports gambling in particular, but Whyte says there’s reason to believe the new laws and regulations are driving the surge. “The risk is not distributed evenly across the population. It’s concentrated in young, male, online sports bettors.” Across the Mountain West, calls to the national problem gambling helpline have boomed during that same period, according to data provided by the council, whether those states have legalized sports betting or not. Calls are up by 71 percent in Colorado, 14 percent in Utah and an alarming 221 percent in Idaho.

“It’s a tidal wave,” adds Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program. “It’s slow and steady, and it’s pervasive.” Compulsive gambling is easier to hide than alcohol or nicotine addiction, but it has a similar impact on its victims, including the highest suicide rate of any addiction disorder.

The United Kingdom, which has allowed sports betting since 2005, offers an interesting case study on how sports betting might evolve in the U.S. Raffaello Rossi, a marketing researcher at the University of Bristol, warns that states should limit advertising, which over time can desensitize the viewer. “Seventeen years later, we’re seeing the big mess this has created,” he says. “It got out of control.” The National Health Service recently opened a clinic for “gambling-addicted children,” whose numbers have swelled to some 55,000.

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Stateside, only Utah is a safe bet, as gambling is prohibited in the state constitution. But in the growing number of states where sports betting is legal, each fan has to decide how much skin they want in the game. 

Simmons checked himself into a rehab clinic around the time he turned 30. He’d frittered away his dreams of becoming a professional wrestler or playing guitar in a rock band. He’d studied radio in college but that didn’t work out, either. His fiance had left him. His family wouldn’t talk to him. So he thought he was ready. But after 90 days, he checked himself out with the urge to make one last score. He pawned nearly everything in his apartment, called all the bookies he knew and placed as many bets as he could. “Just went on a bender,” he says. “I lost everything.” That’s when he turned to his faith and found his way back. Nine years later, he’s married with four kids, and he’s working on a documentary about the pipeline that turns casual sports fans into problem gamblers, called “Betting Your Life.”

Despite these warnings, the sports world seems oblivious to rock bottom. This March, at the height of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, patrons entering a Buffalo Wild Wings in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, were greeted by a TV screen showing the point spreads, lines and over-unders for the day’s contests. The games themselves were harder to find. 

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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