The home of the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights thrives on exactly the sort of spectacle you’d expect from Sin City. Nicknamed “The Fortress,” the arena features a faux-castle, fog machines, lasers and a feather-clad dancers sponsored by the Flamingo Hotel. Team warmups begin with a Knights fan shouting into a bedazzled microphone to implore the players onto the ice and end with AC/DC’s seat-rattling “Highway to Hell.” Other franchises aren’t far behind this degree of spectacle, but there’s still something unique about this intersection of professional sports and Vegas artifice that was, until recently, unimaginable.

The Knights started playing here in 2017, becoming the first professional sports franchise to call Vegas home. The NFL’s Raiders moved to the city from Oakland in 2020, and their Bay Area counterparts, MLB’s Oakland Athletics, plan to move here soon, too. With the NBA also poised to expand into Vegas, the city is likely to become the 14th American city to host franchises from all four major men’s sports leagues, all in about 10 years. This rapid expansion has many drivers, but the most obvious is the recent shift among the leagues from shunning to embracing gambling. It may appear, from the outside, that sports leagues have chosen to bring their special brand of entertainment to Vegas, but the reverse is just as true: Vegas has become a sporting capital by exporting its distinctive appeal to the leagues that once snubbed it.

Vegas, America’s gambling capital, used to be the only place in the country where sports fans could legally bet on games. Now, the vast majority of viewers can place bets on their phones — and the leagues are doing their best to make sure that they do. This is a head-spinning sea change that will not only make gambling ubiquitous and inescapable for nearly every sports fan, but also promises to change sports in America themselves.

That’s especially obvious here at The Fortress: BetMGM, William Hill and Circa Sports — three of the most popular betting services in town — hawk their merchandise along the wall bordering the ice. They also sponsor in-game promotions, and players wear Circa Sports patches on their jerseys. For the power brokers who control professional sports, the calculation is simple: More gambling means more eyes on the games, and more eyes on the games means more money. But even in this era, when sports gambling has largely shed the stigma of organized crime, money laundering and moralizing from the professional leagues who once swore they’d never get in bed with it, that cynical formula could fundamentally change the very idea of what it means to be a fan.

A new kind of gambling money has flooded major American sports. And that could spell trouble

Tonight’s visiting team, the San Jose Sharks, are the worst team in the league, but the stands are still packed. This is how sports franchises and fans have sustained each other for decades: Fans attend games and buy gear and parking and food. They watch on TV. They purchase license plates and call in to radio shows. They express their fandom identity with their disposable income. This arrangement has worked because of its simple, reliable foundation: Sporting events — with their acrobatic plays and improbable moments — have long been the most interesting viewing in town or on television. But lately, there’s more competition. TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Netflix, all built around algorithms catered to you. When your business model is attention — whether at the stadium, on TV or at the online merch shop — this is a problem. Enter Las Vegas.

The city’s defining insight — that for some, life is more fun when risk is its own reward — is how leagues plan to win in the attention economy. When the Golden Knights score the evening’s first goal, the arena fills with the coin-clinking sound of a winning slot machine.

Since 2018, 38 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of sports gambling. Many acted quickly to do so. Like legalized marijuana, sports betting means a new windfall in tax revenue; one recent estimate placed sports betting tax revenue at $1.5 billion in 2022. That’s nothing compared to sportsbook revenues, which have exploded since 2018, from $330 million to $7.5 billion — an increase greater than 2,000 percent.

That’s a change so big it’s guaranteed to reverberate in unexpected, unforeseen ways. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates the risk of gambling addiction grew by 30 percent between 2018 and 2021. The true rate of gambling addiction is harder to determine with precision, but it’s also almost certainly gone up. “Helpline calls are spiking,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG. “Every indicator of potential problems, including in our surveys, has shown significant growth since 2018.” The demographic most impacted? Men 18 to 24.

“You have a sports book in the palm of your hands, 24/7,” Whyte adds. “That has all sorts of other spillover effects.” For one thing, betting can become constant. “Twenty, thirty, forty years ago, you weren’t able to bet on Japanese baseball or Ukrainian table tennis,” he says. “Now, there’s something to bet on every single minute of every single day.” For another, some of the particular features of the modern, digital sports betting ecosystem — including the perception that success is actually based on skill — have been associated with higher levels of harm to gamblers. “And in the United States,” Whyte says, “the blizzard of advertising and the lack of comprehensive gambling addiction treatment programs may increase the rate and severity of gambling problems.”

Whyte calls sports gambling addiction a “ticking time bomb.” It’s a difficult issue to study; it’s evolving so quickly that academic research isn’t keeping up with the latest numbers of gamblers and addicts. But researchers do know one thing. “The more you increase access to something,” says Shane Kraus, a UNLV psychologist who studies gambling addiction, “the higher the likelihood of having a problem.”

In 2022, a gambling-addict-turned-pastor told me, “Three years from now, it’s going to be the No. 1 issue facing churches, and within five years, this is going to be a nationwide problem.”

I’m here, at the Knights game and in Las Vegas, because I’m interested in exploring all the ways gambling is poised to reorder American sports. With sports power brokers determined to lure in new fans via gambling, I want to understand how this departure from the traditional team-fan paradigm could upend long-standing relationships between players, fans and the people suddenly caught between them. I’ve come to The Fortress to understand how the rapid, thorough proliferation of sports betting is changing what it means to be a fan.

Modern sport betting has a lot more clinical risk than traditional sports betting or other forms of gambling. It certainly is associated with higher rates of gambling harm.

Las Vegas is a wonderland of deceit. One where blinding outdoor lights and windowless casinos can fool visitors into thinking night is day, day is night. Where fake castles, fake skylines and fake pyramids help make the rich richer, the poor poorer. Where one hotel is literally known as The Mirage. The smoke show is the attraction, including when it comes to sports. Betting on games has existed here for about a century.

But Vegas was built on card games, craps and roulette, not sports betting. From 1951 until the 1970s, there was a 10 percent tax on sports wagering operations, and few legitimate sportsbooks’ margins could withstand that hit. In the mid-’70s, the tax fell to 2 percent, which opened the door to formalized sportsbooks. Union Plaza opened the first one in 1975 and many others followed. By then, the mob bosses who had long ruled Vegas casinos found themselves in the sights of the Justice Department, and by the 1980s, they’d largely been driven out, replaced by corporations and the city’s “megaresort era.” In 1992, Congress granted Nevada an effective monopoly on sports betting via the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. It made sports gambling illegal across the country outside a few carve-outs, including horse racing, dog racing and jai alai — all of which use a “pool” betting system where winning bets get paid out based on the amount of money wagered overall, rather than a fixed amount like with sportsbooks. The sportsbook, where a fan can bet on any sporting event — that was only legal in Vegas.

At the same time, a new phenomenon called fantasy sports was on the rise. It gained traction in the 1980s with season-long contests, in which participants could “draft” their own team of professional players and compete with their friends based on their chosen players’ performances. In the ’90s, newspapers across the country started printing weekly fantasy contests, known as “Dugout Derby” and “Pigskin Playoff,” which instructed fans to call a toll-free number to choose their players, with cash prizes awarded on a weekly basis to top performers. The emergence of the internet pushed fantasy sports into the mainstream, especially following the 2006 passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which placed fantasy sports outside the regulatory framework of traditional gambling and gave rise to fantasy betting companies like FanDuel and DraftKings. They flourished, and when the Supreme Court struck down Nevada’s sports gambling monopoly in a landmark 2018 ruling, it opened the floodgates for them and the rest of the sports betting industry to take over America.

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This comes at a time when moral acceptance of gambling is at an all-time high, and increasing. Faith leaders from Joseph Smith to Pope Francis have warned that gambling can lead to addiction, ruined marriages and spiritual decay. In 1938, the first year Gallup polled Americans on gambling, 51 percent opposed it, but by 2009, 58 percent of Americans viewed gambling as morally acceptable, and by 2018, a record high 69 percent of Americans agreed. (The only group that reliably views gambling as morally unacceptable is Latter-day Saints; only 37 percent of them saw it as acceptable in 2016, compared to 56 percent of Protestants, 74 percent of Catholics and 81 percent of Jews. According to a poll this February conducted by Lifeway Research, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, 55 percent of pastors in America oppose sports betting).

And yet for decades, the conventional wisdom around Vegas was that pro sports teams would never call Vegas home because gambling has long been seen as a corrupting influence in sports. Think the Black Sox Scandal, arguably the most significant scandal in baseball history, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of intentionally losing the 1919 World Series in exchange for payouts from a gambling syndicate run by New York crime boss Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein. The outcry from that scandal, and the long-term impact on baseball, was so significant that Pete Rose, the sport’s all-time hits leader, was banned from baseball for life (making him ineligible for the Hall of Fame) for betting on games.

As a result, sports gambling was still a taboo topic until a few years ago. The legendary color commentator Al Michaels, known for calling “Monday Night Football” games with the late John Madden, was notorious for sneaking in references to gambling odds while calling games because explicitly referencing gambling was a no-no in sports broadcasting. Today, America’s most popular sports podcaster, Bill Simmons, devotes entire segments of his shows to gambling, and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” hosts nightly segments about which teams to bet on.

The implication was clear: Don’t worry about losing young fans because of baseball’s pace of play; gambling, rather than the games themselves , will bring them back.

So what’s changed? Why are leagues that would ban a player for life for gambling on games suddenly all in on sports wagering? Why has the once unthinkable — pro sports teams in Vegas — seemingly changed overnight?

One answer is money.

Back in 2018, as other states legalized sports betting, Nevada sportsbooks showed wagers totaling $5 billion. But between then and May 2023, bettors placed $220 billion in legal sports bets across the country, and a November report from the American Gaming Association found that bettors were on pace to exceed $100 billion worth of bets in 2023 alone. A 2018 study by the American Gaming Association found that the four major American sports leagues stand to gain a combined $4 billion from the proliferation of sports betting, via direct sponsorships, commercials, data collection and fan engagement. And those numbers could continue to rise; by 2028, the industry is projected to double in value compared with 2020 revenues.

Kyle Hilton for the Deseret News

Vegas has also directly lined the pocketbooks of owners. To build the Raiders’ gaudy new stadium, which opened in 2020, the city ponied up $750 million, something the city of Oakland was not willing to do to keep the Raiders in town (the stadium cost $1.9 billion, making it the second most expensive stadium in the world). T-Mobile Arena, home to the Golden Knights and the host of most UFC pay-per-view cards and marquee boxing events, was privately funded by AEG Worldwide and MGM Resorts International to the tune of $375 million.

Besides the rush of new money, leagues and franchises are seemingly no longer worried about players betting on games and ruining the integrity of their respective sports. As recently as 2012, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig was giving a deposition in a New Jersey sports betting case and said he’d never allow a franchise to go to Vegas because of gambling, which he called “evil.” Fast forward to 2018 and Selig’s successor, Rob Manfred, was holding winter meetings for owners at Mandalay Bay, and more or less lobbying for a franchise to come to the desert.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is also in favor of a basketball franchise in Vegas, but has warned that “any new approach must ensure the integrity of the game.”

“One of my most important responsibilities as commissioner of the NBA is to protect the integrity of professional basketball and preserve public confidence in the league and our sport,” he wrote in The New York Times. “I oppose any course of action that would compromise these objectives.”

He envisions an atmosphere, made possible by advances in digital gambling technology, that would be “appropriately monitored and regulated.” And indeed, today’s digital betting apparatus makes monitoring potential cheating and match fixing easier than it’s ever been; players who’ve been caught betting on their own leagues/teams within the new paradigm have been punished severely.

“We have this lingering component that if there are financial incentives, the integrity of the game can be fundamentally questioned,” says Daniel McIntosh, a marketing professor at Arizona State. “There are clear drawbacks if all of the sudden, the NBA becomes the WWE in terms of everybody knows the games are fixed. The fundamental premise of ‘on any given Sunday, anything can happen’ is broken, and the product is no longer what it used to be.” But that would take a scandal on a scale we haven’t yet seen, and in its absence, Silver calculated that as long as leagues take appropriate action to monitor and punish inappropriate gambling when it happens, the public appetite for gambling — and the opportunity it presents for teams and leagues — is too large to ignore. His thinking from 10 years ago looks prophetic now: A match-fixing scandal that rocked the UFC in late 2022 did seemingly nothing to offset league profits, which grew to $1.14 billion. So far the evidence suggests that for today’s professional sports leagues, the risk of gambling scandals is worth the reward.

“My worry with this whole thing (is) that fans (will) become fans of the wrong things,” McIntosh says. Despite researching the substantial economic impacts of gambling, his favorite parts of sports are the stories; the narratives that make you root for one athlete or team over another. He worries about what it means when fandom becomes transactional in a monetary way, rather than an emotional way. “We can lose a generation of fans because they see that all this has become is a giant money grab.”

“My worry with this whole thing is that fans will become fans of the wrong things.”

Back inside The Fortress, online betting company William Hill presents the most up-to-date odds during the first intermission on the giant video board. During the second intermission, yet another sports gambling sponsor, BetFred, presents a video graphic of the shots on goal. Which leads right into another segment sponsored, once more, by William Hill. As for the actual game, the Knights dominate. The contest ends with a score of 5-0. Vegas defenseman Alec Martinez accounts for two of those goals, making him the player of the game and the focal point of reporters’ postgame interviews. Their questions involve his in-game performance; no one asks about gambling.

Sportsbooks like the one at Ceasars Palace have seen a renaissance that has coincided with the popularity of online gambling. | George Rose

Whether owing to a lack of questions or a lack of interest in answering them, it’s unusual to hear professional athletes talk about how gambling has changed the game, despite the many sponsorship opportunities gambling providers have wedged themselves into during games. Martinez, however, is happy to chat.

At 36 years old, he’s an NHL veteran. His first season in the league was back in 2009. He spent most of his career with the Los Angeles Kings, and he’s been with Vegas since 2019, which gives him the perfect vantage point to explain how gambling has changed hockey. His answer, unsurprisingly, is not much at all; players aren’t allowed to bet on league games, with severe consequences if they do. Therefore, “it’s the same game,” Martinez says.

But he’s also very much aware of the league’s new embrace of gambling, and from the inside looking out, he likes it. Luckily, he hasn’t been on the wrong end of death threats from gamblers who lost their bets or their fantasy contests because of his performance, as many other athletes have. Lighter forms of the same phenomenon have also started popping up, like during a November college basketball game between Florida Atlantic and Loyola Chicago, when Barstool Sports announcers openly, loudly rooted for FAU to run up the score on already-beaten Loyola so that they could cash in. Still, “I’m a fan of anything that helps grow the game,” Martinez says. “If it makes it more popular, if it reaches a bigger audience, and the league wants to do it, then I’m on board.”

But does gambling really “grow the game”? Xavier University marketing professor Ashley Stadler Blank and her colleagues published a paper in September 2021 titled, in part, “How sports betting can reduce fan engagement.” The study was survey-based and asked participants to rate their emotional states after betting on their favorite team, and either winning or losing. The study found that when fans bet on their favorite team and won, their emotional state was basically unchanged and had no effect on their level of engagement. But when they bet on their favorite team and lost? “That was a really surprising finding for us,” Blank says. “What was happening here is that after losing a bet, positive emotions that people feel towards their home team decreased.”

By virtue of being the first of its kind, this study has its pitfalls. One is that it only looked at engagement in terms of betting on your favorite team; it didn’t consider the question of whether betting increases engagement on games fans would otherwise ignore, like my seat-neighbor’s bets on UFC. “That’s one of the big limitations,” Blank admits, “and, I think, a huge opportunity for future research.” Another is that the experiment was based in the lab rather than the field; participants didn’t actually place bets and assess their emotions based on the outcomes — they answered questions about how they would feel if these different outcomes were to happen. But, at the very least, the study does raise legitimate questions about whether more opportunities to gamble actually translate to the engagement leagues crave.

Blank hopes legislators, league commissioners and team owners will consider these questions before continuing to promote gambling. Until now, she says, they haven’t because the allure of this new revenue stream is astonishing; in 2023, to use one small example, Americans were projected to wager nearly $16 billion on March Madness games — more than the entire state budget of Utah. But if research continues to show that, in fact, more gambling can reduce fan engagement, maybe leagues’ calculations will start to change. “My hope is that we’re going to see a lot of research coming out in the next several years that’s talking about the impact of legal sports betting on consumers,” she says, “not just from an individual or personal standpoint, but also how that impacts their fandom.”

And yet, there’s an equally compelling counterpoint to Blank’s research: An NCAA survey released in May 2023 found that an astounding 78 percent of college students were either much more likely or somewhat more likely to watch a game if they’d placed a bet — exactly the sort of engagement the leagues are seeking. But what does it mean for sports to be more interesting? Is it as simple as watching more, or watching harder? What about the way we watch?

In my search for answers, I spoke with Ted Hartwell, the executive director of the Nevada Council for Problem Gaming. Hartwell’s organization doesn’t take a position for or against gambling’s existence; its goal is only to get people help when they need it. I wanted to know what he thinks of the argument that more gambling is good for sports; that it makes them “more interesting.” He’s quick and blunt in his assessment: “I find that statement a little bit ludicrous,” he says. “The idea of gambling as the mechanism or the reason to entice more people to be interested in watching the sport seems like a pretty weak argument.” His reasoning, as a recovering gambling addict himself, is that gambling changes peoples’ relationships with the games — especially in an era of digital betting. “Your phone is like a slot machine,” he says. “You can disappear into it.” And that relationship is very different from a traditional fan-team relationship.

Roger Angell, the longtime New Yorker baseball writer, once observed that despite the “patently contrived and commercially exploitative” nature of professional sports, what makes following them worthwhile is that they let you truly care about something in a meaningful, almost spiritual way. “It seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved,” he wrote. “Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

One New Yorker colleague wrote of Angell that to watch baseball with him was “to see the game in its limitless particulars” — to recognize that in sports, anything can happen at any given moment, including something you’ve never seen before and may never see again. That’s how he understood what makes watching sports “interesting.”

Even McIntosh — who studies the economic impact of gambling, grew up around gambling and places bets himself — recognizes the interest that comes from betting is a new kind of interest. He worries it appeals to the “lowest common denominator” of fandom, or “the hollow core,” whose interest is transactional and fleeting. He worries, in other words, that fandom based on such an idea is no fandom at all. “Everybody’s hoping to get to this thing,” he says, speculating about where this movement is heading. “And there’s just nothing that’s actually there at the endpoint.”

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.