The headwinds against legalized sports betting

After a Supreme Court ruling that allowed states to approve online sports gambling, most states still have doubts about doing so. Big sports leagues should note the reluctance to turn games of talent into games of chance.

AP
A mobile football game app is displayed in Las Vegas.

In the 16 months since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting, the country’s wealthiest sports league, the NFL, has slowly moved to put its football games and its players into the middle of the online gambling industry. The league has partnered with casino giant Caesars Entertainment as well as sports data distributor Sportradar. Last Thursday, it signed a deal with the largest fantasy sports operator, DraftKings, which already has betting operations in four states. And when the NFL’s current broadcast rights deals expire in 2022, it will likely make sports betting a key part of negotiations for new contracts.

That last step may have the most impact on the future of sports gambling in the United States. The league’s games have more viewers than anything else on live television. Of the top 100 live broadcasts last year, nearly two-thirds were NFL games. Prepare for TV announcers to speak directly to bettors about every micro-moment in a game that might influence wagers. Information on the pregame health of each player will become a profit center. By 2024, the U.S. sports wagering market may grow to $5.7 billion in annual revenue, according to the research company GamblingCompliance. The NFL, like other professional sports leagues, has found it hard to pass up this new source of wealth.

Yet something in the U.S. is slowing down this rush toward online sports gambling, especially in Western and Southern states. Only about a dozen states have some form of legal sports betting, often with tight restrictions. Lawmakers in 18 states rejected sports betting bills in 2019, according to The Associated Press. Legalized sports betting is available to less than 20% of the U.S. population. In Colorado, legislators have punted the issue to voters with a referendum in November.

Perhaps most Americans do not want to turn games of talent into games of chance with all the well-known effects on players, young people, poor people, and those prone to gambling addiction. An NCAA survey found 26% of male student-athletes reported making sports wagers. In a poll by Seton Hall University, 61% of Americans said legal betting on sports events leads to cheating or fixing of games. “What we legalize, we legitimize,” says Louisiana lawmaker Rep. Valarie Hodges.

The hidden costs of all types of gambling are now more well known. Land-based casinos end up costing a community about $3 for every $1 made, according to Earl Grinols, an economist at Baylor University, mainly in the effects on problem gamblers and in local crime. If sports betting is now made available on every mobile device, the U.S. needs to consider such costs.

One big disadvantage is an increase in the superstitious belief in luck as a force in society rather than hard work, learning, talent, teamwork, and new ideas. The Seton Hall University poll found that less than a third of Americans would be more likely to bet on games if their state legalized sports betting.

Perhaps another factor slowing down sports betting in the U.S. is that the United Kingdom is currently trying to restrict its market after an explosion of interest among young people online. The British government is setting up its first health clinic for children with gambling addiction. Overall, more children place bets than consume alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs.

The NFL, more than any other organization, should take note. The purity of sports should remain pure, especially for the young.

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