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A brief history of sports betting

This is an excerpt from Business of Sports Betting epub, The by Becky Harris,John T. Holden & Gil B. Fried.

Sports and gambling have been closely intertwined since the beginning of organized competitions. Even ancient civilizations gambled on sports:

  • As far back as 4000 to 3000 BC, ancient Egyptians bet on dice, board games, and feats of skill, such as chariot racing and fencing (Bulski, 2020).
  • Betting on sports took place during the ancient Olympic Games, around 800 to 700 BC (“Sports Betting History,” n.d.).
  • In ancient Rome, betting on games and races was commonplace. Though gambling was periodically outlawed in ancient Rome, exceptions were made for holidays, on which gambling was embraced. In the same era as the early Olympic Games, Romans bet on chariot races (De Haas, n.d.).

In 1612, King James announced the first lottery in Britain, an event that would play a pivotal role in funding the Jamestown Colony. The lottery consisted of citizens buying tickets, which were then placed inside a barrel or drum, and then a name being selected. Lotteries played a vital role in America’s development, with many of the country’s first public buildings, colleges, roads, canals, and religious buildings being funded through both public and private lotteries. In 1776, the First Continental Congress started a lottery in the 13 colonies to fund the Revolutionary War (Little, 2019).

British settlers also brought a passion for horse racing with them, and the first racetrack was established in 1665 on Long Island in New York. Despite periods of unpopularity, horse racing has maintained a constant presence in the United States since at least 1665, an anomaly among regulated forms of gambling (“Horse Racing History,” n.d.).

The expansion of the United States westward saw a rise in gambling activities such as poker and other card games. Illegal gambling establishments were frequently ignored by authorities, and the goings-on were viewed as a lesser evil than some of the other activities engaged in during that era, such as brawling. Some cities, such as San Francisco, even licensed limited forms of gambling as a means of raising revenue (Holden & Edelman, 2020).

Professor I. Nelson Rose has classified three waves of legalized gambling in the United States (Rose, 2010).

1787 to Mid-1830s

  • In this period, gambling was largely outlawed but was permitted to raise revenue via lotteries or raffles.
  • Lotteries were frequently operated by both public and private organizations; however, by the middle of the 1800s, there were numerous lottery scandals across the United States. In some cases, drawings never even took place.
  • By the end of the 1830s, there was a push to ban gambling activities, and many state constitutions drafted in the era, including those of Nevada, California, and Texas, contained an outright ban on lotteries (Rose, 2010). Even today, lotteries remain banned in Nevada.
  • This era saw the invention of the steamboat, which led to the emergence of riverboat gamblers, who were often associated with dishonest card games.

1840s to 1890s

  • Following the Civil War, the once prohibited lottery reemerged as a means of funding Reconstruction in the American South. Some states rewrote constitutions or lifted statutory bans on the lottery, and others simply ignored prohibitions to allow state-licensed lotteries during the post–Civil War era.
  • As westward expansion continued, casino-style gambling became popular. Casino games were often rigged in favor of the operators, and eventually many of these games fell out of favor. An exception was card games such as poker, in which each player, in theory, had an equal chance of winning.
  • As cities in the west developed formal governments, laws were passed to outlaw casino gambling.
  • This second wave of gambling ended much the same way as the first, with significant scandals surrounding lotteries. The Louisiana lottery was at the center of the biggest scandal of the time, in which lottery operators were accused of attempting to pay off the state legislature (Rose, 2010).

1900s to Present

  • This period marks the expansion of legalized gambling, beginning with the reemergence of the state lottery in 1964.
  • Nevada emerged as a destination for gambling, followed by Atlantic City, New Jersey. Once novelties, casinos are now found in many states.
  • Despite the harms associated with gambling, many states see the revenue benefits as outweighing the risks.
  • As of 2022, all but two states, Utah and Hawaii, had some form of legal gambling.
More Excerpts From Business of Sports Betting epub