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Sports leagues embrace Las Vegas

This is an excerpt from Sports, Media, and Society by Kevin Hull.

Due to its strong connection to gambling and sports betting, professional sports leagues had long shunned the state of Nevada and, specifically, the city of Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Strip is home to around 30 casinos and most have a spacious sportsbook in which fans can bet on nearly ­every game in ­every sport. That opportunity for easy access to betting had long kept leagues away, but the NBA held the 2007 All-­Star Game in Las Vegas, perhaps as a way to test the city’s viability for a permanent team. It did not go well. More than 400 ­people ­were arrested, police and casinos ­were not ready for the number of ­people that showed up for the game, and the mayor of the city called it “a disastrous weekend” (Gordon, 2020, para. 3).

While that weekend might have slowed the momentum for professional sports in Las Vegas, it did not permanently stop it. In 2016, the NHL awarded an expansion team to the city, and the Vegas Golden Knights took to the ice the next year in an arena located just steps from the Strip. The team was an instant success both on the ice—­making the Stanley Cup Final in its first season—­and in the casinos. One sportsbook operator estimated that 27 ­percent of all bets placed on hockey in the team’s inaugural season ­were on Golden Knights games. ­Those bets consisted of both fans betting on Vegas and also fans of visiting teams who came to Las Vegas to see their team play and bet on their team to win (Everson, 2018).

Following the Golden Knights’ arrival, the floodgates ­were open for professional sports in Las Vegas. The WNBA soon announced that the franchise in San Antonio was moving to Nevada (to become the Las Vegas Aces), and the NFL approved the Oakland Raiders’ move to a new stadium ­there as well (Associated Press, 2017; Belson & Mather, 2017). Not only did Las Vegas become the home of the Raiders, but the NFL also placed other flagship league events ­there. The 2022 NFL Draft took place just off the Las Vegas Strip, and the city was awarded the 2024 Super Bowl, to take place in the Raiders’ stadium (Gordon, 2022).

The Law Changes

Even before the Raiders moved to Las Vegas, the tone around sports betting in the United States was already beginning to change. Some states ­were recognizing that they could potentially be losing out on millions of dollars by not having the opportunity to offer sports betting to their residents. Leading the way was New Jersey, as officials in that state believed the government was losing out on $600 million per year by not having sports gambling. In a state that was already struggling eco­nom­ically, that lost revenue was too much to ignore. ­After a vote demonstrated that its residents ­were in ­favor of legalized gambling, the state of New Jersey attempted to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (Robbins, 2014).

New Jersey’s efforts went to the courts, and eventually Murphy vs. The NCAA (Murphy was Philip Murphy, the governor of New Jersey) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2018, the majority of the Supreme Court justices ruled that the 1992 law was unconstitutional (Liptak & Draper, 2018), and the issue of sports betting was now up to each individual state to decide. Less than a month ­after the Supreme Court’s decision, Delaware’s governor placed the inaugural wager in his state, the first ­legal sports bet outside of Nevada in the United States (Salam, 2018). Other quickly followed, and by the end of 2022, ­there ­were around 30 states that had ­legal sports betting. However, not ­every state was on board. For example, in Texas, one of the most populated states in the country, bills that would have legalized betting did not even get out of legislative committees in 2021 (Houston, 2022). Despite the nationwide opportunity to start ­legal sports betting, it was becoming clear that it was anything but a unan­i­mous decision to adopt new laws.

Changing Betting Methods

For years, sports betting on individual games was ­limited to two primary bets:

  • Who ­will win the game?
  • ­Will Team X win or lose by a certain number of points? That point number is known as the spread. For example, the Wildcats are playing the Sharks and the Wildcats are a 7-­point favorite. If a bettor picks the Wildcats, they would need the Wildcats to win by more than 7 to win the bet. However, if the bettor picks the Sharks, then the Sharks could lose by less than 7, or win the game outright, for that bettor to win. If the Wildcats win by 7, then the game is a “push,” and every­one would get their money back.

In addition, longer bets could be made before a season begins such as:

  • Who ­will win the championship?
  • ­Will a team win more or fewer games than a predetermined number set by the sportsbook?
  • Who ­will win vari­ous individual awards, such as most valuable player?

During major events, ­there are usually some “wacky” bets that can be made beyond the usual fare. For example, the Super Bowl is famous for ­these bets, including wagering on how long the national anthem ­will last, picking the winner of the coin toss (a literal flip of a coin), and guessing the color of the Gatorade that ­will be poured over the winning coach.

Another major change to sports betting is that smartphone betting apps have allowed fans to wager on games (in states where it is ­legal) without needing to physically go to a sportsbook or casino. Fans can download one of the many betting sites onto their phones and have an entire sportsbook at their fingertips. This has also created a new way to bet, with a method called “microbetting.” ­These are wagers that are made during the game and can be made repeatedly throughout. Examples include:

  • ­Will Team X come back to win this game?
  • ­Will the kicker make or miss this field goal?
  • How many ­free throws ­will Player X make during this trip to the line?

With smartphones, ­people can make ­these bets quickly and in real time. If a bettor was at a sportsbook, they would need to walk up to a betting win­dow and hope the bet could be manually entered in time. However, with the smartphone app, ­these bets can be made with just a push of a few buttons and, more importantly to the sportsbooks, can be made tens of times throughout a game.

The Media and Sports Betting

As would be expected, many of the companies already associated with betting and gambling ­were quick to embrace newfound opportunities. Casino companies MGM and Caesar’s developed betting apps, while daily sports wagering sites DraftKings and Fan Duel expanded their portfolios to offer betting, especially “microbetting,” on their apps. While gambling websites ­were becoming successful on their own, they also began working with media partners. The logic appeared to be that, by partnering with known media brands, ­these gambling companies could add credibility to their own com­pany while also gaining exclusive access to a loyal group of followers.

Media Partnerships

For several years, Barstool Sports, a ­popular sports blog, was partially owned by Penn Entertainment, a com­pany that primarily dealt with casinos. In August 2022, as more states ­were adopting legalized gambling, Penn agreed to purchase the entirety of Barstool for $325 million (Perez, 2022). As part of its partial owner­ship, the com­pany had already started the Barstool Sportsbook, a sports betting app. Not only did Barstool employees encourage their loyal followers to use their app, but they livestreamed their ­popular writers and podcasters watching sports and discussing their bets. For Penn, this was an opportunity to launch a sports betting app with a com­pany that already had a loyal following, giving it millions of potential customers at launch. Even more appealing was the fact that more than half of Barstool’s audience is ­under 30 years old (McCarthy, 2021), a demographic that is among the most interested in sports betting.

While Barstool Sports is one of the most ­popular sports media destinations for the youn­ger generation, it still stands far ­behind ESPN in the overall sports landscape. Therefore, when Penn Entertainment had an opportunity to switch its partnership from Barstool to ESPN in 2023, it jumped at the chance. In August of that year, ESPN and Penn announced a 10-­year deal to create an online sports betting destination called ESPN Bet. Penn agreed to run the sportsbook and paid ESPN $1.5 billion for the use of the ESPN brand, access to ESPN’s on-­air personalities, and the ability to use ESPN’s promotional tools. In addition, almost one year ­after paying hundreds of millions of dollars for control of Barstool, Penn sold the website back to its ­founder, Dave Portnoy, for just $1.

While Barstool gave Penn instant credibility in the sports betting space, the com­pany should have the opportunity to reach an even bigger and more affluent audience through the ESPN partnership (Browning, 2023). As one gambling insider pointed out, Penn’s partnership with Barstool did give them access to a youn­ger generation, but that group traditionally has a lower net worth, meaning they would not be able to bet as much money (Rovell, 2023). As a result of the deal, the Barstool Sportsbook app and website would become ESPN Bet, but a partnership with a sports media empire is not a guarantee for success. Less than a month before the announcement of ESPN and Penn’s partnership, Fox Bet, the sports betting outlet run by Fox broadcasting, announced it was closing ­after failing to gain enough customers (Feuer & Sayre, 2023).

Betting on TV

When “Jimmy the Greek” was giving score predictions on the CBS NFL pregame show, he was not explic­itly discussing betting, but was instead hinting at the gambling lines. ­After sports betting became ­legal in the majority of U.S. states, it was nearly impossible to watch a game on ­television or listen to a sports podcast without seeing or hearing a gambling advertisement. During the 2021 World Series, Fox Sports openly promoted its sports betting contest “Fox Bet Super 6” with a “chance to win Papi’s money,” a reference to studio analyst David “Big Papi” Ortiz. The graphic on the screen relayed that, by downloading the app, fans had a “­free chance to win $25,000.” During the game, the betting references continued. When the Houston Astros’ José Altuve hit a home run in Game 4, announcer Joe Buck reminded fans that had they wagered $10 at the beginning of the game that Altuve would homer they would now have $45. While Buck was speaking, a graphic was shown with the Fox Bet Sportsbook logo on it (Stephen’s Baseball Archives, 2022).

In 2019, ESPN debuted ESPN Daily Wager, its first show dedicated to sports betting. The hosts discuss the games, the betting lines, and pos­si­ble bets, and then pick “winners.” Other networks have followed suit, with Fox creating Fox Bet Live and the Major League Baseball Network debuting The Bettor’s Eye. While ­these networks might be attempting to address the betting interests of their audience, ­there may also be selfish motivations as well. If fans become more interested in games due to gambling, they may watch more games on ­television. For example, a regular-­season matchup between two relatively unknown schools in college basketball might not be appointment viewing for many. However, if fans have wagered on that game, it might suddenly be a game they cannot miss. This increased viewership would be a benefit to the networks, so it should come as no surprise that outlets such as ESPN have embraced sports betting.

Conflict of Interest?

With gambling companies getting involved with sports media entities, it raises questions about pos­si­ble conflicts of interest and the effect that journalists can have on the betting lines. This concern was brought to the forefront during the 2023 NBA Draft when The Athletic basketball insider Shams Charania sent a social media message that Scoot Henderson, who was expected to be picked third, was actually “gaining momentum” as the pos­si­ble no. 2 pick in the draft. Charania, who is known for his breaking news scoops and having information before most other NBA reporters, caused the betting odds for Henderson to be chosen second to shift dramatically on the gambling website FanDuel thanks to his tweet. However, as The Washington Post ­later pointed out, ­there was “another twist” to Charania’s news: In addition to working for The Athletic, he is also a paid contributor to FanDuel (Strauss, 2023, para. 4). Essentially, FanDuel had created betting lines and a FanDuel employee had influenced them, which brought in new bets for the com­pany. The situation made many in journalism and sports betting uncomfortable, and they questioned how Charania could be employed by the two companies at the same time. Both The Athletic and FanDuel said they had no issues with the arrangement, but many pointed out that this could create a major prob­lem in the ­future should a journalist want to take advantage of their influence, and further demonstrated the blurring of the lines between sports media and gambling (Strauss, 2023).

More Excerpts From Sports