Sports Leagues and TV Networks Like Gambling But It Can Be a Dangerous Addiction

From a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Daniel Lee headlined “Sports Leagues and TV Networks Like the Gambling Odds”:

Princeton, Indiana

We gambled a little at the Gibson County Ambulance Service in the late 1970s. Nothing serious, a bit of quarter and dollar poker between runs. An emergency medical technician I worked with did hit it big once. He turned up after the Kentucky Derby showing off a $600 roll he’d won on a long shot. Meanwhile, a pool room and lunch cafe on the Princeton square ran illegal sportsbooks. Word was that they played some more-serious poker there, too….

Things have changed.

This Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals will see an estimated 35% increase in the number of Americans betting over last year, with 31 million Americans wagering as much as $7.6 billion, up 78%, according to the Associated Press. Some of the increase will be driven by online betting companies. Adweek magazine cites a report by EDO, an ad-metrics firm, that advertising for sports betting jumped from $32 million in 2018 to $198 million in December 2021.

If you watch sports on TV you know that ads for betting apps and websites featuring big-time sports and entertainment celebrities are ubiquitous. Betting is easy now: free first bets, quick payouts. All you need is a credit card.

It’s a growth industry. There’s an estimated pool of 45 million additional potential sports bettors. For a long time Nevada was the only option for those looking to make legal wagers on sports, but in 2018 the Supreme Court nullified a federal ban that applied elsewhere. Ten states have since legalized sports betting for residents, with more expected to follow, including California. Residents of states that haven’t legalized such gambling can’t take part.

At least some of these new online bettors will spend the rest of their lives battling the simple reality that gambling mostly means losing. “One out of two people struggling with a gambling problem contemplates suicide,” Harry Levant, who is a recovered gambling addict working with the group Stop Predatory Gambling, told the AP. “One out of five will attempt suicide. I am one of those one out of five.”

The argument for gambling has always been that it is a victimless crime. But legalized betting requires public compromises that ought not be made. States and municipalities have through the years gone all in on the lottery business. In Indiana, as in many places, the state lottery—at least nominally—funds education….

Professional sports leagues seem eager to benefit from attention generated by the online betting boom, as can be seen by the huge advertisements displayed around America’s basketball courts, football fields and baseball stadiums. It’s an odd development, since nearly every sport has had gambling scandals. Baseball is still so tender on the subject (remember the Chicago Black Sox, so christened for throwing the 1919 World Series at the behest of gamblers) that one of the sport’s best players, Pete Rose, will likely never reach the Hall of Fame because he bet on his own team to win.

Even the Golf Channel, an NBC property, has taken to quoting odds for individual players in PGA events during play, and my impression as a longtime viewer is that there is more chatter about gambling from the announcers than there used to be….

There seems to be a reason for this. The Golf Today set is branded by PointsBet, a “fully licensed and legal sportsbook” that in 2020 entered into a $500 million relationship with NBC. The Australian betting firm provides “odds, props, and trends across NBC sports’ linear and digital platforms.” According to, the terms of the partnership give NBC a 4.9% ownership stake in PointsBet. The network receives fees for referring customers. So NBC profits from the betting business it generates with its sports coverage, which in turn benefits from attention driven by the easy betting NBC encourages. Losses incurred by viewers sucked into this vortex don’t seem to be a concern.

Not everyone who gambles develops an addiction, although experts say it feeds the same escalating pleasure cycle of risk and reward as other addictions….

Not everyone has that kind of luck. My EMT friend who won big on the Kentucky Derby ended up losing big. We found him in the finished basement of the empty house he had shared with his estranged family, a suicide. He had other problems, but it’s likely the gambling both whetted and rewarded his appetite for risky behavior. He had three daughters. They would be in their 40s now.

Victimless, you say? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Daniel Lee is an Indianapolis writer.


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