Sports, professional in particular, are likely the most popular form of entertainment in the world today. Sure, everybody likes movies, music, and television but people are incredibly passionate about sports; they live and die by results of their favorite team’s games. Professional sports today are more popular than they have ever been. That being said, two questions dominate the wide world for sports: should athletes really make as much money as they do, and are these sports safe. But another question lingers in the background: should we be able to gamble on these sports?
Gambling is not as socially stigmatized as it once was. Lottery jackpots reach such astronomical heights because people purchase lottery tickets. More and more states are legalizing casinos (my home state, Ohio, did so in 2009, with the first opening in Cleveland last summer). These casinos are primarily home to slot machines, craps tables, roulette tables, and the various card tables. The most popular of these card games, poker, has seen its popularity skyrocket in the past decade, helped in some regard by the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale.
All these forms of gambling differ drastically from sports betting due to the central characteristics of the two forms of gambling. Casino gambling, along with the lottery, is based nearly entirely on luck. Sure, there is strategy to poker, but strategy can only take a pair of twos so far. Sports gambling, however, is betting money on the physical actions of other living beings. Betting on blackjack is betting on whether or not one will get the right cards. Betting on baseball is betting on whether or not Justin Masterson is going to have control over his fastball, on how tightly the umpire is going to call the strike zone, and if Miguel Cabrera is going to break out of his slump on that given day.
The primary controversy surrounding sports betting is apparent from the previous paragraph. It is betting on the actions and choices of other people. The Tim Donaghy scandal, in which Donaghy, an NBA referee, gambled on games he was officiating, left a huge pockmark on the reputation of the NBA. Pete Rose, the all-time MLB hit leader, is banned for life from baseball because he gambled on MLB games while he was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1990s. FIFA is attempting to deal with the fallout of a recent revelation that hundreds of soccer matches around the world—including a few World Cup qualifiers—were fixed by a vast gambling syndicate run by Dan Tan out of Singapore. The fear is that if the United States legalizes gambling nationwide, or state-by-state, these scandals will only increase. The reality, however, is that a large portion of Americans are already betting on sports.
Almost every sports fan at some point or another has gambled on sports, whether they know it or not. The past three weeks are the central example of this trend: March Madness. Obsessively filling out brackets and watching them crumble in the first weekend of the NCAA Division One Men’s Basketball Championship is as much of an American tradition as the Fourth of July. I would hazard a guess that most of these brackets were entered into some pool which paid monetary prizes to the winners. That is gambling.
The second and third week of August sees a frenzy of football activity, relatively speaking. These weeks, the third and fourth weeks of the NFL preseason, are when the majority of fantasy football drafts occur. Adweek, an advertising trade publication, estimates that twenty-seven million Americans participated in fantasy football leagues in 2011. These Americans (yes, I am one of them) spend money on draft preparation and league entry fees in the hope that their team will be the last one standing, winning them a predetermined sum. This is gambling.
There is one sport on which gambling is legal: horse racing. While horse racing is dying a slow death overall, its marquee events remain as strong as ever and provide a good example of the curious nature of sports gambling. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes—collectively known as the Triple Crown—turn all eyes in America to horse racing in the months of May and June. NBC Sports, which owns the television rights to the three races, does not even try to hide the gambling associated with the races; it even shows each horse’s odds on handy little info-graphics.
Betting on sports—which I, of course, have never done—is very fun and adds plenty of excitement to sports fandom. Who cares about a Bobcats-Spurs game in the middle of February? I’ll tell you who, the person who took the Bobcats +2000. Sure, it can become addicting but so can drinking and smoking; everything in moderation. Why should those who live in Nevada or who use off-shore websites get to have all the fun? New Jersey governor Chris Christie is pushing for his state to legalize sports gambling. If it does, there is speculation that other states will follow suit. I bet you they do.