How gambling is changing the culture of sports | WORLD
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All bets are on

TRENDING | The growth of sports gambling has led to obsessed fans, threatened players, and suspicions of cheating

Illustration by Eva Vázquez

All bets are on
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THE YEAR 2023 was a winning year for the sports gambling industry. Five more states—Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Ohio—legalized sports gambling, which helped produce a record $10.92 ­billion in overall revenue for the industry, a 44.5 percent increase over 2022.

But the rapid growth of sports betting hasn’t gone so well for J.B. Bickerstaff. The head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers tells of sports gamblers obtaining his telephone number and sending “crazy messages” about knowing where he lives and about his children. “I think that we really have to be careful with how close we let it get to the game,” Bickerstaff said of gambling, adding that concern about staff and player security “does carry a weight.”

Bickerstaff isn’t alone. The emergence of legal sports gambling is changing the culture of sports in America, with prominent athletes and coaches fielding abuse and even threats from fans who now have more than a rooting interest in the outcome of games. Meanwhile, suspicions have grown that gambling is undermining the basic integrity of sports.

The U.S. Supreme Court ushered in this new era in 2018, when it struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act—a federal law that banned most sports betting in America. The floodgates opened, as state after state legalized sports gambling, aiming to cash in on tax revenue from bets. By 2024, 38 states had approved sports betting, with more almost certainly to follow.

With money on the line, fans’ emotions run higher than the mere school or team spirit of the old days, and athletes become targets for extreme vitriol. NCAA President Charlie Baker warned about the problem in a March letter to campus leaders. “Recent data,” he wrote, “indicates that approximately one in three high-profile athletes receive abusive messages from someone with a betting interest.” (An NCAA survey last year found 67 percent of college students bet on sports and 35 percent have placed bets with student bookies.)

Players can become targets of abuse whether they play well or poorly. For example, the mother of former Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud told Sports Illustrated her son received death threats after a close loss to Michigan last year. But winning doesn’t shield players, either. Purdue Boilermakers guard Carson Barrett says his phone blew up after he made a three-point shot late in a 2023 NCAA basketball tournament victory. One message said, “Kill yourself.” (Social media abuse in general is a problem for athletes, including sexualized messages to females. In April, Louisiana State women’s basketball star Angel Reese tearfully told reporters that, because of such abuse, she hasn’t been happy since her team’s 2023 NCAA title victory.)

LSU’s Angel Reese speaks to reporters at a postgame press conference in March.

LSU’s Angel Reese speaks to reporters at a postgame press conference in March. Rebecca Warren/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

For gamblers, wins and losses aren’t the only concern. They also care deeply about the “spread”—the predicted margin of victory for the favored team. The result is that athletes who simply play to the best of their ability can arouse fan anger if they encroach on the spread. In March 2023, Texas Christian University basketball star Damion Baugh made a 3-point shot at the buzzer against Gonzaga that changed the final score from 84-78 to 84-81. The shot didn’t change the outcome of the game, a Gonzaga victory. But since Gonzaga had been favored by 4 points, Baugh’s shot meant his opponent’s victory didn’t cover the spread. Angry bettors sent Baugh harassing messages.

It’s the same in the NBA. “There’s no doubt about it, that it’s crossed the line,” Cavaliers coach Bickerstaff said. “The amount of times where I’m standing up there, and we may have a 10-point lead, and the spread is 11, and people are yelling at me to leave the guys in so that we can cover the spread—it’s ridiculous.”

That kind of pressure, as well as all the money at stake, leads to speculation that some athletes and referees may be cheating. On March 8, when Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert fouled out of a game, he gestured toward the referee who called the final foul, rubbing his thumbs on his forefingers to signify “money.” Gobert later said his gesture, while immature, “was the truth.” The NBA—which has lucrative deals with betting companies—quickly responded to the suggestion that the ref was on the take by slapping Gobert with a $100,000 fine, the largest allowed under the league’s collective bargaining agreement with players.

Athletes who simply play to the best of their ability can arouse fan anger if they encroach on the spread.

An even more serious situation erupted in April, when the NBA banned Toronto Raptors player Jontay Porter for life. The league says Porter told a bettor about his health status—and then took himself out of a March 20 game after playing only three minutes (claiming sickness). The league also says Porter himself bet on 13 NBA games in which he didn’t participate.

In the NFL, such problems have mushroomed. Between 1963 and 2018, the NFL suspended only three players for gambling violations. Since 2019, the league has already suspended 12.

About the only group for which the new sports culture is an unalloyed plus is the sports betting companies. FanDuel is the industry leader, with revenue of $1.4 billion in the last quarter of 2023, up 26 percent from 2022. The company pro­jects it will notch $16 billion in annual revenue by 2030.

Such stratospheric growth seems to ratify the branding strategy used by Flutter Entertainment, the Irish company that owns FanDuel. Its tagline? “Changing the game.”

Timothy Lamer

Tim is executive editor of WORLD Commentary. He previously worked for the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.


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