Opinion: Legal Sports Betting Isn’t Going To Fundamentally Change US Sports

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Legal sports betting

The era of legal sports betting in the US has led to a tidal wave of breaking news, and an endless supply of speculation and hot takes.

Anyone trying to keep pace with the news since the Supreme Court ruled the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) unconstitutional likely is expecting a paradigm shift in the way the country consumes sports.

The latest (but not only) example comes from Ted Leonsis and the Arena Football League. According to a recent Press of Atlantic City column, the AFL and Leonsis, the owner of multiple sports franchises including two AFL teams, and the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals, have a renewed interest in bringing a team to Atlantic City.

As the Press of AC noted, one of the big draws for them is sports betting:

“(Legalized sports betting) is a new frontier for professional sports, and teams who don’t seize on this opportunity will be left behind,” Leonsis wrote on his blog in May. “It’s not hard to imagine in the near future fans on their devices analyzing data, placing bets and communicating with each other in real time during games. Legalized sports betting will only bring fans closer to the game, ramping up the action in each minute and creating more intensity.”

Everyone, Leonsis included, needs to calm down and take a deep breath. Legal sports betting is a big deal. It’s not, however, a cornucopia that will satiate the bellies of gaming operators, states and sports leagues. It’s more of an appetizer, or even an amuse bouche.

The real impact of sports betting for leagues

I ascribe to the theory that sports betting has an additive effect on existing fandom. It doesn’t create new fans. Fans of a particular sport bet on games that they have some interest in.

The way sports betting is being talked up, you’d think the only reason people flood the streets en masse to watch World Cup games is because they have money on them.

Truth is, most of them don’t, and the vast majority of the people who have bet on the game would be out there regardless because they’re into football (soccer). The bet is a sweetener, or a reason for an England fan to have a rooting interest in a game between Colombia and Japan.

This extends to people betting on random NFL games. The betting isn’t the reason for their passion — it’s an outlet for their passion and a way to create a rooting interest during meaningless games.

Fringe sports that mesh well with betting might also see an engagement uptick. But the idea that you would locate a team somewhere because it has legalized sports betting sounds like nothing more than wishful thinking or flat desperation from a struggling league, rather than a well-thought growth strategy.

For this to be true, there must be a non-trivial sleeper demographic that would go to AFL games, watch them on TV, and buy AFL merchandise, but only if they could bet on games.

Will AFL lines even be available?

All of the above is predicated on the idea that enough interest exists in AFL games for a sportsbook to offer lines and wagers on these games, and not impose restrictive betting caps.

Also, don’t lose sight of the fact that the average AFL salary is in the $40,000-$50,000 range. That raises serious integrity issues, and makes it even less likely a book will offer lines on AFL games.

A fixer approaching the starting quarterback of an NFL team at a bar and offering $10,000 to throw a game would be laughed out of the place. That same offer to the starting quarterback of an AFL team could be far more enticing.

Exactly how big is the US sports betting opportunity?

So how do these ideas about sports betting gain traction?

It’s the numbers tossed around: one in five people have bet on sports in the past year or 118 million Americans gambled on sports in some manner in 2008.

People see those and get excited. But those numbers are a bit misleading.

For most of these people, that wager was likely a March Madness office pool or Super Bowl bet. Perhaps they were in Las Vegas and placed a bet on their hometown team.

Most of these people aren’t regular sports bettors. They’re not looking for advantageous lines in sports they don’t really follow. They’re not betting full slates on NFL Sundays and waiting for the final injury updates before they bet the late game.

Legalized sports betting isn’t going to create too many people of this ilk.

And will some people bet on fringe sports and have a passing interest in a league/team/game they otherwise wouldn’t follow? I suppose?

Heard it all before

Just as the predictions of empty casinos and zombie children walking around playing slots on their phone predicted by the anti-online gambling crowd never came to pass, those about the impact of legal sports betting is going to be full of sound and fury signifying … very little.

For the vast majority of the population, nothing is going to change. People who want to will be able to bet on sports more freely, and that’s about it.

Whether it’s casinos, or online gambling, or lottery, or sports betting, it all circles back to the absurd assumption that anyone given the opportunity to gamble will first start to gamble and then continue to gamble more often.

There are people selling the idea that sports fans will be more enamored with betting than watching sports, and fringe sports will become (more) popular because people can bet on them.

That’s way overstated. The impact of legal sports betting (as we’ve seen in New Jersey and Delaware, where nothing has fundamentally changed yet) will be minimal for sports big and small.