Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby is the latest high-profile personality to publicly call daily fantasy sports “gambling,” according to a report at USA Today.
What the commissioner said
The USA Today story focused on ESPN and the revelation that the network is increasingly including betting information on its broadcasts during the opening weekend of the college football season. That included “cover alerts” to let viewers know if a game was close on the spread offered by sports books.
The idea that fantasy sports would use college players’ names and performances to determine winners and payouts concerns athletic directors. Among other reasons, they’re concerned college athletes might be enticed to play the daily games — perhaps choosing themselves.
“We’ve been wrestling with all the issues around DraftKings and FanDuel,” Bowlsby said, “which I don’t think anybody can suggest isn’t gambling.”
But that’s exactly what ESPN and businesses like DraftKings and FanDuel suggest. Bowlsby noted that the Big 12’s TV contracts prohibit advertisements for gambling, other than for state-authorized lotteries, “but our television partners assert that it (fantasy sports games) isn’t gambling.”
The DFS industry offering fantasy contests based on college football and basketball is nothing new. What is new is that the industry is far more prominent than it was just a year ago, and DraftKings ads, especially, have been nearly inescapable during sports broadcasts in recent weeks.
The television partners Bowlsby mentioned have a vested interest in promoting fantasy sports. DraftKings has hundreds of millions of dollars committed to ESPN, along with a symbiotic relationship on their fantasy platforms. The Big 12’s other television partner, Fox, has a stake in DraftKings, as well as incoming ad money from the site.
The NCAA’s relationship with fantasy sports and gambling
The NCAA is not in the same position as the major professional sports leagues in North America, which have almost without exception embraced DFS. (The NFL is not tied directly to either FanDuel or DraftKings).
Unlike the NBA, MLB, NHL and Major League Soccer, you will never see a partnership between DraftKings and FanDuel and the NCAA, the organization that oversees collegiate athletics in the U.S., or its member conferences. No matter how much anyone insists that DFS is a skill game, the NCAA is going to avoid anything that even has the appearance of gambling.
From the NCAA website:
The NCAA opposes all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering, which has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the welfare of student-athletes and the intercollegiate athletics community.
An NCAA brochure also notes that collegiate athletes cannot participate in fantasy sports for money:
The NCAA is also one of the litigants in the ongoing court case in which New Jersey is trying to offer sports betting. The state lost its most recent appeal, and betting on sports remains illegal in New Jersey.
The difference between the pros and the NCAA
The pro sports leagues have a different stance, as they understand that sports betting and fantasy drive interest in their products — to the point that NBA commissioner Adam Silver has vocally called for legalized sports betting in the U.S. (Of note is that the pro sports leagues are co-litigants in the sports betting case, but Silver and the NBA want reform to come at the federal level.)
Betting also helps to drives interest in college sports, of course, but the NCAA, in trying to keep appearances up as a home to amateurism, really can’t espouse betting — and fantasy, by extension.
Of course, the NCAA is happy that its men’s college basketball tournament and March Madness generate huge amounts of interest in its product, mostly because of the millions being wagered in office pools around the country. A story from The Washington Post — “Bracket pools’ popularity illustrates NCAA’s struggle with sports gambling” — drives home that point. But even banking on the popularity of March Madness for revenue at the gate and on TV are a far cry from actively endorsing sports betting and fantasy sports.
What’s the NCAA or the Big 12 going to do about it?
The short answer? Probably not much. Is the Big 12 going to tear up its TV contracts because it thinks fantasy sports is gambling? Not likely.
In the end, comments like those from Bowlsby are more posturing than something that will result in an actual action. The NCAA doesn’t need to outwardly espouse or promote sports gambling and fantasy sports to reap the benefits of increased fan engagement and TV viewership that those activities provide.
It’s almost certain we’ll continue to see FanDuel and DraftKings promoted on college sports broadcasts, no matter what the NCAA and its conferences say publicly about it.