There’s no such thing as a smart sports bet, but the first one I ever made was, by any measure, particularly stupid. It was late January 2022, and mobile-gaming apps had become legal in New York only a few weeks earlier. I had successfully ignored all of them until I saw Joe Burrow, the quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, walk into Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City for the AFC Championship game wearing a sherpa coat, black turtleneck, huge gold chain, and rimless sunglasses. That man is not losing a football game today, I thought to myself.
When I saw Burrow’s outfit, I knew what to do immediately, even though I’d never really contemplated betting on sports before. Signing up for a new DraftKings account got me a $100 free bet, and I put it on the Bengals moneyline. Advertisements for gaming apps had blanketed virtually every surface of the city as soon as their use had become legal. Much of the same is true in the dozens of other states that have legalized mobile sports betting, and gambling is even inescapable in the places where you can’t do it: Frank discussion of betting odds and point spreads has become a marquee feature of sports media, where the topic had long been forbidden.
The sports-betting boom shows few signs of slowing. Yesterday afternoon, ESPN made an announcement that was both unprecedented and expected. This fall, in a 10-year, $2 billion deal with the gaming company Penn Entertainment, the most powerful sports-media company in the United States by a wide margin will launch its own digital sportsbook, ESPN Bet. The partnership, which will lead ESPN and its talent to promote the sportsbook on its television networks, website, and smartphone apps, cements a transformation that would have seemed all but impossible even five years ago. Betting, once completely excluded from mainstream sports, is now inextricable from nearly every level of the business. Gaming companies sponsor television coverage, put their names on arenas, operate sportsbooks in stadiums, and partner with teams. The game is over. Betting won.
For much of the modern history of professional sports, even the vaguest acknowledgments that some viewers might be interested in games for reasons other than a pure-hearted love were largely verboten. For decades, the NFL forbade the networks airing its games from even discussing point spreads. The convention slowly began to erode as fantasy sports became popular in the 2000s, but the real turning point came in 2018, when a Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to legalize sports gambling. Five years and one ferocious gaming-industry lobbying push later, 36 states and Washington, D.C., have joined Nevada in doing exactly that. Most disruptive of all have been those that now allow bets to be placed in mobile apps, moving the sportsbook into America’s pockets.
When done with even a modicum of skill, bookmaking is an extremely profitable venture; people are, by and large, very bad at gambling. Suddenly, millions of new bettors who might have never sought out casinos can make impromptu bets on their phone while at a sports bar or on their couch, including wagers on moment-to-moment minutiae in live games, such as the outcome of the next play or at-bat. Companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel, which already had robust apps and large pools of existing users playing fantasy sports, were the first to capitalize on the gaming gold rush, along with well-known casino operators such as Caesars and MGM. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly one in five Americans had gambled on sports in the previous year—a huge proportion of the population, considering that some of the country’s most populous states, including California and Texas, have so far resisted legalization.
Betting has become inescapable for even casual fans with no interest in it—app commercials are ubiquitous during game broadcasts, gaming jargon is a standard part of the sportscaster lexicon, and players and coaches now regularly get in very high-profile trouble for their own gambling exploits. Some less traditional sports-media outlets were quick to partner with gaming companies once legalization began, funneling readers toward existing services or opening their own. Now even powerful broadcast networks have fewer incentives than ever to stick to their hard-line stance on the topic. They can argue that viewer demands have changed, and that failing to get into the betting business would actually be a disservice to their audience. ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said as much about betting coverage and partnerships in an interview with The Athletic last year: “It’s something that our fans are expecting from us,” he said. “So it’s not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s pretty much at this point a must-have.”
Regardless of demand, all that gaming cash has caught broadcasters at an especially weak moment. Although ESPN in particular is still enormously profitable—to the tune of billions of dollars a year—the decline of cable has made continued growth look difficult, and growth is what shareholders want. No matter how creatively you do the math, streaming subscriptions are unlikely to make up the difference. Media executives go where the money is, and right now, the biggest piles of new money are available to those who encourage viewers to gamble. If even ESPN can’t hold out, and apparently has no desire to try, then no one can.
Those piles of money are not guaranteed to save the business, or even be around for very long. The lavish, years-long marketing and promotional campaigns that have filled sports media’s pockets are designed to onboard new bettors in new markets en masse, and their huge expense means that many of the mobile betting apps are not yet profitable. Pressure on sportsbooks to make money has begun to increase, and it’s already killed Fox Bet, the closest existing analog to what ESPN plans to launch this fall.
But in entering this market, ESPN has more advantages than any of its putative competitors—and more conflicts of interest. ESPN owns some or all of the broadcast rights to nearly every major sport in America, which means that it has enormous influence over how the entire business is conducted. It’s also the country’s biggest source of sports news, and how ESPN covers the industry already affects how unaffiliated sportsbooks set odds and how regular people make bets. Now ESPN will have its thumb on all three scales: influencing the leagues, informing the public, and setting the betting lines. (ESPN says that it will maintain a strict demarcation between its journalists and its betting operation.)
If you’re one of the (many, many) fans who find it irritating to now get much of your sports news filtered through the lens of what it means for bettors, the situation can only get worse as ESPN gets more centrally involved in gaming. Or maybe it’ll just turn you into a gambler against your better judgment, precisely as intended.