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Legalized sports betting is changing how fans, athletes experience the game

From left to right: Paul Gullifor, Andrew Billings and Cory Barker discuss the impacts of sports gambling during a panel at Bradley University on March 21
Mason Klemm
From left to right: Paul Gullifor, Andrew Billings and Cory Barker discuss the impacts of sports gambling during a panel at Bradley University on March 21

Sports betting has reached a crossroads.

In March, Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani was caught in a gambling scandal involving his interpreter and a Toronto Raptors player is being investigated by the NBA for betting irregularities, all while the NBA integrated live betting into its broadcasts. In the NFL the past couple years, Titans wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for an entire season for betting on NFL games and Lions wide receiver Jameson Williams was suspended four games for non-NFL betting.

The emergence of sports gambling, which is now legal in 38 states and Washington, DC, has led to lots of discussion and discourse around the subject and its potential negative ramifications. Bradley University hosted a panel during their annual Steiner Symposium on March 21 discussing these new developments, featuring Bradley professors Paul Gullifor and Cory Barker and the most-published sports media scholar in the world, Andrew Billings.

Billings, the director of the sports communication program at the University of Alabama, has been studying sports gambling since the 1990s and says that among other things, betting on sports can lead to addiction among fans.

“I am fine if you legalize sports gambling. I am also cognizant that in West Virginia, when they legalized it, gamblers' anonymous attendance went up 300 percent,” Billings said. “We can’t hide from that either.”

Gullifor echoed Billings’ point, saying that despite TV and radio networks throwing out an addiction hotline number following a lengthy discussion about the odds, the problem still persists.

“I can’t imagine this is especially good for society,” Gullifor said. “There’s a lot of gambling addiction counselors out there that are probably making pretty good money right now.”

There’s also an impact on how fans watch the games, Billings says. Now, instead of the result, they care more about whether a player will reach a certain number on the stat sheet or if a team will win a game by a certain number of points. This changes the long-standing idea that fans only watch sports to see who wins, with things like fantasy sports adding even more fuel to the fire.

“I’m a Packer fan, and if I’m playing fantasy I might be watching the Cardinals play the Chargers. I don’t care who wins, I just care who scores,” Billings said. “That’s different.”

The numerous betting apps and websites play a role in the current outlook too, as every major U.S. professional sports league has a betting sponsor yet suspends its players when they use those sponsors. Even networks are getting involved, as ESPN unveiled their new gambling site ESPN BET late last year.

The worldwide leader in sports having a gambling platform can spell trouble, especially when considering they have to report on the same issues they are proliferating. Adam Schefter, an ESPN reporter who covers the NFL, has been a part of the network’s commercials promoting their new betting site, yet was also at the forefront of covering the Ohtani scandal.

Barker says this poses some problems.

“We’re treating gambling really seriously journalistically, we’re punishing players over here, but then we’re also very willing to promote it as much as possible to maximize our profit,” Barker said. “Which is not something that I think is particularly good, to be basic about it.”

Barker also mentioned how gambling affects the athletes heavily as well, as recent examples have shown. Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton said he feels like a “prop” during an interview on March 19 and Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said his family has been threatened by sports bettors through his personal phone number.

Barker says these cases will only increase as betting does, as the transaction-oriented minds of fans can lead to them exhibiting some extreme behavior online.

“I think it does give fans a sense of entitlement over the experience,” Barker said. “They’re doing all of these things related to sports where they feel more in control, they feel more knowledgeable, and then we have all these platforms to then express that theoretical or alleged knowledge and control in the direction of team accounts, players, coaches, their families, that sort of thing.”

Billings questioned why gambling and fantasy sports are considered separate, as both involve feats of luck and a significant amount of risk. If it wasn’t for a 2006 law that carved out an exception for fantasy sports in Internet gambling, fantasy might be seen in the same controversial light that gambling is right now.

“They worked so hard to say, ‘this is a game of skill, not luck’... and they were right,” Billings said. “And then all of a sudden the floodgates opened, and the minute that gambling could be legal in those states, the mantra very quickly changed to, ‘by the way, we are gambling, and by the way our app’s already loaded on your phone [so] you might as well use us.”

Yet, as Billings explains, fantasy apps like Sleeper are still allowed to operate in states that don’t have legalized gambling, even though you can play similar games and win similar prizes.

“Can you bet on the Pacer game? No. Can you bet on Tyrese Haliburton’s assists? Yes,” Billings said. “That’s how weird the world is that we’re living in right now.”

Each panelist also agreed that betting regulations are not where they need to be, and that raises the potential for an increase in underage gamblers as well as corruption among leagues.

“Think about the people involved who could affect the outcome of a game or a particular prop bet,” Gullifor said. “I mean you got referees, you got the timer, the athletic department’s medical team and who’s injured and who’s not. There’s just so many places where there is temptation to alter an outcome in order to win something that I think is really hard to monitor.”

The group also discussed the emergence of sports on streaming services. With an NFL playoff game being streamed on Peacock for the first time last season and Amazon inking a $100 million deal with the league to broadcast a game on Black Friday, sports streaming is becoming the norm, and the panelists each wondered how far the platforms will take it.

As Billings explained, sports are one of the last things consumers are willing to watch commercials for, as 96% of sports fans watch ads during the game. That number jumps to 99% during the Super Bowl, which owns 19 of the 20 most-watched broadcasts of all-time in the U.S.

“That’s why you see Amazon or Peacock getting NFL content, because people will have to have it,” Billings said. “If you’ve got ads to put on there you gotta have a different model. You can’t just have asynchronous, you’ve gotta have live sports, and so you’re gonna see more of that, even for Netflix.”

With all these innovations becoming more prominent and changing the sports landscape, the future of the industry is uncertain, although the panelists agree that things are only starting to ramp up. Barker mentioned betting eventually being embedded into broadcasts, and Billings said the race to zero latency internet will be spearheaded by gambling so fans can bet on games in real time.

One thing is certain: sports are not like they once were, when gambling was considered the enemy of the leagues. Now, those same leagues are embracing it.

“If you want people to watch, that’s one thing, but if you want them completely immersed and engaged in the show, let them gamble on it,” Gullifor said. “Now, they’re really gonna watch.”

Mason Klemm is a reporting intern for WCBU. He is studying sports communication at Bradley University and is expected to graduate in May 2024.