You don’t have to watch football on television too long this season to see the ads. Go online, select your fantasy team made up of real-life players and win millions. Easy, right?
Well … anyone with experience around hucksters could see through the sales pitch in a second. As people often pointed out to me when I lived in Las Vegas, they didn’t build those hotels and casinos off winners. And judging by how organized sports is jumping aboard the fantasy gravy train, there is a lot of money to be made out there from losers.
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We are, as Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star put it, witnessing changes that “are shifting the ground beneath the metaphorical feet of sports fans and leagues.”
He also wrote, “This — today, right now — is a major turning point in the complicated history of gambling in our country, and the way the situation shakes out will forever impact the way sports are consumed.”
And it’s all happening in your Living Room.
As I wrote in a column last year, the danger of sports gambling is that the fundamental nature of the fan experience will change. Imagine yourself in an arena filled with people just as interested in the performance of the player on their fantasy team, or on covering a spread, as in the home team’s performance.
Gambling in this country has followed a predictable and self-propelled course. First, gambling interests convinced states to legalize lotteries, and then casinos. This, together with ad campaigns orchestrated, in many cases, by governments, led to a sharp increase in gambling nationwide, which gradually eroded moral objections. Gambling on sporting events, still illegal under federal law, grew also.
Now, proponents of sports gambling argue that so many people are doing it anyway, you can’t stand against the tide.
Why leave this sordid industry we created to the criminals when we could sanction it and make sure it doesn’t affect the outcome of games? Or, in other words, the fire we built has gotten so big it’s useless to try to keep it from spreading. The best we can do is to contain it.
Gambling proponents often speak in condescending terms about harmless fun or allowing adults to make their own choices. They take it as gospel that legalizing sports gambling would remove the potential of fixed games, and they point to Europe as an example of how it should work.
Which may be because they tend not to speak many European languages. I speak Swedish, and an unfolding scandal there involving soccer and basketball games is worth watching. As reported by several Swedish outlets, a government crime prevention bureau issued a report Wednesday calling into question the results of 40 games, most involving lower division soccer leagues and the highest division of basketball.
The scandal is believed to have involved gambling interests and goaltenders, defensemen and referees. The reluctance of players to come forward as witnesses suggests gang involvement. Investigator Erik Nilsson told Aftonbladet there is evidence of players being threatened or beaten up for failing to perform as directed or for trying to back out.
Karl-Erik Nilsson, chairman of the nation’s soccer association, lamented to the website hd.se, “Matchfixing is the biggest threat to football's integrity and credibility. It is an attack against our souls . We do not want anyone going to matches to feel doubt.”
It’s this integrity and credibility that have kept U.S. sports leagues from embracing gambling, until now.
Despite urging Congress to outlaw wagering on games in 1992, the leagues now have embraced fantasy sports. Some have even invested in them, taking advantage of a loophole that makes that kind of wagering legal because participants pick players based on their performance in past games, not on chance.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has gone a step further, arguing in a New York Times op-ed that sports gambling should be legalized, period.
All this has led Congressman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., to wonder, as reported by the New York Daily News, whether money trumps morality in professional sports.
It’s a great question — one you ought to ask yourself every time one of those fantasy league commercials promises you tons of money.