Why this matters
Following a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal law banning states from legalizing sports gambling, above-board betting in America is booming and expected to grow into a $40 billion business over the next decade. What will that mean for fans? Answers can be found in Australia, the United Kingdom, and other countries where sports betting has been legal for years.
The Supreme Court’s May 2018 ruling to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act didn’t itself legalize sports gambling in the United States. Instead, it functioned like a starting gun, setting off a lucrative race between businesses trying to get a foothold in an emerging market, state governments looking for associated tax revenue, and individual bettors who’d been waiting for decades for a legal way to bet on sports.
Three years later, the court’s ruling – which invalidated the federal law that banned states from legalizing sports betting themselves – has given rise to a sprawling, regulated industry. Sports betting in some form is legal in 22 states and the District of Columbia and is soon to be legal in another nine. The market has grown rapidly, undeterred by the pandemic and the accompanying pause in sports that lasted for much of 2020. That year, American bettors legally wagered more than $21 billion on sports, an all-time high. Investment banking giant Goldman Sachs believes above-board sports betting in America will be a $40 billion business by 2033.
As that business grows, it’s worth asking: In what ways will the rise of sports betting alter the American sports landscape? And how will it change the fan experience, both for those who are interested in gambling and those who aren’t? For answers, the best place to look is abroad, in countries that have had legal sports betting for years.
“There will occasionally be the things that the U.S. will do specifically,” says Sam Eaton, who used to manage Australian sports betting operations for British sports betting media company OddsChecker and now runs the company’s marketing in the United Kingdom. “But I think a lot of it will be copies.”
The U.K. has had sports wagering for approximately as long as it has had sports. The practice has been widespread and legal since 1961, after the country’s Betting and Gaming Act legalized betting houses outside of racetracks (where they were already allowed, albeit with restrictions). Australia has similarly had a gambling market for more or less its whole history as a nation, permitting bets at tracks since 1810 and elsewhere since 1980. A few other countries also have beaten the United States to legalization, but the emerging American market likely will take its cues from the British and Australian ways of conducting sports betting across three key areas: in stadiums, on televisions, and through smartphones.
‘We’re just very used to it over here now’
Gambling companies’ presence will be evident in the venues where games are played. At European soccer matches, betting firms’ logos regularly adorn pitch-side advertising boards. That signage will be common across a range of American sports, especially as leagues and teams deepen their partnerships with specific companies. The National Hockey League already has several gambling partners. So do Major League Baseball and numerous clubs. The story is the same in the National Basketball Association and, of course, in the National Football League, which has “tri-exclusive” deals with FanDuel, DraftKings, and Caesars Entertainment.
That signage is likely, at some point, to extend to on-field uniforms themselves. In the spring of 2021, eight teams in the English Premier League – out of 20 total – had a gambling sponsorship reflected on their playing shirts. Those sorts of overt gambling advertisements have become the subject of some controversy, and a committee in the British House of Lords has recommended a ban on teams putting gambling sponsorships on their uniforms.
It’s not difficult to imagine an eventual American culture war over the same thing – or to imagine a broader push-and-pull as gambling operators try to hawk their services without triggering the sort of public backlash that accompanied a FanDuel-DraftKings advertising war in 2015.
“A lot of the gambling adverts now are about how they’re stopping problem gambling,” Eaton says. “Obviously it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, because they wouldn’t do that advert if they weren’t trying to get people to gamble, but also trying to stop problem gambling. You look at the kind of advertising boards around football. They’re all gambling. [We’re] just very used to it over here now.”
It won’t just be signage and jerseys. Taking after the racetrack betting model that’s popular in Britain and Australia, some teams will put sportsbooks inside their buildings. The first in the United States is already here. Gaming operator William Hill opened one at Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena, home of the NBA’s Wizards and NHL’s Capitals, in May – “knocking down the final wall between gambling and U.S. pro sports,” as The Washington Post put it.
Of course, stadiums are where only a small fraction of sports fans watch games. And the sports betting industry will reach far more people on television than in person. The past few years have seen a trickle of gambling integrations into game broadcasts – a point spread flashing across the ticker at the bottom of the screen on ESPN, or a Golf Channel broadcast showing a player’s odds to win a tournament in the middle of their round. Occasionally, networks have aired gambling-centric alternate broadcasts where announcers exclusively talk about betting; for the most part, however, announcers have been expected to discuss gambling fluently but unobtrusively.
That figures to change. “I think it just gets introduced a little bit more and more every year,” says Teddy Greenstein, the senior editor at PointsBet, an online sportsbook that has partnered with NBC Sports and Golf Channel for gambling-oriented broadcasts of PGA Tour events and Chicago Bulls games. “You certainly have your probably older, more traditional viewers who don't really want to hear about it, but, you know, given that sports betting is the domain especially of people in their twenties and thirties, I think it's going to become more and more second nature for people to see it during a broadcast – and for them to be opening up the PointsBet app as they're watching a sporting event on TV.”
Indeed, smartphones are where most of the actual gambling is likely to happen. Sports betting in the United Kingdom has shifted increasingly in that direction, Eaton says, as brick-and-mortar gambling shops have faded. In America, mobile betting was already underway when the Supreme Court struck down PASPA in 2018; today, sports betting companies have polished mobile apps that allow them to reach bettors wherever they are. Many of those apps are geared toward live betting during games, something that’s not legal in Australia.
The gambling firms have also been in a rush to create their own content, hiring people like Greenstein, who had a long career as a Chicago Tribune sportswriter. The ultimate goal? Encourage more customers to place wagers on games, a shift in mission and incentives that could alter the overall tenor of sports journalism and coverage over time. In Britain, betting operators have been cultivating media ties for years, as a handful of the country’s biggest media firms, including Sky and Fox, have built out their own gambling apparatuses.
“What’s cool about this job is I feel like I can actually help the bottom line more so [than] in a previous job, like at the Tribune,” Greenstein says. “If I wrote a really good, interesting story, cool. Maybe I’ll get 30 or 40,000 clicks, but what is that gonna mean? You know, it’s not really gonna mean any more advertising revenue. It’s just going to make me look good and my boss look good, but here I feel like we can genuinely impact the bottom line.”
Place your bets
The U.S. betting market is also likely to resemble the U.K. market in the types of bets on offer. For years, Eaton says, British bookmakers have offered a broadening array of personalized bets, where casual gamblers can design wagers for themselves. For an American example, imagine picking a backup running back for a particular team in a particular game and betting that he’ll have more than 31 rushing yards, even if that exact bet isn’t listed for public consumption.
“These same-game parlays, how can we make it almost more unique to the customer?” Eaton says, describing sportsbooks’ mindset. “So the customer is always getting exactly what they want, rather than saying, ‘You can bet on the spread.’ Actually, you can bet on exactly what you want. We’ll give you exactly what you want.”
For the bookmakers on both sides of the ocean, personalized betting represents an additional profit opportunity. “When you do that, margins increase because naturally customers get greedy and want to wait and go play, add more things to it,” Eaton says. “So I think that’s one thing that’s definitely copied.”
When Greenstein first started exploring PointsBet’s app around the time he left his newspaper job for the betting world, he had a realization: “I was like, ‘Holy shit,’ he says. “‘Every game’s like the Super Bowl now.’” No longer were sports bettors confined to wagering on point spreads, an over/under on total points, and a “moneyline” to pick the winner of a particular contest. Instead, there were dozens – or hundreds – of bespoke betting options.
Greenstein sees the array of betting options as being tailored not only “for some hardcore bettors who are during their homework” but also for “people who just want to have a good time watching the game.” The day we spoke, PointsBet had 298 wager options for a single NBA game.
As the business of sports gambling expands over the next decade, its influence across American sports will become deeper and more pronounced. Negative consequences, like a rise in problem gambling or a major point-shaving or game-fixing scandal, will emerge. At some point, that might prompt pushback from lawmakers and the public alike, as in the case of British soccer shirts adorned with gambling ads.
“It’ll follow a very similar model to the U.K., until they kind of flick switches, [saying], ‘Actually we need to be a bit more gamble-aware, a bit more gambling-sensitive,’” Eaton says. “And then it’ll probably follow the same thing as the U.K. as well, just five, 10 years behind, where it’ll go, ‘Actually, we need to stop problem gambling and be aware of this.’”
Still, there’s little question betting will remain a significant part of the sports landscape. There’s no putting a legal, multibillion-dollar industry back into a regulatory bottle, and American lawmakers are likely to settle on the same conclusion their British and Australian counterparts did long ago: People are going to bet on sports, so it’s better for both society and business if they do it in the open.
“We’re not curing cancer,” Greenstein says. “There's no question about it, but it’s so much better to bet with PointsBet than your bookie. I mean, first of all, there’s a societal benefit. We’re paying taxes. There’s that, and then nobody can bet what they don’t have. So we're not offering lines of credit. You have to fund your account first. So there are no legs being broken and no rings being hocked, hopefully. So if people are going to bet on sports anyway, you know, do it with us. It’s a much healthier way to do it.”
Greenstein believes the long-term trajectory of the American sports gambling debate might mirror that of marijuana. “Probably 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, you had huge segments who were saying, ‘Just say no. All drugs are bad.’ And then, you know, people come around and they say, well, wait a second, people are gonna do this anyway. And probably 95 percent can do it in a healthy way and not get addicted. So, let’s go ahead and do it. Let’s legalize it. Let’s regulate it. Let’s do it smartly instead of blacklisting it, essentially.”
This approach – regulating perceived vice instead of banning it – is an American import from Europe. And perhaps that fits. As sports leagues and state governments alike continue to embrace betting, nothing they do will be entirely new. Sports gambling in the U.S. figures to go where the U.K. and Australia already have been. Smart money is on eventual convergence.
Globalization has accelerated since the latter half of the 20th century, making sport a key cultural import. Whether it was a Michael Jordan sneaker or simply a ball and net that helped new communities discover soccer, the United States gave and received sport along with many nations around the world.
It’s unclear if those same silos still exist today. Sport is increasingly a means by which nations interact, and at a higher level of interconnectedness than ever. In what ways is sport's impact being utilized as a tool for development and detriment around the world?