Why this matters
Dozens of U.S. states have legalized sports betting, and the practice is pervasive in every aspect of sports coverage and consumption. But the people who report on sports face clear conflicts of interest as they navigate this new era.
Tim Graham offered a hypothetical situation.
Let’s say you are a sports journalist who covers the Montana State University men’s basketball team. They play in the Big Sky Conference – a long way from the bright lights of the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big Ten.
You’re watching practice one day, the only media member there, and you see Montana State’s starting point guard turn his ankle. It’s clear he’s injured.
You open your phone. You see two apps next to each other. One is for Twitter, where you can publish the fact that the player is injured. The other is for a sports gambling website.
At the moment, you have information no one outside of that gym has.
“You can place a bet and take the points on Idaho State because you know he’s not going to play,” said Graham, a sports writer for The Athletic.
Is that OK? Is that ethical? As a journalist, what do you do?
Since the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a federal law banning sports gambling in every state but Nevada in 2018, the financial floodgates have opened in terms of sports betting. Bloomberg reported that gamblers wagered more than $7 billion on sports in October 2021 – a more than 2,000 percent increase from June 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled.
That money has flowed to sports media companies as well. As Bloomberg reported, nearly every major national sports outlet – ESPN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Turner Sports, The Athletic, The Hockey News, The Ringer, SB Nation – has partnered with at least one of the four major sports betting companies. These partnerships are expected to only grow in size and scope as more states legalize sports gambling. They come as the journalism industry continues to bleed jobs and advertising revenue.
“With newspapers, you just felt like you were getting your teeth kicked in every day,” said Teddy Greenstein, who spent 24 years as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before taking a job as senior editor with PointsBet Sportsbook in 2020. “You felt kind of fatalistic, like what’s the point? Do we even have a plan?
“The Washington Post and New York Times, you could see that their websites and their apps were just awesome and that they were pouring money into coverage. And at the Tribune we were doing the opposite of that, and our sections were getting smaller and our staffs were getting tinier and we were covering less stuff and traveling less, and it just felt like ‘man, this is not going to be a good end result.’
“So then I go to an industry in sports betting where, you know, every projection you see, it’s X billion, then it’s X billion, then it’s more.”
Sports gambling means big business for media outlets as well. Bill Bradley, the managing editor for sports at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has two reporters dedicated to covering sportsbooks and sports gambling.
“Our top three beats we cover in terms of hierarchy – No. 1 is the Raiders, No. 2 is the Golden Knights, and No. 3 is sports betting,” Bradley said. “It’s higher than preps, higher than UNLV [the University of Nevada, Las Vegas]. The reason why we have two people covering it is it does so well digitally and with our print readership.”
That influx of cash, though, brings questions. How does gambling money impact sports coverage? What kinds of conflicts of interest does this potentially create for journalists?
And on a broader level, what does this mean for readers and viewers seeking truthful, accurate information from their sports media?
“The sports section has always served the human-interest side and the gambling side,” said Dr. Michael Mirer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an expert in the practice and history of sports journalism. “So if we are only focused on the gambling side of sports, it’s absolutely gonna kill off the [ESPN feature writer] Wright Thompson (long-form) feature, because the people who are interested in gambling have no interest in these players as people and have no interest in the social importance of sports because it’s a stock page.
“The sports page becomes the stock page.”
From Winning By ‘A Lot’ to ‘The New York Stock Exchange’
Think about the classic sports movie. It’s the story of an underdog team or individual beating the odds to beat a favorite.
You see where this is going, right? The language of sports, sports media, sports fandom, and sports journalism has always been deeply influenced by gambling.
A game’s point spread or the odds that a team wins a championship doesn’t just provide the framework for gambling. It provides rudimentary information about who’s expected to win for non-gambling fans.
The National Football League’s injury report, which details players’ injuries and the likelihood they play that week, is a part of the sports information ecosystem – but it exists as a way of standardizing information for gambling.
“Historically the media has done everything it can to include gambling without actually calling it gambling,” said Bryan Curtis, who is editor-at-large of The Ringer and covers sports media.
Before the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision, sports betting was illegal everywhere but Nevada. It also was largely socially taboo. Officially, sports leagues kept gambling and gamblers at arm’s length.
Meanwhile, the sports media’s relationship with gambling was one of euphemisms. When Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder began picking games on the NFL Today on CBS in the 1970s, the NFL would not allow CBS to let him to pick against the spread. So he’d pick one team to win by “a lot.”
Newspapers would run the daily odds for every major sporting event on their agate pages, because failing to do so would be like leaving out the comics section. They also would run columns in which writers would pick winners against the spread – but “for amusement purposes only.”
Similarly, television game announcers such as Brent Musburger and Al Michaels would make wink-wink comments about a late-game touchdown being “very important” not because it made the game close, but because it affected the final spread.
“It’s really this idea of ‘we want gamblers or people interested in gambling to read our stuff, but we don’t want to say the word gambling too loud,’” Curtis said.
When Graham worked for ESPN from 2008 to 2011, he and his fellow beat reporters were not allowed to make any references to gambling information in their coverage – even though writers on other parts of the site could discuss it.
“It just goes to show that some of that leftover ‘gambling is evil, we don’t want to corrupt our audience’ mentality was still there,” he said.
But that mentality has shifted over the past two decades. The growth of digital and social media reduced the gatekeeping power that newspapers and networks traditionally held. Writers like Bill Simmons, now Curtis’ boss at The Ringer but formerly of ESPN, began to openly write about sports gambling.
The rise of fantasy football made gambling more accessible to more people, as did the ubiquity of NCAA Tournament pools. Daily fantasy sports accelerated this trend, and companies such as FanDuel and Draft Kings entered into partnerships with media outlets like ESPN.
The 2018 Supreme Court decision was the last break in the dam. Today, all of the major digital sports media sites have their own verticals (sections) dedicated to betting and gambling news. ESPN has a link to the NFL Daily Line on the top of its NFL page. The Athletic created its own vertical to betting coverage, and USA Today has a gambling vertical with Sports Book Wire. “I'll never forget the moment where I’m watching [ESPN’s] ‘SportsCenter’ and on the crawl on the bottom it starts listing the betting lines,” Greenstein said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ I mean, that was hard to believe. I mean when I grew up in New York, the Post and the Daily News embraced sports betting, and The New York Times wouldn't even run the lines.”
Added Graham: “You turn on ESPN at a certain time of day, and it looks like watching the New York Stock Exchange or CNBC with the tickers and the latest information.”
In his 1989 memoir A Year in the Sun, sports columnist George Vecsey of The New York Times wrote:
“When I cover racing, I am bemused at seeing racing writers betting on races they cover, some of them sweating and shouting as the horses approach the finish line, some of them cursing jockeys and trainers for costing them money. I understand that much of racing is about betting, but I’m not comfortable seeing journalists handling thick wads of money on company time. I don’t think drama critics are allowed to invest in the plays they cover, and there are increasingly tight regulations for journalists who cover the stock market. What’s different about racing?”
Nearly 35 years later, the same questions now apply to legalized sports gambling and sports journalism.
Currently, there is no industry-wide prohibition against journalists betting on the sports they cover. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics urges reporters to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and to “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage,” but that language is vague and open-ended.
Likewise, there is nothing in the ethical guidelines from the Associated Press Sports Editors about gambling. There is an entire paragraph about the sharing of notes and quotes, but not a word about betting using information a reporter received while doing their job.
The journalists and experts interviewed for this story all felt that the biggest potential conflict of interest for reporters was so-called “insider trading” – journalists using information they learn and placing a bet based on that information before reporting the news.
“If you have information about a starting quarterback who is able to play or not able to play, it might be a three-point change in the line when it becomes public,” Greenstein said.
This threat feels more hypothetical than actual, according to the experts interviewed. The journalistic values and practices of sports journalists in the digital age value speed and exclusivity. Also, there is so much media attention on pro sports that valuable information doesn’t stay exclusive for long. Scoops in the digital age are measured in minutes.
“If you have that kind of information, and you’re trying to break the story, you’re rushing it to Twitter most likely as quickly as humanly possible,” Curtis said.
This competitive pressure can be less acute in sports that typically receive less attention and coverage. But in the gambling world, Curtis pointed out, there is no such thing as a meaningless game.
So let’s go back to Graham’s situation from earlier, the Montana State beat writer watching the team’s point guard get hurt and knowing before anyone else. Is it unethical for that writer to place a bet using that information before publishing it?
“Yeah, but I don’t know if I can articulate why,” Graham said. “To me, it seems unethical. The ethical problem isn’t in how you treated that information, but it’s becoming financially vested in the team you are covering. That seems shady.”
Bradley, the sports editor in Las Vegas, has instituted a rule to address that. Reporters are not allowed to gamble on the teams they cover.
“That compromises the integrity of your beat,” Bradley said.
Changing How Sports Are Covered
In addition to creating more opportunities for insider trading, the growth of legalized sports gambling may lead to subtle but significant changes in how sports are covered. Gambling creates a larger audience for sports journalism, a highly engaged audience that is thirsty for more information.
But what kind of information?
A gambler is not particularly interested in professional tennis player Naomi Osaka’s struggles with mental health, NBA star LeBron James opening a school for at-risk youth in Akron, Ohio, or Layshia’s Clarendon’s activism as the Women’s National Basketball Association’s first openly nonbinary transgender player.
They’re interested in who is playing tonight, who’s hot, who’s hurt, and who might be traded.
“One of the biggest changes in my lifetime in sports writing is that the ‘insider’ has become the dominant figure rather than the columnist,” said Curtis, referring to sports journalists like Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN who specialize in breaking news from league and team sources. “In a world that is funded by gambling and increasingly constructed for gambling, the insider’s only gonna become bigger. And the information he or she provides is going to become the basic unit of sportswriting.”
That means journalism that examines the social impact of sports, or simply the human-interest aspect, becomes less valuable to media outlets.
It also increases the power of insider sports journalists, who already have millions of followers on social media and are among the industry’s biggest stars. “The prediction I am absolutely sure of is that a national insider, one of the very big ones, will work for a gambling company within the next year,” Curtis said. “I just think there’s so much money at stake and it’s such a career opportunity for them, and the media as we’ve seen is pretty threadbare, so it's gonna happen.”
If that happens, it will mark a major shift – and arguably cross an ethical Rubicon. “There’s a big difference between tweeting ‘Player X is inactive today’ and ‘Player X is inactive today; here’s a link to a gambling site where you can act on that information,’” Mirer said.
As sports media outlets continue to form business relationships with gambling companies – all while gambling companies begin to create and sponsor their own journalism – the same question increasingly will apply to the industry as a whole. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, journalism’s core professional values include acting independently and seeking and reporting the truth.
The author James Michener wrote in 1976 that “one of the happiest relationships in American society is between sports and the media.” In a world where sports reporters are being paid by media outlets that are being paid by gambling companies that are paying the teams and leagues that those reporters cover, this is even more true. And in a sports media landscape where gambling coverage is increasingly incentivized, will fans be able to count on the reporters they trust to deliver the truth?
“(If) one of these casinos or gambling operations hired a reporter, a big insider who breaks this kind of information, then there would be kind of a fascinating question of are you just using that guy as a rainmaker to bring people to your app or your site, or is that guy’s information actually helping you set lines?” Curtis said. “To me, that’s the more direct (question) rather than a sponsorship. Because then the person is taking a check directly from the company. So ‘who are they serving?’ is the question there.
“Are they serving readers, fans, or are they serving the company?”
Sports gambling in the U.S. has quickly gone from mostly illegal and largely taboo to widely embraced and increasingly pervasive. Yet as states, leagues, and fans all join a multibillion-dollar gold rush, there are questions about the effect of this shift on government finances, competitive and journalistic integrity, and public health.
U.S. sports fans may not have asked for betting to become part of their everyday lives, but in 2022, they suddenly find themselves navigating the minefield it presents.