A few days before Christmas I went to see the NHL’s Nashville Predators play on home ice against the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
Amidst all the silliness of a modern professional sports experience—the home team skating off a giant saber-toothed tiger head, a mistletoe-kissed camera, a small rock band playing seasonal hits between periods—there was a steady stream of advertisements for DraftKings, a company known as sports betting that accepts bets on sporting events and pays out winnings.
His name flashed prominently on the Jumbotron above center ice when the starting lineups were announced. His logo reappeared when crews ran out to clean the ice during breaks. “DraftKings Sportsbook” was not only on the yellow jackets worn by the people who collected the ice shavings, but also on the carts they used to collect the ice.
All of this comes a few days after the Predators announced a multi-year partnership with another sportsbook, BetMGM, which will not only include signage at their home venue, Bridgestone Arena, but also a BetMGM restaurant and bar.
If I cared tonight, I could go to the sports betting app on my smartphone and bet on the game. Tennessee is one of 33 states plus the District of Columbia where sports betting is legal. On January 31, 2023, Massachusetts became the latest state to legalize the practice.
The point of depicting the whole scene is simply this: In the nearly five years since the Supreme Court allowed states to legalize sports betting, an entire industry has sprung up that, for tens of millions of fans across the country, is now just part of the show.
The seamless integration of betting into American sports—impossible to ignore even among non-betting fans—represents a remarkable change for an activity that was banned in much of the country just a few years ago.
A new sports world
Let’s start by looking at the numbers.
Since May 2018, when the US Supreme Court struck down a law that limited sports betting to four states, including Nevada, $180.2 billion has been legally wagered on sports, according to the American Gaming Association’s research division. That has generated $13.7 billion in sports betting revenue, according to figures provided to me by the AGA, an industry research and lobbying group.
Before the NFL started last September, the AGA reported that 18 percent of American adults — more than 46 million people — planned to place a bet this season. Most of this is likely to be wagered through legal channels as opposed to so-called corner bookies or illegal operatives.
So who bet on sports? In an interview, David Foreman, the AGA’s vice president of research, told me that compared to traditional gamblers — those who might play slots, for example — “sports bettors are a different demographic. They are younger, they are more masculine and they have higher incomes.”
They are people like Christian Santosuoso, a 26-year-old creative marketing professional living in Brooklyn, New York. Santosuosso didn’t bet on games until it was legal. Now he and his friends will pool their money on NFL Sundays to fuel both the interest in the game and the conversation in the room.
“It’s fun,” he told me in a phone interview. He explained that even a bad gamble loss can be fun or funny, a way to look back at the mistakes your team made that ultimately affected whether you won the bet. But he added that there is a limit to how much he will bet.
Coverage and conversation
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision in 2018, I wrote a piece for The Conversation asking whether the media would start producing content aimed at punters.
The answer was an unequivocal yes – and it seems to have helped change the way sports betting is talked about.
As I write this, if I look at the front page of ESPN.com, I see that the University of Georgia is a 13.5-point favorite over Texas Christian University in the College Football Playoff National Championship. It’s front and center, right next to the prime time and the TV network where it airs.
But that’s the least of it.
ESPN has aired a game show since 2019, Daily Wager. In September 2022, the sports conglomerate announced a range of new content focused on betting tips and picks. And SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt is known for his “Bad Beats” segment, in which Van Pelt usually highlights how a team on the winning side of the point spread falls apart at the last second in crazy fashion.
Meanwhile, an entire industry of betting tips channels has sprung up on YouTube – if you type “#sportsbetting” into the YouTube search bar, you’ll find thousands of them.
Another example of how things have changed: On January 2, 2023, the University of Utah football team had a first down and a field goal with 43 seconds left, 21 points short of Penn State in the Rose Bowl . The game is essentially over. However, commentators noted that a touchdown would mean a lot to some people.
WHO? Why? The speakers didn’t elaborate, but the subtext was clear: Those who had bet the over — betting that the two teams would combine to score more than 54 points — had plenty of advantage on that touchdown. So, in a way, did ESPN. In a blowout, fans of both teams are likely to give up. But when the money rolls in something like an over, eyes stay glued to the screen.
Utah ended up scoring on third down with 25 seconds left. Final score: Penn State 35, Utah 21.
The danger and the ceiling
I’ve been editing sports since the early 1990s and directing Penn State’s sports journalism program since 2013. I’ve noticed how my students now routinely talk about the point spread—the expected margin of victory—and even the over-under, a bet. on the total number of points scored.
It just didn’t happen that often when I first went to State College, or in the newsroom before that.
Sports leagues used to be fiercely opposed to gambling. And while they’re still concerned about not letting players gamble, many leagues — especially the NFL — have done a complete U-turn since legalization.
There are many reasons for this change of heart. While concerns used to be about the game’s loss of integrity due to a betting scandal, sports leagues can now argue that legal betting allows for better monitoring of potential fraud. If heavy betting happens on one team or if there is a sudden change in betting patterns, this is all visible in sports betting and could indicate fraudulent activity.
There’s also significant fan interest in legal betting — 56 percent of American adults and nearly 7 in 10 men recently told Pew they’ve read at least a little about how widespread legal sports betting has become.
And, of course, there’s big money from a new sponsorship group — the sports bookies — that helped boost the NFL’s total sponsorship revenue to a record $1.8 billion in the 2021 season.
The danger, of course, is gambling addiction.
And while the AGA is quick to note that its member companies are committed to providing information about problem gambling to their customers, legalization has undoubtedly provided easier and safer access to sports betting.
Keith White, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said in a telephone interview that his group’s research found that roughly 25 percent of American adults bet on sports, slightly more than the AGA’s estimate. That rate has jumped from roughly 15 percent before the Supreme Court ruling, according to NCPG.
While that’s a big increase, it also suggests that there may be a cap to come — in other words, when all the states that will legalize sports betting, there still won’t be many more people betting than now, White speculated.
“I think it’s changing the market in a lot of ways,” White said, “but my guess is that it’s basically increasing the intensity — and the associated risk of problem betting — among fans who were already engaged fans.”