Who should we thank for the Supreme Court’s decision to end the federal ban on sports gaming Monday? After we pat Justices Alito and Gorsuch on the butt, we ought to thank the sports media. They — we — have spent the past decade-plus normalizing sports gambling in America. It’s like we were submitting an amicus curiae brief on behalf of sports fans everywhere.
It wasn’t always like this. For decades, our media overlords mostly kept direct references to gambling out of polite discourse, and it was up to a few wiseacres to point out their hypocrisy. The columnist Westbrook Pegler (1894–1969) argued America’s national game was not baseball but craps. The New York Herald Tribune sports editor Stanley Woodward once wrote that the paper’s management got mad when he printed horse-racing selections in the paper. After Woodward changed the word “selections” to “entries,” he was never hassled again.
TV sports adopted the same winking style. Al Michaels and Brent Musburger and even Chris Fowler made sly references to late touchdowns and broken hearts. (Now safely in his Vegas residency, Musburger recently admitted to betting on a game he was announcing.) Pundits like Jimmy the Greek were allowed to make picks on the CBS pregame show, but only without the line. As recently as 2015, the NFL Network’s “bold predictions” segment carried the disclaimer “viewer discretion is advised” — so not that bold after all.
Marv Albert once noted that fears of gambling sunk an early version of instant-replay review in the NFL. “There was always the remote possibility that a director or a producer could be wagering on the game,” Albert wrote. “If he bet on the Bills to cover the spread by 10 points and this Jets touchdown would make the spread only 9, is he going to show the angle that proves it’s a touchdown?”
If that sounds slightly paranoid, something similar actually happened with Monday Night Football director Chet Forte, who was consumed by gambling. When Forte had a bad beat on a late touchdown, a colleague told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “he ordered [the producer] to show a replay from every possible angle.”
After the new century dawned, writers and broadcasters started talking gambling more freely. It was a way of announcing to the world that you were going to be a little more frank, and a little more hip, than your media peers. Gambling was a go-to topic for Bill Simmons along with wrestling and ’80s movies. During XFL games, NBC’s Dick Ebersol said, he wouldn’t stop his announcers from talking about the spread, lifting the Michaels-Musburger omertà. On the midnight SportsCenter, Scott Van Pelt went one step further and turned the “bad beat” into a segment.
The old aspirational model of a sportswriter was the Guy Who Knows the Players. The new model is probably more like the Guy Who Knows How the Games Work — and Might Know How They’ll Turn Out, Too.
Why did we start talking more about gambling? First, the old, priggish media institutions are no longer effective censors. Sports pages like Woodward’s died or withered away. And whatever squeamishness might have haunted ESPN — which let Chris Berman, Norm Hitzges, and Hammerin’ Hank Goldberg pick games for years — has been replaced by the mandate “connect with viewers at any cost.”
As Van Pelt told me a few years ago: “Rather than giggling about it like it’s some taboo sort of a topic, I sort of just shrug and go, Listen, man. Part of the reason sports are as interesting to as many people as they are is that people have a dollar or two on the game. So let’s just be adults about it. … I’ve been surprised about how little pushback there’s been.”
Even before the Supreme Court’s decision, fans were already awash in fantasy football, daily fantasy, NCAA tournament pools, and a dozen other forms of semi-legal gambling. The fall of the old sports page made these legitimate subjects of writing in and of themselves. Matthew Berry isn’t a star on ESPN “for entertainment purposes only.”
I also think journalism’s embrace of analytics played a role in normalizing gambling. At the end of the day, all that data had to be repurposed for something other than settling the MJ vs. LeBron debate. By the way, FiveThirtyEight suddenly seems like an even better get for ABC News.
But the biggest reason the media normalized sports gambling is probably the simplest. The rise of offshore casinos made betting available to the masses and established it as a crucial pastime of the early internet. (In Simmons’s columns, the holy grail of the trip to Vegas was mostly replaced by picking up your phone.) Earlier this year, I spent some time in Australia, where sports gambling is already legal. It wasn’t unusual for a Jim Nantz–like announcer to promote a sportsbook on the side. When you start seeing your favorite American play-by-play announcers and writers flacking for casinos, you’ll know the stigma will be gone forever. Move over, Blue Apron. Hello, WinStar.