Monday morning, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited sports gambling, clearing the way for legalization in individual states. What could this mean for sports in the long term? The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Press Box, The Ringer NFL Show, and ShackHouse tried to forecast that future and explain how we got here in the first place. These transcripts have been edited and condensed.
The Bill Simmons Podcast: How Bill and Cousin Sal Helped Mainstream Sports Gambling in the Media
Cousin Sal: Here’s why [the Supreme Court ruling is] so important: because people are reluctant to gamble on these offshore accounts. Because what are you going to do if you win the money? What if you win $12,000, $15,000 and then you have to chase it down? Then you have to find out something about this entity that you love that you may not want to know about, you know? So, what are you going to do? Are you going to fly to Antigua and chase down this ghost company for 15 grand? That goes away now. Remember all that nonsense, I forgot what the bet was—
Simmons: Oh, I remember. No, I remember. It was a basketball game, and instead of -9 they put +9 [as the line] for the favorite, so we basically bet whatever the max was on the +9. And then they switched it to the right line, so we bet the other team at +9.
Sal: Yeah, we hedged on it. They only counted the hedge, which of course lost.
Simmons: They voided the first bet because they said it was a mistake, and then they didn’t void the second bet, and then the second bet lost and we lost all this money when they made the mistake and then they wouldn’t give us the money back. … But those days are over. Now I get to argue with some random dude behind the counter at 7/11 or Store 24.
Sal: Exactly. So exciting, it’s the greatest—Christmas morning.
Simmons: Who else was in there, though, in the early [years of the sports gambling discussion]? I feel like it was us, Hank Goldberg. Hammerin’ Hank was just on there forever. Some of those dudes from the ‘90s, Stu Feiner, all those terrible gambling shows, those infomercial shows.
Sal: Oh, the Proline—Proline was the greatest. Yes, Stu Feiner, Jim Feist, was he another one?
Simmons: All those dudes, they’re all in there. And then, you know, at ESPN—people can’t believe this now—but I wanted to write a football gambling column for them every week and they wouldn’t let me. They wouldn’t let me talk about gambling at all, and then eventually when I came back in 2004, they allowed me to start doing it every week. But they were like, “No, we can’t go near this. We can’t touch this with a 10-foot pole.” And then within 10 years, you were on SportsCenter giving picks.
Sal: I was on SportsCenter, but even then, they just wanted to dip their toe in the water. … Yahoo was writing stories about it. I was like, “Hey, you’re getting scooped by your own competitor here!” and they told me, “Listen ... we can’t have the NFL mad at us. We have to kinda do this tongue and cheek,” and all I have to say is I’m not available, ESPN, that’s it. That ship has sailed. Simmons and I are on to bigger and better things.
Simmons: Well, one of us is Thomas Jefferson, the other is John Quincy Adams. I don’t know where we are but I feel like we’re the founding fathers of this whole thing.
The Press Box: The Evolution of Media’s Stance on Sports Gambling
David Shoemaker: Sports media really played a huge role in [the normalization of sports gambling]. We have [past] examples of this: When gay marriage went to the Supreme Court, it was right on the heels of basically a decade of deliberate, active normalization from the vaguely defined left in the country. It was obviously for the better, but it was kind of important in the process for Obama to pretend that he wasn’t pro–gay marriage. You kind of just introduce the idea and let it sink in after a while. And that’s really the role that the media played in this whole process, right?
Bryan Curtis: Yeah. What’s funny though is that unlike some of the other great political issues of our day, I don’t remember anybody saying, “I’ve changed my mind on sports gambling.” It was kind of everybody saying, “Oh yeah, I gamble. Don’t you?” It just came out into the world all of a sudden. It’s sort of like the pot thing, where there’s this winky joke like, “Oh, I might have smoked something this weekend.” That was kind of the tone for the last decade. “Oh, big sports bet this weekend.” “Might have done some sports gambling this weekend.” But you’re right, it sort of did normalize it. And all of a sudden, everybody is like “Oh wait, that’s right, you can’t gamble on sports. Why isn’t that legal?” … Adam Silver [talking about] it was a big thing. We talked about it in terms of an NFL team moving to Vegas, and an NHL team moving to Vegas, but I don’t remember a lot of angst amongst the sports media class about this. I think it was pretty close to 90, 100 percent, “This is a great idea.” Or, “Why don’t we do this?”
Shoemaker: In the modern world. Because you touched on some historical examples in the piece that you wrote, about how it was frowned upon in many sports pages.
Curtis: It was frowned upon, and I think the people that ran the newspapers and TV stations said, “Just don’t ever talk about this. This is bad stuff.” There was a great Westbrook Pegler thought that craps was actually America’s national pastime, not baseball. Which is true, right? But these guys, there was this whole winking class of TV people, and then writers like our boss [Bill Simmons], who came along and said, “By the way, everybody’s actually gambling.”
Shoemaker: The craps being the national pastime thing is salient, just in the fact that —there are a lot of people through the years that have made booze from prune juice in their basement or whatever, but it’s not the easiest thing to do just between you and your friends. If prohibition is working at a 100 percent clip, you’re probably not going to be drinking a lot. But you can still play cards for money with your friends. It never completely goes away, and in some ways it’s like the NCAA tournament pools that never disappeared, that kept gambling going in the country for forever. And of course the fact that it was never a complete prohibition. You could always go to the racetrack. You could go to Vegas, not for sports, but to Atlantic City. There’s casinos all over the place.
Curtis: And then for sports gambling: daily fantasy.
Shoemaker: Exactly. And it was just so unshocking to hear anybody talk about it at all. Now, before ... the bigger stigma was that you had to involve yourself with a bookie. If someone talked about it that meant that they had an unsavory character in their life.
Curtis: And for those of us that don’t do things like that all the time, we’re like, “Wait, where did you meet the bookie? How do you know the bookie?”
Shoemaker: Exactly. I think with the advent of the internet, it just tore down all the walls. And it also comes at a time when media in general is just much more kind of laissez-faire about all of that.
Curtis: And I think that’s the newspaper kind of going away, and withering away, and also the TV networks, which for so many years—that’s why Al Michaels and Brent Musburger were going “wink-wink” on the air. Because there were guys in the network saying, “Please don’t talk about gambling. Please, if you’re making predictions, don’t use the line.”
Shoemaker: I think that the interesting line through the piece that you wrote, no pun intended, that sort of grabbed me was, to go in reverse-chronological order, it was when Scott Van Pelt was like, “Yeah, I just decided to start talking about gambling, and nobody cared.” So if we’re at a point with SVP ... if that’s where we ended up, at what point do you think Al Michaels could have gone to his bosses and been like, “I’m going to talk about gambling on NFL games”?
Curtis: Or just said it on the air and there was no blowback?
Curtis: It’s a little different because it’s a commercial partnership with the NFL. But somebody pointed out on Twitter today, and I wish I remembered to mention this, but on College GameDay now—which, you know, ESPN is in league with all or most of the college football conferences—there’s a guy who picks against the line. This is college! This is the allegedly quote-unquote amateur kids. Highly corruptible amateurs. That doesn’t seem to be a big deal. So I think it’s one of those things where he’d need to just say it and see what happens, and probably no one would care. I think in the last couple of years if he had said that, instead of just doing the sly thing just said, “You know what, the Patriots are favored by seven and now they’re going to win by three and a lot of people are really pissed off,” I don’t think anybody would have cared.
The Ringer NFL Show: What the Intersection of Data and Gambling Could Mean for the Future of the NFL
Kevin Clark: When you think about gambling and football and the fact that there are going to be many states where you’re going to be able to gamble legally, how do you think, first of all, big picture, this changes everything?
Danny Kelly: Well, it changes the whole sport in a lot of ways. It feels a little bit [like] what fantasy football did for football. [It] just changes the way that people watch the game. It’s going to change the way that people are interested in individual plays, in individual players. Obviously when there’s money attached, when you’ve got some skin in the game, it takes what would normally be like a boring matchup and turns it into something really interesting. I mean, fantasy football is how I got so hardcore into the NFL, honestly, and I think [this] could sort of change the way people watch the game.
Clark: So it’s interesting you say that, because when I talk to people in the gambling industry, one of the things they talk about a lot is Thursday Night Football, and the fact that we all look at Thursday Night Football when we watch it and its Titans versus Jaguars, or Browns versus Bengals, and we’re all like, “What the hell is this?” Meanwhile, there is a ton of money dropped on a typical game because it’s a prime-time game, because it’s the only game in the midweek, and people love gambling on football. I think you’re going to see even more engagement with stuff like that. [The NFL has] tried to roll back the 9 a.m. windows on Sunday. I think you might see more windows because of it. There are a ton of unintended consequences [to the Supreme Court ruling]. Mark Cuban was on CNBC Tuesday morning and he was saying for the three major sports, he expects franchise values to double.
Kelly: That’s big. …
Clark: The most interesting thing I saw [Monday] was in The New York Post, where they talked about where the leagues could get in on the action. The MLB and NBA want a 1 percent integrity fee, which is—
Kelly: The funniest term ever?
Clark: [Laughing] So, first of all, the idea that they need 1 percent of all gambling revenue from the sports books to police things—have leagues shown a track record of being able to police things?
Kelly: [Laughing] That’s a shitload of money, too.
Clark: It’s a ton of money. Also, the American Gaming Association was talking about that earlier, and they were saying essentially that a 1 percent fee is a 20 percent tax, because books only keep about 5 percent. So it’s taking 20 percent of the profits, and that’s just not going to happen. So I would not anticipate that, especially at that number, and maybe not anything. That’s going to be a very complicated process going forward.
Now, where can the leagues get in on this? Well, the answer is their proprietary data. And that was what some of the experts have been talking about. So, the example the Post used was how many steps LeBron James takes in a game. Well, player-tracking data, which is essentially proprietary to the league, they’ve got that. And they can sell that to whichever bookmaker wants to make a deal with individual leagues. What I think is fascinating is you have all these next-gen stats. You have all these new measurements, you’re going to have Zebra GPS all over the field, especially starting this year. You can—leaving aside the obvious bets, who’s going to win the game, the money line, the props, over/under three touchdowns for Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers—you’re going to be able to bet on over/under, does Antonio Brown run faster than 19 miles per hour on a given play?
I think that, not only is the legalization of gambling going to change how we view sports, it’s also coinciding with sort of a data revolution in sports that’s going to expand even what we bet on. Because you’ve got to remember, in England, where betting has been legal for years—and is phenomenal, by the way—they bet on who has the first throw-in in a soccer game. Because they can bet on everything. And I think that when you start expanding it, and you start saying, “We have this information, what can you do with it?” I think the next-gen stats are going to be pretty interesting to gamble on. Second half of back-to-backs, do you take the under? I just think that we’re not even thinking about all the things that the next five to 10 years are going to be able to be gambled on within the sports.
ShackHouse: Forecasting Gambling’s Effects on Golf
Joe House: The beauty of golf, and part of why I think it’s such an attractive sport to wager on, is it takes place over the course of a day. Like, what’s happening in the morning may impact what happens in the afternoon or early evening, or it may not, but you can get in and get out and participate in any variety of ways with golf: You can try and forecast the winner. You can try and forecast a top-10 finish. You can try and forecast [if there will] be a hole-in-one over these 10 groups. And—and this is where the real opportunity resides in terms of the internet opportunity—predictive forecasting on a shot-to-shot basis, that’s really what I’m anticipating as being just tremendous fun.
Geoff Shackelford: Me too. ... The idea that you could sit there with an app and play make-or-miss—I mean, if somebody’s really creative, they could have so much fun. It would be huge for golf, and I think that’s why you see the PGA Tour having a very advanced understanding of where this could go. I retweeted an interview Jason Sobel did with a couple of people, including Andy Levinson of the tour. … This has clearly been a big project for him, and they are definitely seeing that golf has the potential to be probably one of the sports that benefits the most. Now, House, would I be a Debbie Downer, can I bring up what my big concern is?
House: Go ahead!
Shackelford: I think I’ve mentioned it before, but in the context of the fan-behavior stuff we’ve had, I’m just concerned that we could get to where somebody could influence the competition by making noise, by being a distraction. We’re the one sport—other than maybe tennis, but even tennis, you get a point replayed and things like that with a judge—but in golf, it’s really hard to take back a shot and to say, “Well, that guy yelled because he’s got a wager on you making par on this hole.” So that’s where I get a little bit nervous.
House: So [an] observation in that vein: There’s been successful wagering on golf in the U.K. for some number of years now, and thus far, no obvious incidents, no obvious moments of a fan that’s sought to change play or sought to change the outcome. Now, I don’t know whether or not a person who’s betting in the U.K. on golf has the ability to bet on shot-by-shot outcomes. I’m just not that familiar with what they do there.
Shackelford: I have not seen anything like that, no. They have in the past had betting on-site at tournaments, but not the predictive kind of stuff you’re talking about. … I have not encountered it.
House: So I wouldn’t have any problem with some kind of restriction on the course as the tour rolls this out, as it becomes a reality sometime over the next 24-to-36 months, where the predictive shot-by-shot opportunity to wager may not be available to those physically in attendance. I understand that cuts both ways. On the one hand, you don’t want to drive folks away from your event by limiting their access, but on the other hand, people that are there on Saturday and Sunday when it’s nut-crunching time, I believe is the colloquialism, they’re there to see the competitive golf. They don’t need an enhancement to their experience.