Why this matters
States brought in billions in gambling revenues in 2021, and sportsbooks are becoming some of the most powerful properties in sports. How did America go from seeing gambling as an ugly vice to enthusiastically embracing it?
On a Sunday morning in September 1975, at a moment when sports betting in America had – except for a single city in the Nevada desert – largely been driven underground, a new iteration of a revered television program debuted on CBS. It was called The NFL Today, and it was anchored by slick young anchor named Brent Musburger. And the words Musburger uttered on air became some of the most famous in sports broadcasting history.
“You are looking live,” Musburger said as the CBS cameras cut from one National Football League stadium to the next, and this became his catchphrase for a generation. For Musburger, it had a double meaning. While The NFL Today had been reconfigured to appeal to a wider audience, “You are looking live” was, at its heart, a callout to a certain segment of people that Musburger understood formed the core of the show’s viewership: the millions of sports bettors who populated casinos in Las Vegas or perhaps threw in some cash with an underground bookmaker in cities around the country. Never mind that The NFL Today’s larger mission was to broaden the appeal of the sport; “You are looking live” was a veiled shoutout to the gamblers. It was an acknowledgment that one could not wager properly on the National Football League – or set the betting lines properly – without understanding the current weather and field conditions at every single stadium in the country.
For Musburger, gambling was – and still remains – “the foundation of the NFL,” he told The New York Times in 2017. His nephew, Brian, tells me that he recalls regular discussions about lines and wagers going back and forth at the family’s dining room table when he was a kid. A year after The NFL Today’s debut, Musburger helped bring in a Vegas handicapper named Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder to predict the games; Musburger says league commissioner Pete Rozelle asked him and Snyder to dance around any additional public scrutiny by not specifically mentioning point spreads.
Such was the duality of that moment in American sports. Outside of Las Vegas, gambling had been largely confined to the shadows, intertwined with organized crime, outlawed by one largely flawed and ineffective law after another. “Gambling is inevitable” and “effective gambling law enforcement [is] an impossible task” wrote the Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling in a 1976 report. Eighty percent of the population, the commission wrote, already approved of gambling. And yet no one particularly wanted to talk about it in public, most notably sports leagues themselves, which had borne the weight of one scandal after another, from baseball’s Chicago Black Sox scandal in 1919 to the CCNY point-shaving scheme that rocked college basketball in 1951 to the suspension of NFL stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras in 1963. “This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public,” Rozelle told Sports Illustrated upon suspending Karras and Hornung, “that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling.”
Nearly 50 years later, in the wake of a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that has opened up sports betting around the country, the about-face in attitudes toward sports gambling qualifies as one of the most startlingly abrupt social changes of the early 21st century. Decades of denial and tiptoeing and coded catchphrases have suddenly gone mainstream; we’ve evolved from Captain Renault in Casablanca to a nation of Jimmy the Greeks. Modern-day NFL broadcasts are increasingly serving as a bridge between gambling-related advertisements, and it happened so fast that it even seems to have blown the mind of the professional sports leagues themselves. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell declared in 2012 that “if gambling is permitted freely on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust, and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing.” Nine years later, in 2021, Goodell declared that the NFL is “going to find ways we can engage fans through legalized sports betting.”
So what happened? The simple answer is that legalization gave major sports leagues the license to stop pretending, and the online-driven revenue stream was too huge to ignore: According to Bloomberg, wagers on sports grew from $310 million in 2018 to $7 billion in October 2021, with most of those bets placed via mobile technology. Now, virtually every major sports league has embraced the future; the commissioner of the Women’s National Basketball Association has said sports betting could even dictate the cities that the league expands to.
But there’s more to it than that. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, public attitudes had undergone a long-term transformation. In a way, the Supreme Court decision was less a story about shifting legality and more a story about shifting morality. It is a story that goes back centuries And it gets at a fundamental element of human nature that dates back nearly to the origin of the species itself.
A Battle For ‘Public Morals’
Here is a fun cocktail party fact that Brett Abarbanel, director of research at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, likes to throw around: Do you know why dice don’t have numbers on them? “Dice actually predate our standard numeric numbering system,” Abarbanel says. “So we’ve been in this phase of risk-taking as human beings as a whole for a very long time.”
In fact, Abarbanel says, many games, including sports and lacrosse, shaped at least some of their rules in order to make wagering on them more fair. In that way, it is almost impossible to imagine organized sports evolving without sports betting evolving alongside. But as society evolved, that relationship got more complicated; the very idea of what we wanted sports to be collided with the instinct toward risk-taking that is inherent to human nature.
Often, Arbanel says, sports metaphors become mixed with metaphors for war, of two sides doing battle, and all of that becomes intertwined with larger notions about the purity of those battles and about the purity of society itself. “There’s the idea that if sport has integrity and sport is pure, it's a solid reflection on the values that a society might hold,” Abarbanel says. “And so to have that sort of thing threatened by, say, a match-fixing scandal, which typically involves gambling in some capacity, there's a lot of anger that comes from that.”
And, so, in the early decades of the 20th century, America found itself waging a battle for “public morals,” as author Stephen Marche wrote in The Atlantic: Against sex work and pornography, against alcohol, against drugs, and, of course, against gambling. In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal that tarnished Major League Baseball – then America’s most popular sport – baseball hired its first commissioner, Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis, whose first act was to ban eight White Sox players for life for their involvement with New York gambler Arnold Rothstein.
Ties to shady figures kept sports gambling underground for decades. In 1961, the United States passed the Interstate Wire Act, which was largely designed to bring down the mafia through its involvement in gambling as a way to launder money across state lines. Eventually, in the 1970s and 1980s, as the mafia’s influence faded, enforcement of gambling statutes became more lax, and the sports betting tax in Las Vegas was reduced from 10 percent to 2 percent, making it more lucrative for casinos to get involved.
And yet that overarching current of morality remained. In March 1986, Sports Illustrated ran a story with the cover line “Gambling: America’s National Pastime.” Just a year earlier, eight people had been indicted in a point-shaving scandal within Tulane University’s college basketball program; the SI report delved deep into the dark side of gambling, a fear of more fixes, a sense that gambling “has taken a grip on American life that is more powerful and more pervasive than ever before.”
Three months after that SI cover hit newsstands, University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias and Cleveland Browns safety Don Rogers died of drug overdoses within days of each other. In the wake of a moral panic about cocaine and crack, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This had nothing to do with gambling and everything to do with gambling; the same fears that had driven the “public morals” of the early 20th century had come cycling back during the height of a Ronald Reagan presidency driven by nostalgia for a “purer” past. And so perhaps it is no coincidence that, in recent years, both the attitude toward America’s most ubiquitous controlled substance and the attitude toward America’s most ubiquitous underground pastime both collapsed at almost exactly the same time.
A National Turn
Before I can even bring up the comparison, Brian Musburger does it for me. “There are a lot of similarities with marijuana, in that for a large portion of the population participating in this market, there was a policy that people were tired of,” he says. “People that grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s had done these things, and the world wasn’t falling apart.”
Musburger saw this happening with sports gambling before many others did, in part due to his uncle Brett’s legacy and in part due to what he saw after spending time as an agent, working for his father, Todd. Internet culture was ascendant, which allowed people around the world to see what was happening in other parts of the world. In Europe, where gambling had long been sanctioned, there were still periodic scandals, but the sports world hadn’t fallen apart. At the same time, the Moneyball movement in baseball and beyond had pushed data and analytics into the mainstream, and fantasy sports had provided a soft entry point into sports betting for millions of people. The very idea of “public morals” now seemed antiquated; the national turn toward libertarianism bridged the gaping partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. “There was so much more acceptance in general of gambling and risk taking,” Abarbanel says. “Part of that ties back to the moral element. … Now, we don’t necessarily view it as immoral. It still has sort of a sin industry stigma attached to it, but it’s generally not considered a moral fault.”
One of Brian Musburger’s clients during the pre-legalization era was Phil Jackson, then coaching the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers, and one day, during a meeting with longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Musburger found himself discussing the Las Vegas projected win totals for the Lakers during the coming season. And he thought to himself: This guy has a team of data scientists, but he’s looking to Vegas for his information?
Musburger began to learn how much Vegas really knew: At one point, he witnessed a conversation between Brent Musburger and veteran handicapper Jimmy Vaccaro, where Vaccaro said he’d heard directly from a team’s trainer about a player’s ankle injury. And Brent thought to himself: As Americans increasingly turned to offshore and overseas sites to get their gambing fix, as they became hungrier and hungrier for the kind of analysis that drove Vaccaro’s decision-making, maybe this was where the future lay.
“Before the Supreme Court took the case, we felt there was a marketability to (sports gambling analysis),” says Musburger, who founded the sports betting network VSIN (Vegas Stats and Information Network) in 2017 and hired his uncle to serve as its primary voice. “It’s a conversation about sports that has utility. It’s not the same ‘Who’s better, LeBron or Jordan?’ conversation.”
Brian Musburger thought perhaps VSIN would get ahead of everyone else in the sports-gambling space, but the Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates. There are now thousands of sports-gambling conversations now taking place on thousands of websites, the product of decades of demand that had been pent up by that veil of public morality. In fact, this is Abarbanel’s biggest red flag about legalization: that there is simply too much ubiquity – and in particular too much advertising – and eventually this will likely cause a backlash, as it has in Europe.
Still, there is no question that public morality has shifted. The paranoid ideas about gambling that the NFL itself espoused a decade ago now are subject to regular mockery online. Las Vegas, once viewed as too risky a place for professional sports teams to land, has become one of the most enticing markets in the country, home to the NFL’s relocated Raiders and the National Hockey League’s expansion Golden Knights. The irony is thick: Pete Rose, banned from baseball for gambling in 1989, now has his own sports gambling podcast.
But what if all this change has come too fast? What if scandal is inevitable, and public morality is cyclical? “Gambling produces corruption the way salt water produces rust,” Stephen Marche wrote in The Atlantic. “You can fight it for a while, but it wins in the end.”
For many in the industry, this is a laughable proposition. The reason sports gambling repeatedly succumbed to scandal, Brian Musburger says, is because it existed underground and couldn’t be tracked. The opportunities for corruption were far more plentiful; with professional athletes earning millions and college athletes now able to make money on their name, image, and likeness (referred to as NIL), there is less temptation for them to be corrupted. There are now entire organizations that are dedicated to integrity in sports betting, and “with regulation, it’s harder for people to get away with those things,” Musbuger says. “It goes back to integrity, and these things are better when they’re on the up and up.”
Today, there are more ways to look live at more betting angles than ever before, all of it on the up and up. The public wants the action, and lawmakers and leagues alike are buying in, betting on the upside. Sports gambling is becoming our national pastime, and time will tell if this new era endures or gathers rust.
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.