Every NFL season has its signature image, the way that year will be remembered forever. 1985 has the Super Bowl Shuffle Chicago Bears. 2001 has U2 singing at the Super Bowl right before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady shocked the St. Louis Rams and the football world. 2009 has hundreds of thousands of giddy Saints fans parading through once-flooded streets to celebrate a championship for their long-suffering team.
And then there is the 2015 season. The 2015 NFL season will be known, until the end of time, for Bradley C. You remember Bradley C.
2015 is the year that daily fantasy, headed by start-up companies FanDuel and DraftKings, took over the NFL. After FanDuel, in July 2015, took in a flabbergasting Series E venture-capital funding round of $275 million, the company poured $74.5 million into advertising for the start of that 2015 season, only to be outdone by DraftKings, which spent $131.4 million. They totaled more than 60,000 advertisements, intensely focused on the NFL, which meant anyone who sat down to watch America’s most popular sport that September was bombarded by the advertisements. Americans hate nothing more than having their consumption oversaturated, and the backlash against the ads was so powerful that it caught the attention of federal regulators, who noticed almost immediately that the biggest winners on each site were employees of their competitor, proving that, essentially, the fix was in. The sites are still alive today, but a merger they just attempted was blocked, and the daily fantasy industry appears to have atrophied as quickly as it exploded in the first place. We’ll always have those $349 you made that changed your life, Bradley C.
But if you thought daily fantasy ads were bad? You just wait until this season.
Much of the discussion, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s mammoth decision last May to lift the federal ban on sports gambling, has centered on how it will affect the major sports leagues and the games themselves. League commissioners once fought to keep gambling as far away from their sports as they could — five years ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the number-one threat to the integrity of pro football was gambling, yet another thing he was incredibly wrong about — but now, with the pump primed for deals with FanDuel and DraftKings, they’re fighting to make sure they get their piece of the pie, demanding “integrity fees” from sports books. These integrity fees ostensibly are to help leagues increase their internal protection against gambling-related scandal — remember, Tim Donaghy was just over a decade ago — but they’re widely considered the leagues trying to grab, for lack of a better term, their vig. But these are all Darren Rovell problems, a bunch of old white guys in suits trying to figure out how to sort out yet another huge sack of money we’re going to give them. What I’m most concerned with is how it’s going to affect the actual experience of watching sports, as a fan. And I think it’s going to make it appreciably worse. With the first NFL preseason games beginning this week — and, public service announcement, betting on NFL preseason games is the first sign you have a problem — I bet we’re all going to wish gambling had stayed underground.
First off, there will of course be the ads. FanDuel is going to be even more deputized to invade your television screens this fall now that it has been bought by Paddy Power Betfair, the U.K.-based online gambling juggernaut. The deal went down within a matter of days after the Supreme Court decision and may have saved the struggling FanDuel from going under entirely (Paddy Power took on a large part of FanDuel’s $78 million debt). If you think FanDuel was incentivized to spend to make sure you used their platform for the relatively complicated game of daily fantasy, wait until you can simply wager on the winner of the Jets game you’re about to sit down to watch. (FanDuel and DraftKings have predictably dropped their legal argument that daily fantasy was a “game of skill” now that gambling is legal.) FanDuel is adding sports wagering to its app by the start of the NFL season — it already has opened a sports book in New Jersey — and have no doubt they will make certain you know that, over and over and over again. At least the Paddy Power ads will be of higher quality.
But of course the ever-fluctuating sports-media business is jumping on this too. Prepare for gambling segments to be introduced to every episode of SportsCenter, and, if it hasn’t happened already, a gambling “expert” to be added to your preferred sports section. (Likely at the expense of a beat reporter.) If you are not already a sports gambler, you’re about to have your regularly scheduled sports programming interrupted by some dude with thick eyebrows telling you about his Inside Info. For those who argue that much of sports information is already catering to gamblers — surely no one is more concerned about the star running back’s calf moments before kickoff than those wanting to wager on the game — know that making that overt is likely to degrade coverage rather than enhance it. Sports Illustrated already has a gambling-only show that is less about providing info to gamblers than giving them “tips” — a recent show allowed you to wager on where LeBron James would sign next but featured no reporters who might provide any insight as to where that might be — and expect that to become the norm rather than the exception. (Full disclosure: I also host a show at Sports Illustrated. We have no gambling lines on the show and, all told, no actual useful information whatsoever.)
Mainstreaming gambling is likely to dilute the information rather than enhance it. The “gambling sections” that are about to pop up everywhere are less about helping the smart gambler and more about bringing in the easy mark: The sort of person who is just now gambling because it’s easier, not the person who was already in the game. The non-gambling fan will be getting less information about what he wants; the gambling fan will be getting more information about what he doesn’t.
And ultimately, whatever your thoughts on whether gambling should be legal nationally or not, that is the issue: Sports media was already basically pretending it was legal anyway. That’s why that injury information is so prevalent in the first place, the driver of every bit of micro-information from every beat reporter, every minutiae dug up for public consumption. Sports coverage has been winking at gamblers for decades; broadcasters Al Michaels and Brent Musburger have made a cottage industry at hinting at lines in their telecasts. (Musburger, perhaps inevitably, now hosts a show for the Vegas Stats & Information Network.) But once gambling is legal, that winking will turn into a full-on seductive strip show. And, in the short term and possibly the long term, it will turn our telecasts into those 900 number “expert picks” ads you see in the casino hotel rooms. Remember: People don’t offer gambling services because they don’t make them money. Gambling on sports is always a sucker’s bet. Prepare for SportsCenter to constantly sell you on it.
The world of sports has never excelled at moderation and, in fact, has only succeeded at it when ostensibly forced to do so by external forces. Its recent feints toward Vegas, with the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team and the upcoming Las Vegas Raiders, were the first steps, but they were always made carefully, considering American sports history with gambling scandals, from Donaghy to Pete Rose to college football and basketball point shaving at Northwestern. But now, thanks to the Supreme Court, sports is going to floor it. Perhaps sports gambling should be legal nationwide, perhaps it shouldn’t, but it is here, and it is here now. Everything’s about to be different in ways no one can predict. We are all Vegas now.
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.