Sports Betting Has Become So Easy That the Sports Seem Secondary

Earlier this year, as I attended my first-ever New York Knicks game, the friendly concessions clerk who handed me my $17 beer before tip-off asked if I’d be placing any bets with FanDuel. The mobile sportsbook app went live in New York just days earlier, after the state became the nation’s 18th to legalize online sports betting. Still, the question surprised me. I wanted to say I was at Madison Square Garden to watch the game, not bet on it — as if this distinction made me some kind of righteous purist. After almost a decade in New York, I had adopted the lowly Knicks as my own, hoping to establish with them an allegiance as devout and excruciating as the one I’d had with my hometown teams in Baltimore. This seemed to me to be the most dignified form of fandom, a birthright uncorrupted by capital, or by the fact of winning or losing at all.

It was not long before these pieties gave way. Within a week, I’d squandered the $50 FanDuel offered me for signing up. More has been squandered since.

If you have watched even a few minutes of a sporting event over the last year, you have probably seen the commercials. FanDuel’s parent company reportedly spent over $863 million on sales and marketing in fiscal year 2021; its rival DraftKings is reported to have spent a similar sum. One ad stars Jennifer Coolidge as “Lady Luck” as she tries to smuggle a leprechaun through airport security. (She’s spending her winnings on a trip to Bora Bora.) Another caters to realists, assuring users that they can cash out of a bet anytime they think it might go south. But the FanDuel spot you’re most likely to have seen — the one that makes the strongest case for depositing your money into this treacherously user-friendly app — is the one that promises to “make every moment of the game mean more.”

This ad’s seductive premise is that the experience of watching sports will be enhanced by generating more and more financial stakes, with money wagered on as many elements of the process as possible: Which team will win the opening coin toss; who will be leading at halftime; whether, say, Steph Curry will make more than five 3-pointers. Combine all of these outcomes into a parlay bet, and you could win even more — and, if the adspeak is to be believed, create more “meaning,” too.

The commercial itself is a dizzying supercut of clenched knuckles and jittery knees, and a vision of modern sports fandom in which the locus of action lies not on the field or court but on a hand-held device. We see one man’s eyes widen as he watches his smartphone, indifferent to the game of pool he’s playing with friends. Another plants a celebratory kiss on his phone’s screen. Another swivels restlessly as a barber takes a comb to his hair. Place your bets, the ad suggests, and even the salon might become a site of enrichment.

But the commercial also rests on the surprising assumption that sports are often, in and of themselves, boring. We see two spectators at a baseball game grow cartoonishly long beards, as FanDuel promises to “make America’s pastime feel like less of an endless passage of time.” The pro golfer Jordan Spieth appears, ready to sink an easy putt: “Make golf more … ” our narrator begins, before politely trailing off in deference. The solution to this boredom — sports’ failure to satisfy our diminished attention spans or the modern expectation that we somehow be involved in everything we watch — lies in the gamification of “every drop, jab, hook, hit, steal, save, knuckle, meat,” as the narrator proposes, pitching a degree of interactivity greater and more remunerative than fantasy sports ever could.

These platforms’ infiltration of our experience of sports goes beyond ads. Only six such spots, for instance, are permitted to air during individual telecasts of the N.F.L., which was an outspoken opponent of legalized online betting until 2018, when the Supreme Court overturned a federal ban that prohibited the practice in most states. Last year, though, the league announced partnerships with three different sportsbook companies, all while taking pains to reassure skeptics of the game’s integrity. (In March, the wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the upcoming season for betting on N.F.L. games.) On N.B.A. pregame shows, experts now advise gamblers on their wagers; increasingly, betting lines appear onscreen during the telecasts themselves. For a time, Uber Eats offered gift cards for placing bets with Caesars. And every Thursday, you can stream FanDuel’s half-hour show “More Ways to Win,” in which the week’s spreads and moneylines are parsed for optimal value.

The studio setup looks familiar, but the operation itself is spiritless, bearing more resemblance to CNBC’s coverage of the stock market than to the typical sports show, whose belligerent repartee is familiar to anyone who has ever watched a game with friends. The FanDuel experience is less communal, more customized. I’ve enjoyed watching my roommate earn the spoils of his wagers, but they more often reflect the failures of my own.

In the film “Uncut Gems,” set in the gray-market days of 2012, the gambling-addicted jeweler Howard Ratner charters his mistress a helicopter from New York City to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, carrying a duffel bag of $155,000 to place a three-way parlay on Game 7 of the Celtics-Sixers playoff series. More recently, I had to lift exactly one finger, my thumb, in order to lose $10 on a five-way parlay. Sports gambling once evoked casinos and currency counters and smoky back rooms with college football playing on cathode-ray TVs. Now the experience is brought to us directly, casually and conveniently, as with so many other things we once had to seek out or wait for: phone calls, pornography, political arguments.

When I was young, my father would sometimes ask if I thought the Baltimore Ravens would win their next game. I never wanted to answer: The very act of predicting seemed to me to have karmic consequences, as if I might rankle the football gods. Like organized religion or dieting, this kind of passive but sustained commitment to the franchise of your choice can feel ennobling, and we expect to reap its rewards accordingly — to win a championship, or gain entry to heaven, or look somewhat like a catalog model before summer. This, to me, was the point of the whole covenant, of faith and fandom itself.

But it turns out that with a few clicks and a bit of cash, we can render that whole bargain meaningless. Why stake your mental health on your team’s winning or losing when we can contrive for ourselves a cluster of smaller games within the larger one? Games in which we control the terms of engagement, adjusting our loyalties from night to night? Never in human history have there been more ways to win, FanDuel tells us — so many, in fact, that you might forget the cardinal one altogether. And what a strange relief that is, when you’re stuck with the Knicks.

Source photographs: Shutterstock

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