Column: Sports betting may cultivate misguided fandom

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In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, Ryan Martin, right, looks over his wager at Rivers Casino, as the new, temporary sports betting area opened in Pittsburgh. Pending Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approval, regular operations are scheduled to begin Saturday, Dec. 15. Marton made several wagers, including placing a $100 bet on the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl. Anyone willing to wager that the high-scoring Patriots or Rams will get shut out in the Super Bowl can count on a big payday if that unlikely scenario occurs. Prop bets aren’t a big moneymaker for sports books during the season, but they pick up popularity as the nation is intensely focused on a single game. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic. File)

Let’s get meta. Why does one watch sports? What makes them so appealing to masses of people that their viewing has become integral to the cultural zeitgeist, as well as the strategy and pockets of advertisers? I would think that one watches sports, ostensibly, for the aesthetics. Something in the nature of the sport appeals to the eye and the mind. It is true that a great deal of fandom stems around the tertiary aspects of sports, the motivational aspects, the local pride, the machinations of management and coaching. But at a fundamental level, people seemingly like watching sports, because, well, they like watching sports.

People also seem to like competition. And control. Not to mention stakes. Put that together and you have fantasy sports, now a full-fledged industry, especially in baseball and football. The hobby is more than that to many at this point, and it has become intertwined with the surrounding engagement of a sport itself. That has its benefits, such as reaching new audiences, and giving people reasons to pay attention. Not just to their local market, but the enterprise as a whole. However, it also has consequences. Many football fans aren’t football fans at all, or at least not wholly. In the era of social media, everyone knows someone who languishes on social media about the player or the play that cost them the game, or the season, or whatever. The fantasy game or season, that is. Everyone regrets that they know someone who takes it to the next level by attacking those players themselves over the various mediums available to them. Social media has a lot of toxic rhetoric and sports figures are by no means exempt.

Expressing frustration over futile performance is not new to sports, but those who are riled up over the dropped catch or missed field goal are those upset over selfish, personally constructed reasons. If Julio Jones wasn’t catching touchdowns I would be miffed at Dan Quinn, not because the Falcons are losing, but because I am. Fantasy sports has created a large subsection of fans who care far more about some form of artificial yield player performance brings them, not the effect their play has on the sport itself or how it looks.

There is some metatheory out there that the NFL has tinkered with rules over and over again to create an offensive explosion in the league. This would be because offense appeals to the eyes of the viewer but also presumably because of the eruption of fantasy football. In the name of fantasy or not, offense has deliberately been grown to draw in more fans.

The next big thing, a sports business professional’s fantasy if you will, is the untapped revenue from legalized sports betting. After the supreme court struck down PASPA, numerous states have legalized sports betting, several more are on the way, and the leagues and teams have signed lucrative deals with major players in the gambling industry. Like marijuana, the taboo is fading away quickly. TV shows are built around it, and more and more of my friends seem to have a Bovada account.

They place bets on the big ones like the College Football Playoffs and the Super Bowl but also the obscure ones like Central Connecticut State versus Hartford on a Wednesday night. Having that action down incentivizes them to pay attention, but when people put in resources, they expect a result, and if they don’t, they emote.

Just like fantasy football, that conversation has taken to social media, but it also takes place in the day to day banter among buddies. After the Saints defeated the Eagles in the NFL playoffs, Saints kicker Will Lutz tweeted some congratulatory platitude. In response, he got a tweet from a user named Juan Carlos Moreno about how his missed kicked cost a man $1,700 on a parlay. Never mind that the Saints won the game, and played stifling defense with domineering offense to do so.

Unfortunately, as sports betting is sanctioned, both literally and in the public’s mind, I suspect we will have many more Juan Carlos Moreno’s. I know sports betting and its ancillary creations are not new, but there is a big difference between Al Michael’s making a coy reference from time to time and gambling parlance being ubiquitous. That is too bad. The incentive structure is becoming perverted. More and more fans are going to look to their money, not the results, or the way the game looks. To each their own, many gamblers don’t even watch the games they have action on, just look for the results. Those who do often feel incredibly invested, and changes in the betting outcomes unleash or sap adrenaline like few things I’ve ever seen.

So why do we watch sports? Why should we watch sports? Is it for us to win, to have our own positive result? Sports is considered entertainment, in a way its own art form. It appeals to the eye and the mind and the “heart.” It also gets the aforementioned adrenaline pumping in the meaningful moments. I don’t want the appeal of the wallet to override that. I don’t want fandom to become more about outcomes on the betting board, rather than the standings. I don’t want people watching and criticizing based on financial stakes, I want them watching for the sentiment of it all. Maybe it’s not mutually exclusive, and maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but I see Juan Carlos Moreno’s tweet and I see the future. Let’s observe with our eyes and our ears, not our wallets and side motivations.

In a fantastic piece for ESPN, Tom Junod profiled his relationship with his father, an obsessive NFL and sports better. This paragraph struck a chord for me. It is emblematic of my worries.

Two years after my wedding, my parents sold their house on Long Island and moved down to Florida. The house was the only asset they had left, and my father had to live the rest of his life on the proceeds of the sale, including investments. He didn’t find a new bookie in his new home. He didn’t go looking because he didn’t, as he explained to me, “have the money.” And then he stopped watching football altogether, because as it turned out, he wasn’t really a football fan at all. He was just a fan of betting.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.

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