Last week, the Missouri legislature rejected measures to legalize sports gambling in the state. Entering 2023, sports gambling was legal in 36 states plus Washington D.C., and there is a spot, the East St. Louis, IL venue now known as DraftKings at Casino Queen, which is a seven minute drive, thirteen minute MetroLink ride, or even a 2 hour and 27 minute walk from Busch Stadium where somebody who is twenty-one years or older can legally place a bet on the St. Louis Cardinals.
The most publicized reason cited for rejection of the proposition came from state senator Bill Eigel, who declared that his constituents did not care about legal sports gambling and that his priorities were with providing tax cuts. This is a deeply confounding reason for opposing legal sports gambling–sports gambling is a giant revenue generator and this revenue could make the justification for tax cuts much clearer–and one which seems built around generating a sound bite for his constituents rather than any sort of practical governance. But while the St. Louis Cardinals have joined all of the other major Missouri-based professional sports teams in endorsing legalized sports gambling, and while my general distaste for the Missouri legislature (for reasons which fall outside the sports adjacency of this website) may make me want to side in favor of it as a general rule of thumb, there are legitimate concerns about sports gambling which must be addressed, not only by Missouri but across the country and the world.
Before I continue, I should disclose the following: I have been to, and enjoyed, sportsbooks. I don’t gamble on sports a lot, but I will do it from time to time for relatively small amounts (the largest sports bet I have ever placed was $20). I live within ten minutes of a Missouri casino and I would probably partake more often with this geographic convenience. I say all of these things because I believe that one’s aesthetic biases should not inform one’s belief in how larger society should run, but also they inevitably will. I can also say that I cannot stand gambling-centric sports programming and find it extremely tedious to hear some guy on that show that comes on before Cardinals games on Bally Sports Midwest explain why betting on Jayson Tatum to tally 6.5 points in the third quarter of some random Boston Celtics game is a smart bet. But again, that’s a matter of my own taste. Enjoyment of sports betting, or dislike of sports betting culture, is not, to me, a reason to tinker with its legality.
The thing that compelled me to write this actually has nothing at all to do with baseball, but rather with the NBA–specifically, the odds that FanDuel is promoting for tonight’s NBA Draft Lottery, and how the existence of these odds is a transparent display of what casinos are trying to do. Consider, for instance, the current line on tonight’s Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets game–in layman’s terms, the Lakers, who finished seventh in the regular season in the West, are on the road against the one-seed Nuggets, who have been dominant at home, and thus if you were to bet one dollar on the Lakers to win, you would get a return of three dollars–the initial investment plus two more dollars. The Nuggets are generally perceived to be the superior team, and most would argue that the statistical evidence backs this up, but there is at least a theoretical inefficiency which could be exploited–these set odds are based on a reasonable but unknowable hypothesis about what could happen. But odds on the NBA Draft Lottery are not based on analysis of how good or bad NBA teams are–they are literally known. It is public knowledge how many ping pong balls each team has. And the published odds do not align with that.
The Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs each have a 14% chance of winning the lottery–mathematically, each should have a betting line of +714 to reflect this–they sit instead at +550, which means that if you bet $100 on the draft lottery (for the love of God, do not do this), you’d get $164 less than what the break-even point suggests you should. The longest shot, the New Orleans Pelicans, have a 0.5% chance of winning, which would generate a mathematical line of +20000–their actual casino odds generate half of the payout. In the case of the draft lottery, the game is straight up rigged against bettors. Anybody giving this any thought should know this, of course, but sportsbooks are not thriving on math–they are thriving on impulse. The only possible justification for betting on the draft lottery would be if you had some sort of evidence that the integrity of the lottery had been compromised, a time-honored tradition for conspiracy theorists. The compromised integrity of sports as it pertains to gambling would be nothing new.
Defenders of Pete Rose, banished from baseball for life in the 1980s for gambling on Cincinnati Reds games which he managed, will note that there is no evidence that Rose ever bet against the Reds, and thus his gambling interests always aligned with his professional interests–to borrow parlance from a different casino game, he was doubling down on his initial desire. In a very broad sense, this was true, but the presence of gambling made his incentives more immediate–for instance, if he has money on a game, he would have less incentive to pull pitchers who have increased risk of injury. In a recent, specific, and more egregious example of what is effectively insider trading, now-former University of Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon earlier this season scratched his top starting pitcher (by all accounts, the reasons for doing so were themselves legitimate) but then informed somebody of this before it became public knowledge, who then proceeded to place a large bet on LSU, Alabama’s upcoming opponent. This is not the only gambling scandal currently festering in college sports–multiple Iowa and Iowa State athletes have been suspended due to suspicion of conspiring with gamblers. This issue hardly predates legal sports gambling–there was the 1951 point shaving scandal involving City College of New York, the 1978-79 Boston College point shaving orchestrated by a pre-driving around being chased by helicopters which “Jump Into the Fire” plays Henry Hill, and most famously the 1919 Black Sox scandal. But with sports gambling further proliferated, the risk has grown.
I will note that I am not especially worried about a major sports gambling scandal in the major professional ranks–unlike in 1919, the scrutiny on such a game-fixing racket is extremely high and the financial incentive of potential participants is quite a bit lower. But the concerns are very much there outside of high-level sports. Even with the infiltration of Name Image and Likeness money into college sports, most college baseball players are not making significant money and are much more vulnerable to be compromised. Forget how this impacts the integrity of the sports themselves–consider how this impacts those who are placing bets on them. Any form of gambling–state-run lotteries, classic casino gaming, or sportsbook–tend to be effectively regressive taxes–a disproportionate percentage of the income comes from those who can least afford it. And the two things that make such a system palatable are one, that participation is voluntarily, and two, that it is heavily regulated. When it comes to casino games, the literal odds are public knowledge–roulette odds are a matter of simple math, Blackjack has been straight up solved to a point where a simple chart showing the mathematically correct actions are available on its Wikipedia page, and there are published pieces devoted to showing which slot machines offer the highest payouts (in the 90s of percents–never over 100%). Unlike a spin of a roulette wheel, which comes down to the movement of an inanimate object, sports gambling is determined by humans which can be influenced by something other than their level of effort.
Ultimately, I think I would support a world in which sports gambling is legal but more heavily restricted–say, only on top-tier professional sports, and only available on sites, rather than being allowed on phone apps which can prey on those with serious gambling addictions. But I do think there is a discussion to be had. Even if its most influential opponents in Missouri refuse to deal with the actual potential harms of legalized sports gambling, that does not mean that such harms do not exist and do not merit examination beyond that sports teams, not exactly known for their benevolence to the needy in society, think it’s good and therefore it’s good.