The Press Has a Gambling Problem

From AP and CBS to the New York Times, it's fueling the sports betting craze.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

In the three years since the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on the states’ ability to restrict gambling on sports, the industry has exploded. While the signs banning gambling on games by players, coaches and umpires remain in baseball clubhouses—where they have been since the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox scandal—there is now a gambling parlor ensconced in Wrigley Field, home of the crosstown Cubs, and one of only two parks that remain from the Black Sox era.1

Aware that gamblers watch more than non-gamblers, the NFL, which used to forbid mention of gambling on the telecasts of its games, now has a billion dollar deal to let online sportsbooks boast of being official NFL sponsors. CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC, the NFL’s broadcasters, all have sportsbook deals of their own. The Wall Street Journal has reported that ESPN was negotiating to license its own brand to a sportsbook; Fox and Sports Illustrated have already done this, with Fox prominently using Terry Bradshaw for football and David (“Big Papi”) Ortiz for baseball to urge viewers to gamble on their platform.

Most fantasy players have, at least according to some studies, converted to gambling on the games they used to chart, as this comprehensive Columbia Journalism Review article noted. Even the New York Times now calls its weekly football predictions “our picks against the spread.” In all, more than $40 billion will be wagered this year in this country, with perhaps 10% of that on sports, a proportion that is growing quickly.

Gambling addiction affects millions of Americans, and has been linked to domestic violence, drug addiction, bankruptcy and suicide. States aren’t doing much about this, though—it feels like thinking about legal gambling is in a place analogous to automobiles before seatbelts, no less Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

That’s not my subject for this week’s column, but it is essential background.

My subject is how this is corrupting the press.

Amid the flurry of deals with gambling companies, both the Associated Press and CBS took money to make particular sportsbooks the exclusive provider of wagering information (most prominently, point spreads) in their news feeds. It’s as if AP accepted cash from one pollster to feature its proprietary take on political horse races. AP wouldn’t do that, you might think. Are you still sure? Business is tough all over.

Within the betting frenzy, a particular growth area has been what are called “proposition bets.” “Prop” wagers don’t hinge on the outcome of games, but on some event within one, or related to games, like how many strikeouts a pitcher will record, or when and by whom a football player will be drafted.

One implication of prop betting is that it is much more easily subject to insider trading, that is, betting based on knowledge that is not yet public: Who’s injured and won’t play? How is thinking about draft choices evolving? What tactics will a team employ in a game, and how are the resulting statistics likely to be impacted?

That CJR article I mentioned alleges that numerous football reporters are using this kind of information to bet on their beat, including on games they are covering. It was published three months ago, and if it launched a raft of internal investigations, they have been conducted very quietly, and apparently concluded, if at all, without result. Meanwhile, business reporters engaging in analogous conduct with the trading of securities would be summarily fired, and actually subject to prosecution.

Many sports fans these days bemoan how much sports coverage is about things other games— greed, racism, misogyny and domestic violence, sexual abuse, disinformation. It is a shame that our era is like that, that things keep happening in the sports world that compel such coverage. But that is not the fault of the press; indeed, reporting on these events, when they happen, is a big part of the job.

It is not the job of the press to wean sports businesses from their own blooming wagering addiction, but it is emphatically also not the job of the press to make things worse. When it comes to gaming and games, we are too often doing just that.

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There is no serious question that the Black Sox scandal posed a serious threat to baseball— every contemporary observer agreed. It is true that baseball attendance rose from 1919 to 1920 (when the scandal was revealed), although it then fell in 1921, as the Black Sox were farcically tried in a criminal case, and took a couple of years to recover to 1920 levels, even as the postwar economic boom and Babe Ruth’s Home Run Revolution played out.

But that is all rather beside the point: while gambling may heighten interest in sports, doubt about whether players and teams are trying to succeed cannot help but undermine interest. If the current explosion of gambling culminates in a major cheating scandal, the costs to the sport(s) involved will almost certainly be large.