Close Close
ThinkAdvisor

Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

$1 Billion in Super Bowl Bets Reshapes Sports Fandom

X
Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

The National Football League playoffs have been stellar, with great sports cities fielding teams in closely contested games awash in athleticism and nail-biter finishes. That’s why fans watch, right?

We care about our hometown team. Elite players inspire awe. Grace under pressure is instructive and humbling. Poignance and magic envelop the final march of quarterbacks like Tom Brady. The brutality can be so mesmerizing we briefly forget about the dangerous consequences for many of the players.

Fandom has all of that, and more, at work — and explains why so many different sports continue to captivate. The Super Bowl on Sunday pitting the Los Angeles Rams against the Cincinnati Bengals will be a case study of the genre. It’s also going to be a landmark day for sports betting, and as the gambling boom continues its digital march across the country, I think it will reshape many fans’ relationships to sports.

After all, gamblers now have myriad proposition bets available that allow them to wager on granular aspects of the Super Bowl, which is expected to draw at least $1 billion in legal action this year, and probably much more. They can bet on who wins the coin toss, the number of field goals kicked, who scores a touchdown, who scores first and last, how many times the quarterback gets sacked, who is named MVP, who gets the Gatorade bath and so on. They can also mix and match a group of prop bets to create a parlay; maybe some of those bets are on the Rams and others are on the Bengals, regardless of the team for which they’re cheering.

Sure, gamblers can lay down old-fashioned moneyline bets on which team simply wins or wager on whether a team covers its point spread, but FanDuel, DraftKings and all of the other mobile sports gambling apps want bettors to feast on much more. Variety, speed and instant gratification are big draws, which make some of those apps kindred spirits of stock trading platforms such as Robinhood.

If a wager is your magnet and you’re agnostic about outcomes beyond how your bet pays off, does that make you a different kind of fan — something other than a mere hometown supporter with a love of the game? To be sure, gambling increases fans’ involvement with the intricacies of a game, and usually it’s just extra entertainment. Only a small minority of gamblers develop disorders, although studies of that problem largely predate the online and mobile gambling explosion that’s brought wagering into homes.

But I’m wondering about something other than gambling addiction or the corruption and game-fixing that will inevitably accompany wagering’s expansion. I’m wondering, for lack of better words, about hyperstimulation and numbness. I’m wondering if ubiquitous betting will inalterably change how fans engage with and feed off of sporting events.

A 2015 University of Nevada, Las Vegas study of how betting affected fans found that gamblers, predictably, thought that “placing a sport wager would add a great deal of excitement to the sport consumption experience.” A much smaller portion of fans examined in the study felt that gambling would affect their viewing “negatively” because it would be a “distraction.” The word “distraction” is doing a lot of work in that study.

I had an uncle who, decades ago, always planted himself in front of a TV to watch sports in our den as soon as he arrived for holiday gatherings. He sat there staring blankly at the screen, took a break for dinner, and then went back to the TV until it was time to leave. He wasn’t cheering or cheerful, and I thought he was a cipher. Years later, I came to understand that he always had bets riding on those games and he was watching like a grinder, hoping for a payoff.

Today’s gamblers, fixated on their phones, navigate the same waters. “You used to go to the bar and it was, ‘Oh, who’s your favorite sports team?’” Henry Sonnenfeldt, a 24-year-old New Yorker, recently told Bloomberg News. “Now, it’s, ‘What bets have you placed?’ which I think is a big pressure just to have something.”

That pressure will keep ramping up. Sports gambling ads plaster billboards, train stations and network airwaves. Promotional deals abound. (“Bet $20, Get $300 in Free Bets.”) A DraftKings ad teasing its coming Super Bowl ad is par for the course. “You’ve got to embrace the uncertainty,” a pitchwoman advises. “Fortune awaits!”

To be sure, gambling has always been inextricably entwined with sports, particularly football. Two of the NFL’s founding families, the Rooneys and Maras, made their money in gambling before transitioning into sports. But the folksy, black market world of back-alley bookies familiar to those families later gave way to Las Vegas oddsmakers. The oddsmakers then got swept up by the internet and the digital revolution. When the Supreme Court allowed all states to offer sports gambling in 2018, the floodgates opened.

Nevada lost its crown as the top sports betting state to New Jersey as a result of that ruling. New Jersey is likely to lose its top spot this year to New York, which began offering mobile sports betting in January. California will consider legalizing sports betting in November, and if it jumps in it will likely top New York eventually.

But state lines won’t ultimately matter all that much. Technology and the Supreme Court have made sports betting as convenient as picking up your phone. Sports gamblers wagered $310 million in June 2018. They wagered $7 billion last October. That figure is only going to grow larger. How, where and why fans get worked up for the Super Bowl and other sports extravaganzas is going to change.

For more Bloomberg Opinion columns, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/opinion.


Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

Copyright 2022 Bloomberg. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.