Gambling And Sports

Despite the protestations of the NFL Commissioner – - and the two previous incumbents in that position – -, the foundation of the NFL’s popularity is gambling on the outcome of the games and various proposition wagers associated with the games. In the US, more money “goes down” on football games than on any other sport; when people have a financial interest in the outcomes – - in addition to any fan interest – - they pay attention to the games more closely; hence TV ratings; hence large fees for TV rights… And because lots of NFL fans love to bet on NFL games, there will be a lot of them in Las Vegas next weekend. In fact, if you don’t count the folks at the Super Bowl who are there as sponsors or “corporate partners” with the league or the teams, then there will be more fans in Las Vegas next week than in Dallas.

From the outset, let me acknowledge that I have never been to Las Vegas for a Super Bowl. I have been to Las Vegas when other major sporting events with a wagering focus have happened – - such as the first two rounds of March Madness and the Breeders’ Cup races. With those as a gauge and based on chats I have had with folks behind the counter where wagers are made, the Super Bowl is a significantly bigger draw in the sportsbooks. That means the sportsbooks will be jumping next weekend. This year, the Vegas folks hope that the handle on the game wagers will top $90M and some are hoping that this year’s handle can eclipse the all-time record for legal wagering on the Super Bowl in Vegas set 5 years ago [Seahawks/Steelers] at $94.5M

The recession hit Las Vegas. Despite the bold front put on by the promoters there, tourism dropped significantly after the financial meltdown in September 2008. Last year the Super Bowl handle was a mere $82.7M. Let me be clear about $82.7M; I would be ecstatic to find that balance in my stock portfolio one of these days knowing full well that will happen six months after Terrell Owens is ordained as a Trappist monk. Nevertheless, that handle of $82.7M is down 13% from the largest handle in 2006. For the handle to get north of $90M this year, it will have to go up almost 10% from last year.

One reason for the optimism is that fans of the Steelers and the Packers travel well. Not only will they travel to Dallas to see their teams, lots of them will travel to Las Vegas to “represent” in that venue. And if you are in Vegas “representing” the chances are very good that you will avail yourself of the trivially easy task of getting down a wager or two on the game.

According to reports, the sportsbooks did well during this NFL season but they did “take a beating” last week. Supposedly, there were lots of parlay wagers taking the Packers and the Steelers; when both covered, the books paid out at 13-to-5 on some hefty wagers and the books “went red” last weekend. However, if you ever travel to Vegas to see the casinos and the sportsbooks there, you will quickly realize that these establishments do not “go red” very often or for very long periods of time. Last weekend did provide the sportsbooks with a small respite, however.

The NY Jets opened the season at 20-1 to win the Super Bowl and at 10-1 to make it to the game. Reportedly, there was enough of that action to drop that line to 15-1 as early as Week 3 or 4 of the NFL season. As the year went on, and the Jets record stood up, more money came in and the odds dropped to 9 -1 to win it all and 4-1 to make it to the Super Bowl. When the Jets lost last weekend, there was a cash infusion into the sportsbooks.

Speaking of gambling on sporting events, Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympics Committee, announced that the IOC will be meeting with “governments and other interested parties” sometime in March to discuss illegal betting on sports. According to an AP report, Rogge says that illegal gambling is as serious a threat to sports as doping and that it needs to be confronted with “seriousness and unity”. Some of the other interested parties in these talks will be sports officials, legal sports betting entities and public international bodies.

I suspect you all know my position on any and all attempts to eradicate illegal betting on sports or on anything else. Let me summarize in three words:

        It won’t work.

People gamble. Like it or not, people gamble. They gamble with cards and with dice; they gamble on sports; they gamble (speculate) on stock prices and commodity prices; they play lotteries; they play slot machines … you get the picture.

When legal/regulated/”approved” avenues to channel that gambling urge are unavailable – - or merely inconvenient – - , people will gamble in “illegal ways”. I do not care what kind of organizational entity attempts to eradicate illegal gambling, it just is not going to happen. Just because governments and a bunch of plutocrats decide that some activity or human condition is less than ”worthy”, that does not mean it can be taken out. If you do not believe that last statement, let me remind you of the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs. The first has been ongoing for about 45 years; the second has been ongoing for about 30 years. And how are those things working out…? Is there any poverty left? Do people continue to use illegal drugs?

I have this hunch that if the IOC could figure out a way where it could “dip its beak” into the illegal gambling cash flow, they would not be hosting this convocation in the first place. Now remember:

    The only difference between a cynic and a realist is whether or not you agree with him.

Finally, here is a comment on gambling from Greg Cote of the Miami Herald:

“They’re back up and running at Gulfstream, where they have slots, poker, dining, shopping, nightlife and — time permitting — maybe a horse race.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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