You could bet $2, or more if you had it, on as many as four games and with odds up to 5-to-1. I think of my high school betting as an education in probability.
Mine was a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, an Irish order whose servants did not intervene in our casual delinquency. (The only sin, I suppose, would have been betting against Notre Dame.) Likewise, my father, a police detective, never wagered on anything but understood what people wanted — he once apologetically arrested his own barber, who doubled as a bookie, during a gambling raid. There were no hard feelings between the two, and normal tonsorial service resumed when the man got out of the pen. Yeah, it was Jersey.
It was also Jersey that unleashed legal sports betting on the nation in 2018, when the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 law that banned sports betting in most states.
We, the people, wanted a piece of the action, and we got it. And the betting ahead of this Sunday’s Super Bowl is the biggest action of all. A record 31.5 million Americans are expected to bet on the big game this year.
Americans bet some $50 billion last year, double the amount in 2020. In New York state, punters bet an astonishing $1.6 billion on their mobile devices in the first 23 days from Jan. 8 of this year, when mobile betting became legal. That number pushed the Empire State ahead of the Garden State in sports wagering. You can now bet on the outcomes of professional and college games in 30 states and D.C., with more on the way as governments compete for the tax revenue attached to gambling.
Betting has also unleashed a billion-dollar wave of advertising to attract more customers, turning the networks into hapless shills. Game broadcasts now routinely feature betting information, and you can’t watch any NFL game without seeing a Manning family member hustling for Caesars. Fox has basically merged its National Football League coverage with FOX Bet.
The ads also support an array of betting-focused programming. In New York City, you can now watch “The Betting Exchange” on the MSG network, “The Bettor Half Hour” and “Odds With Ends” presented by DraftKings Sportsbook on MSG+ and “Place Your Bets” on SNY, all local sports channels. There’s NBABet on NBA TV. And VSiN.com, a national betting channel. Think of it as CNBC, only for gamblers.
The explosive growth of sports gambling is yet another piece of our collective cognitive dissonance: We’re a nation that is now banning books while it is making book. We’re expanding legal marijuana to states where people are still in jail for selling marijuana. Texas is limiting women’s reproductive freedom while promoting its regulation-free business environment to out-of-state CEOs. The advent of crypto is about escaping Wall Street and the big banks and maximizing our financial freedom; so is taking the Bengals and points.
America has always had a conflicted relationship with its vices. Long before Powerball, the Continental Congress ran a lottery to finance the Revolutionary War. We’ve banned gambling, booze and drugs at various times in our history, with unsatisfying results. The proposed solutions — Prohibition, the never-ending, never-winnable war on drugs, and the long-held argument that state-sponsored gambling is a form of regressive taxation — rarely find public favor.
For decades, the NFL eschewed any connection to sports betting, knowing full well that in schools, on factory floors, in Fortune 500 headquarters and in every gin mill with a telephone booth people (including players) were betting on games. The league fought hard against New Jersey when the state legislature passed a sports-betting bill. But the NFL has never let hypocrisy stand in its way, whether that’s in addressing head injuries, “loyalty” to cities it abandons at the drop of a new stadium in, say, Las Vegas or the opportunity to stick its snout in another trough of money.
Now, the NFL’s bet against betting is off: The league has deals with seven betting shops that could generate more than $1 billion in income. As usual, betting will peak this Super Bowl week, when an estimated $7.61 billion will go up for grabs — a 78 percent increase over 2021.
Legalization hasn’t made betting any more appealing to me. I’m in a comically low-stakes football pool with some journalist friends. I might buy a $10 spot in the Super Bowl pool at my local pub, just to have a rooting interest. The long-term return on stocks is a far more rational investment than trying to guess which way a football will bounce.
But watching Cincinnati return a punt to the house to cover would be way more exciting.