College sports have a gambling problem
Why the advent of sports gambling threatens everything special about sports
Sports betting is the biggest thing that we’re not talking about as a society. Well, maybe “not talking about” isn’t the right way to put it. How about “not framing the right way?” Yeah, that works better.
Chances are, as I can see from readership and membership stats, you live in a state where sports betting is legalized. At the time of this writing, 23 states and Washington D.C. allow sports betting. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to live in those states, I’m sure you’ve been bombarded by FanDuel commercials with Kevin Hart or MGM TV spots with Jamie Foxx. Even if you’re not in those states, I’m sure you’ve been inundated by the release of ESPN Bet, the sports gambling arm of ESPN that inserts lines and betting metrics into every conversation about sports.
While gambling itself is a problem for some people and gambling addictions are very real and very bad, gambling and sports working together is especially problematic. Why? Let’s break it down.
We might not have as much football as before, but that just means it’s time to delve into the off-field side of College Football. Subscribe to SID Sports to stay in the loop on everything college football!
What is sports betting?
That’s right, we’re starting at the very beginning. Sports betting is more than just your typical fantasy sports that you play with your friends or your office March Madness pool. While that is technically gambling, sports betting takes that a step further.
The way modern sportsbooks are constructed makes two styles of betting the most popular: moneylines and the spread. Moneylines are betting on a team to win a game outright. So, for example, you can bet money that Illinois will upset Penn State. If it happens, you “hit,” or win based on the odds the sportsbook set. If Penn State wins, the book pockets your cash.
The spread takes that simple concept a step further. Let’s look at some of the more lopsided games. For example, Georgia is clearly going to beat Ball State. If you bet your hard-earned money on the Cardinals, you’d be wasting it. How do the sportsbooks make this interesting? They set a “spread.” Essentially, they tack on point totals to the underdog, or in this case, Ball State. For this game, the spread is a whopping 42 points. To see if your bet hits, you add 42 to Ball State’s score and then see who wins. So, if Georgia wins 48-7 and we add the 42 to Ball State’s score, we end up with a 48-49 Cardinal victory.
Now, you might be asking what are these odds you keep talking about? Sportsbooks get to set the odds of some event happening for the week leading up to the game. Most often, these odds are shown by a plus or minus digit. Taking that same Georgia vs. Ball State example, Ball State with the spread, or the 42 points, has odds of -115 at this writing. That means if you bet $115 on Ball State and the points, you’d win $100.
As you get further into the rabbit hole of gambling, you can find more opportunities to bet. There are over/unders, where you bet on the total points scored in the game and if it will be over or under the amount set by the books. You can get into prop bets, where you can put money on whether or not Will Shipley will run for 100 yards or if Carson Beck will throw three or more touchdowns. You can even bet in app during a game with adjusted odds. The sportsbooks are certainly creative in how to present different gambling opportunities.
So how does this apply to college sports?
You’d be surprised how quickly the legalization of sports betting has already permeated the college football world.
16 student-athletes were identified to have been gambling on sports at Iowa and Iowa State this summer, with five charged with tampering and plead guilty to the lower charge of underage gambling in September. According to prosecutors, at least five of those athletes laid down wagers on their own games, which is egregious.
When we think of sports betting gone wrong, we often focus on the bigger scandals, like the Black Sox, Pete Rose and his Hall of Fame bids, and former NBA official Tim Donaghy. But for current college athletes to bet on their own games this close to the legalization of sports betting, it shows that this problem continues to grow and fester.
Right now, the NCAA is speaking out of both ends of their mouth. They’re saying that athletes, staff, and administrators cannot be involved in gambling, even down to March Madness pools and fantasy sports. Don’t believe me? Check out this handout the NCAA gave to its athletes, staff and administrators about the dangers of gambling. When I took my last SID role, I had to sign off on this paper that I would not participate in any of the “gambling” laid out here, or face removal from my job and potential criminal charges.
At the same time, conferences are negotiating with “exclusive betting partners” to make betting information more accessible to the public. It all kicked off in May 2022 when the Mid-American Conference signed a deal with Genius Sports to make Genius the league’s statistical data partner. What does that mean? It means Genius Sports has access to all of the MAC’s statistical data and can then sell it to various companies. Which companies, might you ask? Well, there’s only one sector that doesn’t already have that access: sports betting.
The MAC and Genius did check with the NCAA to see how the data would apply on the governing body’s rules against sharing information with sportsbooks. The NCAA came back of the answer that, as long as the information is public, it can be shared with sportsbooks. And that’s what happened.
What about away from the schools?
This is the area I’m most worried about.
Already, we’ve seen a stark pivot of advertising and coverage towards the gambling arm of college and professional athletics. This includes incessant commercials glorifying the risky nature of betting, countless sites, newsletters, and influencers dedicated to finding the best parlay to maybe hit, and betting lines permeating broadcasts.
But why is that a problem?
For one, sports gambling is highly addictive. The Addiction Center says that user-friendly, beginner-welcoming apps like DraftKings, FanDuel, Underdog, Prize Picks, Caesar’s, and others are drawing massive numbers of bettors. While sports betting addictions don’t seem so bad, the repercussions are costly, including financial, relationship and legal issues that permeate a person’s life.
We’re also seeing record numbers of people betting on sports. The same Addiction Center piece says that the number of people using sportsbooks doubled in 2021, and now sits at 12% of Americans. The American Gaming Association reported that 39.2 million Americans placed a legal sports wager in 2023. A November 2022 Harris poll showed that 71% of sports bettors put money on games on a weekly basis, and an even more concerning 20% put money on games every day.
Modern media is rapidly shifting to introduce more gambling content and focus more on the betting side, but this is a rapidly growing problem across the nation. I’d even go so far as to say this constant focus on betting numbers and lines is exacerbating this problem.
But, it gets worse.
Tin foil hat time
Okay everyone, get your tin foil hats on because this is about to get weird.
What’s the biggest, most influential organization in major college football? If you answered the NCAA, you’d be wrong. The answer is really ESPN.
Wait, what? How is ESPN more influential on the sport than its governing body. The answer is clear: the playoff.
The College Football Playoff is a separate entity from the NCAA, and is the only championship that is not administered by the NCAA. That’s why the football NCAA Champion comes from the FCS ranks, where the NCAA regulates the postseason. The Playoff, on the other hand, is governed by a Board of Managers, which changes each year and is made up on representatives from all 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame.
The Playoff and its Board of Managers have to televise the games, though, and they have a major media partner in, you guessed it, ESPN. The worldwide leader in sports broadcasts all of the Playoff games through 2025, and their interest in broadcasting the extended postseason was instrumental in the Playoff even starting in 2015.
While the on-screen commentators of the selection show claimed to not know the final field of four, some set choices may have suggested otherwise.
Is it possible that the four helmets were just there coincidentally? Sure. But Kirk is at an ESPN set. Someone had to set that up, right?
But, let’s look off-screen to some other metrics. Florida State lost their starting quarterback, Jordan Travis, to a gruesome knee injury that ended his collegiate career. Tate Rodemaker, the backup, missed the ACC Championship in concussion protocol. Third stringer Brock Glenn had a rocky introduction to college football, going 8-21 passing for only 90 yards. The Seminoles held on in an ugly brand of football, though, and stayed undefeated.
Alabama notched a signature win over No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship, but had a loss earlier to Texas. The top three were all but guaranteed, and Florida State seemed like a lock as an undefeated Power Five champion. Never had the playoff committee left out a team with that resume. That changed as Alabama vaulted over the Seminoles into the final spot.
Looking at matchups, which one sounds like a better game to watch? Michigan against Alabama, or Michigan against Jordan Travis-less Florida State? The Playoff always draws major viewers, but one of those two matchups has significantly more pull.
But let’s dig further, shall we? ESPN made a major acquisition in late 2020 by signing a 10-year exclusive broadcasting deal with the SEC for football and men’s basketball. Which of those two schools play in the SEC? You guessed it: Alabama.
There’s more. ESPN just made a major change in their business model, launching a new app called ESPN Bet on November 14. Their new sportsbook started taking bets that date.
So, let’s recap. ESPN owns the rights to the Playoff broadcasts. The Selection Show is on their network. They just acquired the rights to the biggest conference brand in major college football, and their conference champion was a fringe Playoff team. And they just launched a new sportsbook app just weeks before Playoff selection. Throw in set coincidences and we have a mighty compelling circumstantial case here.
Now, I’m not saying ESPN rigged the playoff to get the SEC in. But we are talking about the network that led the realignment charge that killed the PAC-12 and is pushing the sport towards superconferences. Could leaving Florida State, the ACC Champion, out force them to move to the SEC, a more profitable ESPN conference? Time will tell.
ESPN Bet’s role can’t be ignored either. And as gambling becomes legalized across America, problems like this, or the Iowa-Iowa State betting scandals, are only going to get worse.
It’s time to reign in the gambling and focus on what makes college football special: the sport.