Here is a true story: In the fall of 1994, fairly early during the ascension of fantasy football into a national obsession, I founded a league with some fellow University of Delaware freshmen I had barely met. This was in an age when you still waited anxiously for the occasional update jingle with hopes that the TV broadcast would tell you who had just scored in the Chiefs-Broncos game, and when you didn’t know your final fantasy score until you got the newspaper the next morning (Google it), and when you would make beautiful hand-drawn fantasy box scores on graph paper to track your results and also because you had absolutely no social life.
Twenty-three years later, I stayed up on Christmas night, watching Monday’s trash game between the Eagles and Raiders — a sloppy affair that interested me not at all in the macro — simply because five receiving yards from Nelson Agholor would finally deliver me my first-ever championship in that 23-year old league.
Agholor had zero yards at halftime, and I was so frustrated that I went to bed, only getting back out of bed when I saw that Agholor finally got me the yards I needed, at which point my wife and I went back to the kitchen and opened a bottle of champagne. Well, sparkling wine. Man, what a great night.
Okay, cool. Thanks for reading. No, no, wait, what I meant was: For the 23rd NFL season in a row, I’ve watched football games that interested me only for the dumbest and yet most wonderful reason: possible financial gain. And now, with critics on all sides assailing the NFL and predicting the league’s decline, local sports impresario Ted Leonsis says the league has one hope: legalized gambling.
“To me, it’s the only thing that will save the NFL,” Leonsis recently told ESPN 980 host Bram Weinstein.
Leonsis isn’t the only NBA owner who enjoys picking at the NFL’s hegemony; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban famously predicted in 2014 that the league was “10 years away from an implosion” and asked this month why he would buy an NFL team if he believes the league is in decline. Leonsis has frequently zeroed in on the NFL’s small window of actual game action, something he calls antithetical to continuous-action sports like hockey or basketball.
“The NFL is an outdoor sport, invented for television, with views from the 50-yard line with talking heads as the true stars of the game,” he wrote on his blog this month. “In a 3-hour game, a viewer will experience in stadium, in the suburbs, approximately 10 minutes of action. Attending a football game here in the greater Washington area can be a 6-hour investment of time getting to the game, watching the game, getting home. Who has 6 hours of time to watch 10 minutes of action?”
But he suggested in the Weinstein interview that football might capitalize on its frequent pauses to facilitate live betting in a legalized future, with game broadcasts geared around such gambling, causing an explosion in live data and financial analysis.
“And you could imagine again the announcers no longer saying, ‘Hey it’s 3rd and 9, Sonny, what do you think he’s gonna do,’ and Sonny says ‘Well back in 1967 when we played the Giants, I ran a bootleg,’ and they burn through the 30 seconds,” Leonsis said. “Instead, it will be ‘3rd and 9 when the weather is 60 degrees outside and the team is on this yard line, here’s what teams have done statistically,’ so that you have access to real-time data and you can make an informed opinion, and in this case a bet.”
Leonsis has in recent years emerged as a vocal proponent of legalized sports gambling, and not just to save football. He said in the interview that he foresees in-arena betting in American sports venues, that he even imagines in-arena WNBA betting, which could help drive attendance and interest in women’s basketball. He said that betting on games inside American venues “will not be an oddity; that will be standing operating procedure.” And he said he could imagine ESPN2 essentially morphing into a gambling trading network, the CNBC of sports gambling.
“It’s not like people aren’t gambling,” he said. “It’s kind of like when prohibition of liquor was happening, and people were drinking in speakeasies and the like. And so it’s estimated that there’s hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars that are being spent with bookies. . . . And so states need revenues, we need tax revenues, we need to be able to have a system that is very transparent with the amount of data. I joked the other day with someone from ESPN, I said look, if you’re a day trader or you’re in the financial community, you have CNBC on 24/7. And there are buy-side analysts and there are sell-side analysts and there’s a ticker. You could see one day ESPN2 being like CNBC.
“Gambling is no different than betting on stocks on Wall Street, right? The people who do best are the most informed. They’re following the companies, they’re looking at the balance sheets, they’re looking at the analysts reports. That’s what I envision 10 years from now: that gaming and gambling will be very data driven, all powered through the digital networks; that the amount of data that teams and leagues and players generate will make for very educated, smart people; and there’ll be casual gamblers and there’ll be serious professional ones, and there won’t be a stigma attached to it, just like there’s no stigma on Wall Street.”
And then we can all celebrate with champagne. Well, sparkling wine.
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