Football’s addictive connections

Let’s start with something very obvious:  Western New York has an addiction to the Buffalo Bills.  Look at all the shirts, jackets, and hats – not just at a game, but in the everyday, walking around world.  The community is living and dying with every completed pass and missed extra point.  Checking off the upcoming schedule, not only for the Bills, but also the Chiefs and Dolphins is a must.  Projecting games that will be easy wins and those that will be difficult is a part of many conversations.  Calculating the chances of a first-round bye in the playoffs is the favorite math question in the area.

It’s catchy.  It is an addiction of sorts, but one that is mostly on the good side of things.  It’s like the words written on the football at the end of the M&T Bank-Stefon Diggs TV commercial: “Football brings us together.”

On an annual basis most of the top 25/50/100 watched TV shows are football games.  People plan their lives around the sport and its growing presence.  Sunday football offers competition for Sunday religious services.  What was once a Sunday afternoon only event now consumes Sunday nights, Monday nights, Thursday nights, and in December and January, Saturdays too.  In 2023 the NFL will add a game on Black Friday.

While that is all fun, there is a darker side to the football addiction:  gambling.  Online gambling is hanging over all sports, but as the premier sports league in this country, the National Football League is the focal point for it all.  There has always been gambling on football, but it had mostly been contained to office pools, bets among friends, Las Vegas betting parlors, and bookies.  Now it is all out in the open and growing like topsy.

When you think about it the NFL has always had a connection to one form of addiction or another.  Back in the day, before the federal government started to aggressively lobby to restrict or eliminate cigarette smoking, there were lots of TV commercials about cigarettes.  Then came the beer commercials, which in recent years have pretty much faded from a presence on football telecasts.

But then in 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that online gambling was legal as set up and regulated by the states.  It took a while to get going, but now at least 30 states, including New York, allow online sports gambling; interestingly, California voters this month turned down the proposition.  Each state has its own rules, some looser than others.  Most states, for example, prohibit the use of credit cards to pay for a bet, but it is permitted in Tennessee and Iowa.

And the money keeps rolling in – for the operators of the gambling sites and the state governments.  Governor Kathy Hochul recently reported that since online gambling was turned on in New York last January the state has through October 30, 2022, collected more than $742 million in revenues, far beyond original projections.  Two hundred million of that money came from the state licenses for the original four licensees, with more to come; there are nine operators in the state now.  Only six million dollars of the state revenues is directed to helping people who are or become addicted to gambling.  Most of the revenue goes to education, which will either increase funding opportunities for schools and/or allow the state to use less revenues for schools from other sources such as income taxes to fund education.  New York revenue from online gambling dwarfs all other states.

A press release from the Governor’s office earlier this month noted “a final statistic to accentuate the popularity of pro football mobile sports wagering in New York State shows the average number of transactions on Sundays since the start of the 2022 season at 5.7 million.” Let that sink in — 5.7 million online gambling transactions in New York State on Sunday!

The online gambling systems that have been established are not your grandfather’s version of gambling on a football game.  You are not just limited to betting on who will win a game.  There are all sorts of “prop” bets available:  who will score next; will the next play be a pass or a run; will there be a safety in the games; how many passing or running yards will a team produce in a game; etc., etc.

A recent article in the New York Times reported on the scams that the gambling site operators employ.  “Free” bets are offered, some up to $1,000.  The thing is, if you win on such a bet you cannot collect the money; you need to make more bets with the money you won.  As anyone who has gambled knows, repeated bets have a way of catching up with the gambler, and it is only a matter of time before the odds turn and you are required to come up with real money.  All the sites come with contractual arrangements that would boggle the mind of the most scholarly lawyer.  The gambling sites try to soften the impact with small print disclaimers telling people to gamble responsibly.

It wasn’t so long ago that all professional sports were strongly opposed to any connection to gambling and players were prohibited from coming near anyone or any place connected with gambling.  Now, however, stadiums, including Highmark Stadium in Erie County, are including gambling lounges in their own facilities and advertising a team’s favorite gambling site prominently in the building.  Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, two NFL players who were suspended for their gambling activities in 1963, must be rolling over in their graves.  Part of their punishment was that they were prohibited from going to Las Vegas.  How quaint, say the Las Vegas Raiders.

It probably too soon into this football-gambling rage to see the real serious problems, but it is likely that as time goes on we will be reading a great deal about bankruptcies, domestic violence, and family tragedies that stem from the inevitable loss of money and more.  And there is the horrific possibility of player or coach involvement.  Unfortunately, you cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

Twitter @kenkruly

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