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Keith Strudler: The ESPN Casino

Not that the state of Connecticut isn’t exciting enough as it is, but it seems possible that New York’s second bedroom state might get even more thrills for its residents and visitors. It might get its own ESPN branded sports book. That’s right, a brick and mortar facility where you can bet on all your favorite sporting events under the distinctive branding of the company that broadcasts pretty much all of those games. It’s like a Disney Cruise or eating at a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, or any number of branded experiences done as a clear cash grab. In essence, ESPN would be getting in the same game that’s exploded across the US with companies like Draft Kings and Fan Duel and a bunch of other digital outfits you’ve likely never heard of. All in all, it’s approaching a $30 billion market in the US, and, not to brag, New Jersey leads the way with over six billion. Of course, a small minority of this is done in actual physical casinos. Perhaps that number will go up with ESPN’s foray.

To be fair, pretty much every sports network has some kind of gambling affiliation, typically with an online service. There’s a lot of reasons for that, even though they all come back to money. For starters, there’s an open recognition that sports fans will continue to watch a game if they have a financial interest in its outcome, or some subset thereof. So integrating gambling into the network itself provides one stop shopping but also an incentive to stay right where they are. Second, while sports networks may historically have tried to present some façade of distance from the seedier parts of the athletic enterprise, there’s no pretense of that distain any longer – especially since it’s legal pretty much everywhere now. And finally, the leagues themselves – like the NBA – have embraced what was once thought as the third rail of sports. So if the leagues are cool with it, then why not ESPN?

In some ways, an uptick in sports gambling feels quite appropriate in our goal of making sure post-pandemic America resembles the roaring 20’s – that 1920’s. We have suffered enough, so now is the time to spend like there’s no tomorrow. And to be clear, people will spend. For everyone who pretends they make money gambling on sports, there’s dozens of folks who are hiding a more obvious reality. The bank always wins in the end. This, I assume, was tempered by the relative scarcity of opportunities, making it slightly more challenging to lose next week’s paycheck. But the ubiquity of places to lose money and their enhanced credibility make it far more difficult to just say no.

I do understand why ESPN, and FOX, and the NBA, and state governments are taking advantage of this income opportunity. There are finite dollars in this universe, and our viewing tastes have mutated considerably over the years. Where sports fans may have once enjoyed watching a four-hour baseball game simply for its athletic pleasures, that era is far gone. We view sport as a series of commodities joined by a through line, making the economics of the transaction far more difficult. And sports fans are part of the high paced, mobile first, data driven world that we all live in. That is the terrain of sports wagering and fantasy sports, where everyone is an expert with a need for instant gratification. So I get why ESPN wants to open a casino, even if it’s just a small part of their economic empire.

That said, I’m not going to pretend that these decisions don’t have consequences – and apologies for sounding old. It’s not that I think people should learn to appreciate sport as it is in all its splendor without the added buzz of parlays. The world changes, and tastes change with it. It’s simply that I don’t believe that gambling as a social phenomenon comes without a social cost, one that might be greater than its economic one. We sometimes forget that addictive behaviors truly are so, particularly when we can rationalize their pleasure to the masses. But there’s a cost to encouraging people to commodify athletes – and that’s what this does – and encourage folks to turn their money into hopes and dreams. I don’t know what that cost is, but it’s real. Just like socially sanctioned binge drinking and vaping. It’s not whether it should be allowed. It’s whether we should be excited that it is.

Of course, people in Connecticut are about to be excited. If things go their way, New Jersey may be the top player in the Northeast no longer.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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