Changes in Attitudes: The only long-term hope for sports gambling in America

To be honest, the title of this article should be “changes in public perception” but that’s not as catchy. The recent arrest by Federal Authorities of a number of principals in the BetOnSports family of books underscores the longterm problem with sports gambling in America. The problem isn’t so much that the Federales are “out to get” sportsbook owners and associates; the real problem is that the general public has an negative, outdated and inaccurate view of the entire sports gambling nexus. The only longterm hope for sports gambling in this country is a change in that perception.

Here’s something you can bank on–if the Senate ever does pass a bill against online gambling I can almost guarantee you that poker will be exempted in some way. There’s a variety of reasons that this will be the case, not the least of which is simple politics–poker is hugely popular in the United States. A recent survey indicated that 20% of all Americans play poker in some form or another at least once a month. That’s 60 million potential voters, and that’s a number that no one in Congress wants to mess with.

More significantly, poker has a very positive image with the American public. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing poker. Take a look at the magazine rack at any Barnes and Noble store and you’ll see at least a half dozen titles devoted to poker coverage. Head to the relevant book section and you’ll see shelf after shelf of poker theory books. The top professional poker players have become mainstream celebrities, and even the non poker playing public views the game as a very benign, skill based endeavor.

Contrast this with the mainstream media portrayal of sports bettors and bookmakers. Bettors are viewed as degenerates, bookmakers as crooks–even pawns of organized crime. It doesn’t matter that there’s as much skill and intelect involved in successful sports wagering than in poker, nor does it matter that virtually every Las Vegas casino is now run by a large publicly traded corporation (as are many of the top offshore stores). Those in my line of work who handicap sporting events are viewed as sleazy, “boiler room” type telemarketers willing to say or do anything to get a buck out of the “degenerates” who bet on sports.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media isn’t as much to blame for this negative–and inaccurate–portrayal as is the sports gambling industry itself. Poker has been masterful at packaging and promoting itself to become attractive to the mainstream American audience, but sports gambling has done nothing to better its lot. Not only is there a complete absence of a unified vision of sports gambling being presented to the American public, there’s really nothing at all being done by the sports betting industry within the US media. In the current legal/political environment, this is somewhat understandable–if you’re operating a successful and profitable business as it is, why take the chance that a higher profile position might receive negative attention from Federal authorities? Still, if the status of sports betting is ever to improve in this country some positive changes must be made.

In a perfect world, the Las Vegas sportsbooks would take the lead here since sports betting is very much legal in Nevada. Of course for years Nevada books have either dismissed offshore bookmakers or actually worked against them. This is a very shortsighted attitude, and the experience of poker could illustrate what might be–everyone with an Internet connection can now play poker online, and there’s plenty of “live” poker to be found nationwide as well. Despite so many alternatives in the marketplace, Nevada poker rooms are experiencing booming business. The reason for this is simple: despite the widespread availability of poker nationwide, Nevada–and particularly Las Vegas–is seen as the “big leagues”. Las Vegas has so many non-gambling amenities to offer that even for the devoted online or “local” casino player it remains an almost mythical destination. This won’t be changing anytime soon, and Nevada sports books should note well the increase in poker room traffic during the current “boom”.

Basically, the status of sports betting the US is in such sorry shape that all the relevant players within the industry need to work together to improve it. Even if they don’t do so in a formal, coordinated manner they need to at least be on the same page. The status quo–with a small number of sanctimonious busybodies answering to the religious right trying to pass legislation to shape an industry that most elected officials and the general public really don’t understand–is unacceptable. The poker experiences demonstrates that a dramatic change in public perception is possible in a very short time.

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