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You Can Bet on It: Random thoughts on sports books

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Good, bad or indifferent?

152nd Belmont Stakes Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

There was some discussion of this topic a few days ago, in the Round Table thread, but I figured it’s something which perhaps merits further conversation. It probably has not escaped your attention that sports books have been legal in Arizona for a couple of months now - you’d be hard pushed to have escaped the almost endless stream of commercials for them, especially on any sports program. The appeal from the point of view of both sports and television is clear. They give people a reason to watch games outside their traditional fan interest. In a world where live sports is one of the few barriers against cord-cutting, anything that potentially increases viewership will be warmly embraced by the industry.

To be up front, I’m fairly neutral on the topic. Growing up in the UK, the annual bet on the Grand National horse-race was a tradition - usually based on things like the pony’s name, the colors worn by the jockey, or whether it was owned by royalty. But gambling is a vice which I’ve largely bypassed, sports gambling in particular. To some extent, I feel like it is a corruption of “true” fandom. After all, it’s one of the few passions which is “pure”, in that it exists without self-interest. Religious faith is typically in the belief of heaven or whatever. Political views are generally held out of specific self-interest, that your life will be better. But sports? Second-hand glory is all that can offer.

But when you wager on games, that goes out the window. You can find yourself cheering for the enemy, simply in the hope of turning a few bucks. It may make financial sense to bet on the Dodgers winning the National League West this year. But I could never bring myself to do it: it would feel like prostitution, betraying my deeply-held principles and beliefs in pursuit of the almighty dollar. But if other people want to do it? Go ahead. You’re the one who’ll have to live with yourself, cheering on A.J. Pollock. Those damn commercials though. I’m not sure who they’re intended to appeal to; it certainly is not me. And they don’t improve with repetition either.

I do have some slight qualms about the integrity of the game, but tend to take a “good faith” approach, until events prove otherwise. While it definitely makes sense to stop players betting on their own games (so I don’t see any inconsistency with the Pete Rose situation), I think there’s little chance of a Black Sox-like scandal. With the average player earning north of $4 million per year, it’s not worth it. More likely, it feels would be an umpire being bought. Their average salary is only $235K, so if I wanted to change a game’s outcome, that’s where I’d target my efforts. Though I might be better off in the NFL, where the average referee earns $188K, though their influence may be less, certainly than a home-plate umpire.

There’s no doubt, they hit the ground running. September set a new record for the first month ever in a state, with $291.2 million - more than double the previous high, $131.4m, set by Tennessee in November 2020. That was not even a full month, with things getting under way on September 9, In a full October, the amount spent was a staggering $486.1 million. Of course, not all that is profit. The books paid out $448.6 million, 92.3% of the money coming in, which is actually pretty good as gambling goes. It’s miles better than, say, the Arizona Lottery, which pays out only 67.2%. Of course, that also funds other things, but even adding on that 20.6%, it still retained a higher percentage of wagers than the sports books.

There has been some controversy over the amount of revenue raised for the state. One representative fumed, “The public got screwed. They lost $32M & the state received nothing.” That’s not actually accurate. The supposed loss included a large quantity of promotional bets - you’ve seen them in the adverts, “wager $1, get $200 in free bets!”. When you take those into account, as the books are allowed to do before figuring out the state’s cut, the amount actually lost by gamblers in September was less than $400K. October offers something more realistic: a $36.3 “loss” included $26 million in promo bets. The state made just over a million, off the sports books’ $10.4 million profit.

It’ll be interesting to see how things settle down in the coming months, especially as the number of active online sports books increases (the tribes have yet to get going). Will this increase the amount? Or just lead to smaller slices of the same-sized pie? But as a basic principal, that’s a million bucks the state wouldn’t otherwise get. I’d rather have this voluntary “donation” to the coffers, than them having to tax everybody i.e. me. But I know that opinions vary widely on the situation across the SnakePit: one writer called it “a racket”, albeit (I think?) somewhat in jest. So, what do you think? Poll below, please explain yourself in the comments...

Poll

Sports betting in Arizona is...

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Great!
    (3 votes)
  • 20%
    Good
    (9 votes)
  • 34%
    Meh...
    (15 votes)
  • 22%
    Bad
    (10 votes)
  • 15%
    Terrible!
    (7 votes)
44 votes total Vote Now