Newsletter 135: Sports Betting Is Bad for the Soul

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from December 2017, about how sports betting ruins most of the fun of sports. I am sure I will get used to things like teams submitting their lineups to the MGM Grand 15 minutes before they release it to the world so gamblers don’t have inside information … but it’s going to take a while.

Every year, I make one sports bet. If I’m in Las Vegas, I make it myself, and if not, I have my Dad — who usually makes at least one trip out there a year — make it for me. I put $100 on the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. That’s it. I put the betting slip under a magnet on the side of the fridge, and I don’t think about it again until the baseball season is over. If the Cardinals win the World Series, I go out there and collect. If they don’t, I throw it away. In 2011, it actually paid off, and I won, at +2050 odds, about two thousand dollars, which came in handy considering I became a father about a month later. Winning that year allows me to go another decade and a half without a Cardinals title and still break even.

Otherwise, though: I don’t gamble on sports. I might just like sports too much to gamble on them. I know intellectually that money runs sports, just like money runs everything. But that’s the last thing I want on my mind when I’m watching a game. I am pleased when my team wins; I am sad when it loses. That sort of simplicity, I’d argue, is half the point of being a sports fan. Introducing money into the equation, having a profit or financial loss ride on the actual outcome of the game you’re watching, turns it just as craven as everything else in this world. Which of course it is, I know. But it doesn’t have to be for me. The amount of time and emotional investment I put into a team I care about vast exceeds whatever money I might have on the line. All money does is turn something I love very deeply, something that focuses and calms my mind, if not necessarily my heart rate, into just another transaction. And the world has enough of those.

When I find myself in Vegas during baseball season, I usually go put $20 on the Cardinals to win that night’s game, not because I care about the money or I think they’re going to win, but because if you bet on a game you can just sit and watch it and occasionally get a free beer or two out of it. That’s how much of a Vegas party guy your narrator is: His ideal bachelor Vegas night out is indistinguishable from his ideal night out anywhere else on the planet. (Though I’ve found the food has gotten awfully good there in the last decade.) My father loves Las Vegas, and I encourage that: I like it when my Dad has fun. But the place always makes me feel emptier when I leave.

The last non-Vegas sports bet I made was in March 2000. My Illini had made the NCAA Tournament — the first of eight consecutive appearances for the Illini, which is proof this was a very long time ago — as a №4 seed, playing Ivy League champion Pennsylvania. An older friend of mine knew I loved Illinois and asked me if I wanted to make a wager on the game while he was in Vegas. Without thinking much about it, I told him, “sure, go Illini!” I discovered shortly before gametime that he had put $100 — $100! — for me on the Illini to cover an eight-point spread. This was March 2000, two months after I’d moved to New York with only two suitcases and a cat carrier at my side, on a one-way bus ticket from Effingham, Illinois to Port Authority; a hundred bucks, at that point, was a terrifyingly large percentage of my total net worth. I spent the entire game in a panic. If Illinois lost, I had no idea how I was going to pay up. Illinois led almost the entire game, but they could never quite pull away. With three minutes left, Illinois was up by nine, a comfortable margin that assured they’d advance to the next round. I should have been joyous — go Illini! — but I was instead petrified. An Illini tournament victory is among the pinnacle of Sports Things that make me happy, and all I was worried about was whether they sneaked ahead of the eight-point line. It was horrible. A pair of Frank Williams free throws late ended up securing a 10-point victory. I had won. But it sure didn’t feel that way. I vowed never to make serious wagers on sports again. It has been an increasingly easy vow to keep.

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Part of the Deadspin origin story is that, initially, after seeing my work at The Black Table, the folks at Gawker Media contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in running a new gambling blog they had a sponsorship for called “Oddjack.” I told them I think gambling is decadent and wrong and more than anything destructive, so I probably am not the best guy for their gambling site, but, hey, had they ever thought about a sports site? (They ended up launching Oddjack anyway, with some guy I never heard from again as editor.) It secured my status as a gambling hard-liner for life. I think gambling should be more illegal, not less. I am truly dreading what increased legalizing gambling, with sports leagues actively embracing it and even getting into business with casinos, is going to do the sports I love so much. I think there is going to a major gambling scandal in the next decade, and our sports leagues will have zero moral ground to stand on when it does. I want nothing to do with it. I just want my little games. Count me out. I fold.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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