The biggest business trend in North American sports right now isn’t merchandising, licensing, streaming, naming rights, or uniform ads. It’s the incredibly rapid rise of gambling.
The big American pro leagues used to do everything possible to distance themselves from gambling, because they feared the optics of potential point-shaving scandals, bribes being offered to officials, and other threats to the integrity of their product. But that all changed once the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that states could legalize sports betting. Since then, gambling has taken on an increasingly high profile in the sports world. Even if you’re not a bettor yourself, you’re probably aware of those FanDuel and DraftKings ads that have become ubiquitous during televised ballgames and sports talk radio shows, but you might not realize how far gambling has spread throughout other sectors of the sports industry. Here’s a sampling of developments (by no means a complete list), just from this year:
• For the first time ever, sportsbook commercials will be permitted during NFL game broadcasts this season.
• Capital One Arena — home to the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals — recently became the first American sports arena with its own on-site sportsbook. The NFL’s Arizona Cardinals quickly did the same at their stadium, and many other teams are considering similar moves, including MLB’s Chicago Cubs, who plan to add a sportsbook at historic Wrigley Field next season.
• Nineteen of Fox’s regional sports networks, which broadcast games for dozens of MLB, NBA, and NHL teams, were acquired by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which then sold the regional networks' naming rights to the casino brand Bally.
• After Mercedes-Benz’s naming rights deal for the New Orleans Superdome expired, the rights were promptly snapped up by the casino company Caesars Entertainment.
• This year’s AP Sports Editors conference included a panel called “Best Practices for Covering Sports Gambling.”
Proponents of legalized sports gambling say it leads to greater fan engagement; provides excitement for otherwise meaningless games between also-ran teams; provides a new source of tax revenue; transforms an unregulated black-market activity, often tied to organized crime, into a well-regulated industry with responsible safeguards; and removes the stigma from an activity that millions of fans were already engaging in anyway. Critics, on the other hand, say legalized betting preys on hapless suckers and gambling addicts; gives official government imprimatur to the socially dangerous notion that you can get something for nothing; normalizes gambling in the eyes of kids; and will inevitably lead to game-fixing, bribes, and other forms of corruption.
I’m not here to weigh in on either side of that debate. As a uniform columnist, my concern is more limited: Is legalized sports betting good or bad for uniforms?
Before I answer that question, here’s a little story: In the early 1970s, when I was eight years old, my father asked if I wanted to bet a quarter — a lot of money for me at the time — on an NFL playoff game between the Cowboys and the 49ers. The Niners were my favorite team (because of a trading card I’d pulled out of a box of Corn Flakes), but I thought the Cowboys were the better team (they were the defending Super Bowl champs and defeated the Niners in the playoffs the previous two seasons), so I bet on them. In other words, I decided to follow my head, not my heart.
That set up a terrible conflict for me as the game unfolded. Whenever something good happened for the 49ers, I was excited (yay Niners!) but also bummed (there goes my quarter!), and the dynamic was reversed if something good happened for the Cowboys. In the end, Dallas won the game on a miracle comeback, so I won a quarter from my father, but it was a bittersweet profit. The lesson from that experience was clear: Bet only for the outcome you’re already emotionally invested in — or maybe just don’t bet, period.
A few decades later, around 2005 or so, I met up with a friend at a bar. When I arrived, he was poring over the baseball box scores in the newspaper (this was back when people still did such things) and said, “Shit, David Wright went 3-for-4 last night.” My friend and I were both big Mets fans, so why was he upset about Wright having a good game? “Because I’m in second place in our rotisserie league, and the guy who’s in first place has Wright on his team,” he explained. This is why I never got involved in rotisserie/fantasy sports. Why would I ever want to put myself in a position where I was rooting against David Wright? Even worse, what if a situation involving a fantasy league meant I had to root for Derek Jeter, or anyone else on the Yankees, who I hated?
And that’s why I think sports betting is bad for uniforms. As I’ve written many times over the years (most recently in my introductory piece for Bulletin), sports rooting loyalties are essentially uniform loyalties: We keep rooting for those team colors, for that logo, and for that uniform, no matter who’s wearing it. (Hell, if Derek Jeter had been traded to the Mets, I would even have rooted for him, as nauseating as that seems to me.) That unconditional form of brand loyalty makes no sense, which is precisely why it’s so special. I mean, really, is there any logical reason why I should still be a 49ers fan all these years later just because I found a trading card in a cereal box half a century ago? Of course not — and yet I still live and die with the Niners every autumn Sunday. It’s completely irrational and also completely wonderful. That’s the power of a uniform.
Betting scrambles that equation, creating a situation where I’m suddenly rooting against the 49ers, or where my friend is rooting against David Wright. There’s nothing irrational about that — you just follow the money — and nothing special either. It’s all head, no heart.
I want to make it clear here that I’m not opposed to gambling per se (I’ve spent my share of time at the blackjack table), nor am I criticizing anyone who finds the appeal of sports wagering stronger than the appeal of irrational uniform-based rooting. But as someone who loves uniforms and the magical pull they exert on us, I think betting, whatever its attractions or benefits, compromises that magic and diminishes a uniform’s power. Personally, that’s a trade I’d rather not make.
But judging by the way betting is spreading across the sports world, many fans — perhaps most fans — feel otherwise. So is there a way we could make sports betting good for uniforms? One way might be to create wagers based on the uniforms themselves. Imagine betting on what a team’s record will be when wearing a particular uniform combo, or a pitcher’s record when wearing different durags. (Someone is actually tracking that.) It wouldn’t be the same as the magic of irrational uni-based rooting, but at least it would focus more attention on uniforms, which is generally a good thing in my book.
Are there other ways to make sports betting good for uniforms? Feel free to post your suggestions in the comments. (Let’s please keep the discussion uni-related and not get into the larger pros and cons of gambling. Thanks.)
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and check out his podcast. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.