Punter’s Paradise, Coming to America

Dan Demeglio, race and sports book supervisor, cashes a 200-to-1 future bet for Doug O’Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner “I’ll Have Another”, at the Primm Valley Casino in Primm, Nevada, June 25, 2012. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun/Reuters)
Gambling may make baseball our No. 1 pastime again, but it may also have wider effects on our work ethic.

The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law that effectively prevented legalized sports gambling across most states in the country. The result is a victory for the plain limits of the Constitution. Justice Alito wrote that the law was a “direct affront to state sovereignty.” He’s right.

The expected result is that most states will legalize sports betting. About a dozen states, already anticipating the result, have legislation in various states of preparation for the regulation of the industry. The aggressive Irish-based sports betting company Paddy Power is already looking to acquire American fantasy-sports company DraftKings.

Punter culture is coming to the United States. As a sports fan, a citizen of this republic, and occasional punter, I have mixed feelings about this. You should, too.

First, here’s my take as a sports fan. Jeff Passan, one of the best baseball writers going right now, believes that sports betting can put baseball back on top as America’s pastime. Everything in baseball is about numbers. No sport has a larger inventory of games. No sport has a larger inventory of quantifiable, measurable results that can be described in probabilities.

Want to bet on whether a pitch will be a ball or strike? It’s coming.

Care to wager on the exit velocity of a batted ball? Some state will make it happen.

Need that 7–1 game between two teams 30 games under .500 on September 1 to matter? In this new world, where a $50 billion economy is set to blossom, every pitch, every swing, every moment that seemed meaningless otherwise matters.

Perhaps no sport stands to benefit as much as Major League Baseball. Its essence is numbers. Its dataset is so rich that the game has been fundamentally altered over the past decade on account of it. This is the second wave of that sabermetric revolution. The first benefited executives and teams that took numbers and translated them into victories. Now, the power of analytics will appeal to the masses, for whom gambling is going to be so accessible and commonplace that their desire to find an edge will germinate from piles of digits.

What we’ll see is not baseball’s becoming America’s pastime again; rather, it will be the gambling industry’s complete colonization of America’s pastime. I’m not yet worried about the erosion of the integrity of the game. But the consequences will be noticeable quickly. The venture-capitalist-fueled ad campaigns for fantasy sites that took over sports programming a few years ago are just a tiny hint of the change to come. If sports gambling is widely legal, the gambling industry will suffuse every aspect of sports in the stadiums and on television. The ads at most games will change to ads for casinos that run digital sports books, or for Paddy Power. The coverage of the games is very likely to be newly saturated with advertisements for these sports books and will even give live odds for different events. “Yoenis Cespedes is on deck. He has two doubles tonight. Paddy Power is offering six-to-one odds he hits another.”

For Passan, this is what will give juice to a game between two teams out of the pennant race in the dog days of summer. But for fans who, like myself, love the quiet, almost somnambulant tone of meaningless August baseball, the new, more insistent bid to get into our wallets during the seventh-inning stretch will be an aesthetic and moral nuisance. Further, where there is much gambling, other vices tend to collect. The idea of a family day at the ballpark may begin to disappear, as American professional sports comes to resemble the different culture that obtains at racetracks.

Now, as a citizen, my objection is more serious. Legalized gambling is being pushed by states that are bumming for more revenue. New Jersey’s bid for legalization originated in its unfunded obligations. Kentucky sees it as an opportunity to plug up its state-pension problems. Call it trickle-down profligacy. The state’s “leaders” design a pensions-and-benefits system that is unsustainable on taxes. Discovering the problem, they are anxious to rake in revenue from the saps they seduce into betting parlors.

Legal gambling is a tax on despair and boredom. And increasingly, many states are depending on vice for much of their budget.

A friend asked: Are there really many people who want to gamble on sports who don’t know how to do so on the Internet already? Yes, they are the many people who are sitting in pubs, and who are getting an idea in their head but don’t want to try to register on their smartphones. In existing Punter’s cultures, such as that in Ireland, pubs are often flanked by betting houses such as Paddy Power and Ladbrokes. Towns with multiple pubs of sufficient size or sufficient “quality” customers will have multiple betting offices.

Legal gambling is a tax on despair and boredom. And increasingly, many states are depending on vice for much of their budget. Passing from state institutions funded primarily by the excess creamed from the citizens’ industry to state institutions funded by taking a rake from the public’s vices is passing from self-government as a virtue to predation. What’s the next frontier? Will state legislators, facing their next bust, turn to libertarians for arguments in favor of legalizing and taxing sex work? That’s a “happy ending” for the sake of our children.

Yes. Gambling has always been a part of America’s culture and even its lore. It has a special association with the American frontier. Frontiers have emergent industry but often lack embedded Protestant preachers and communities.

How much of America’s economic success is built on a work ethic bolstered by Protestant norms, and on Protestant laws against gambling? How much of the more fatalistic, resentful attitudes about economic success that suffuse Punter’s cultures results from the wide presence of this vice? Would you chance your arm on America’s work culture improving after we become a Punter’s nation? Paddy Power’s prediction markets are getting creative enough. Soon you might be able to place that bet.

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