Restrictions on bettor who won big shows sports gambling is more like a rigged carnival game

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As a pro journalist, I hate admitting in public that I whiffed on an interview question, but I wish I had a second chance with Michael Moskowitz, the CEO of North Star Gaming, who joined me on Bring it In back in May. 

Given a do-over, I would ask Moskowitz how North Star would react to skilled gamblers who earn higher-than-expected returns on long-shot bets. Does the company incentivize big wins, or penalize them?

It’s not a dig at North Star in particular. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, I don’t gamble, and so I don’t know first-hand how any of these betting outfits reacts to successful bettors. But if you saw how DraftKings dealt with a customer named Beau Wagner, you’ll know it’s a fair question. 

Wagner was profiled in the Washington Post earlier this month, after placing $1,000 on 50-to-1 longshot Evan Fournier to finish a recent Knicks-Celtics game as the leading scorer. When Fournier put up 41 points — best on either team — Wagner won $50,000, and DraftKings commemorated the bet by tweeting about it.

“BEAU KNOWS BETTING,” read the post, which also featured a photo of Wagner’s winning ticket.

The tweet sent a clear message to potential bettors:

This could be you.

Then DraftKings changed Wagner’s account, capping his bets at $100. For him, a different message, but just as unambiguous:

It’ll never be you again.

As in most cases, the private communication was more truthful than the public proclamation. Sports books might differ in size or strategy, or the profile of the celebrities endorsing them, but they’re all, fundamentally, about getting your money, and not giving it back. A few people might win, but all of you are here to lose. They package it as a transaction. You give up your money and receive some entertainment, and a chance to win big. But only one part of that sentence matters. The part about you parting with your cash.

Sports fans need to make peace with gambling outfits, because most sports industry stakeholders — leagues, teams, athletes, media outlets — consider them an important revenue stream. Chances are your favourite sports media platform has added gambling content in the last year or so, and might even partner with sports books on branded content.

If the betting money runs dry, a long list of even shadier actors would gladly step up their efforts to keep the sports business afloat. And if that happens, we might all grow nostalgic for the days when the greasiest thing your favourite team’s sponsor did was recast gambling as “part of the fan experience,” and convince you that losing your money was fun.

Still, the idea that sports books can filter out winners and keep even more of your money is troubling.

From here, the setup looks less and less like what I would recognize as a business. With a normal business, I get something for my money — a donut, a pair of shoes, another book I’ll never find the time to read.

But after reading that Washington Post feature, it’s starting to look like … not quite a racket … but maybe one of those rigged carnival midway games. If a gap exists between sports betting and shooting free throws on the high rim with the small hoop, it’s narrowing. An important difference is that carnies aren’t bombarding us with ads urging us to spend money on the balloon dart throw if we truly want to enjoy sports.

Right now, I don’t know if it’s a true dilemma, or just ironic. Either way, if pro sports, which depend on the audience’s confidence in a level playing field, are underwritten by sports betting outfits, which seem to want bettors to play uphill, and against the wind, and kicking at a moving goalpost, something will have to give.

Eventually.

Right?

Circumstances do change.

Seven or eight years ago, before widespread, legalized, single-game sports betting turned them into straight-up sports books, DraftKings and FanDuel were leaders in a lucrative daily fantasy sports [DFS] market. If you’ve been watching these industries evolve, it probably occurred to you that daily fantasy is to regular gambling what multi-level marketing is to a Ponzi scheme. They’re first cousins. Same concept, but slightly different execution, and a slick new label.

Back then, regulators in many U.S. states didn’t make much of a distinction between DFS and gambling, prompting a campaign by fantasy sports operators to rebrand their products as “games of skill,” in contrast to gambling, which was, in this telling, defined only by chance.

Sports betting has gone mainstream

If you’ve been paying attention, you know it’s a false distinction. Poker is a game of skill, which explains why some people can play it for a living. Craps is a game of chance, because the dice fall the way they fall, no matter how many times you blow on them before rolling. But a bet is a bet, whether it’s on card games, a pair of dice, or the outcome of a horse race.

If I wager $10,000 that I can beat Steph Curry in the free-throw shooting contest, and he shakes my hand and says, “You’re on,” we’re gambling. When he crushes me in that same contest, it’s because he has skill, and I don’t. 

The difference between gambling and not gambling isn’t skill. It’s the money players put up. Operators on both sides of the line between gambling and daily fantasy sports have always understood that reality.

In the mid-2010s, DFS outfits used “skill” as a defence against U.S. lawmakers, who tended to view the activity as gambling-adjacent, and wanted to regulate it more strictly. 

Now that sports betting has gone mainstream, skill seems to mean something different. Show enough of it and, as the Post story lays out, they’ll start to squeeze you. The more you win, the less they let you bet. A strict limit on the size of your wager is also a tight cap on your potential winnings. The next time Beau Wagner picks a 50-to-1 shot, he’ll win $5,000. Still a nice payday, but not like before. New road bike money versus new car money.

The other clear message: Only one of us is going to make a living off your sports bets — and it’s not you.

But the account restriction comes after you win the big one, and after the sportsbook uses your winning ticket in a marketing campaign.

“Could this be you?”

Yes, but not really.

Next time you see a tweet like that, understand that the sports book isn’t necessarily celebrating a winner.

They’re trying to lure a new crop of losers.

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