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'Frontline' Tackles the Multi-Million-Dollar Gamble on Sports Betting
February 8, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 5 comments

“Never has it been so easy to lose so much so quickly at such a young age.”

      — Former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach (R) on Internet gambling, as cited in the PBS Frontline program The Fantasy Sports Gamble, premiering Tuesday on PBS.


Long before sports betting sites became a daily — or hourly — obsession for an entire generation of sports fans, Saturday Night Live lampooned the idea in a memorable parody.

SNL parodies can be hit-or-miss, a little like gambling itself, but this one was an instant winner.

Done in the style of those self-important, over-the-top “Great Moments in NFL History” commercial spots, complete with stentorian narration and loud, overblown music, the parody showed grainy footage of an NFL team leading another team 31-0, midway through the third quarter.

The losing team scores a third-quarter touchdown to make the score 31-7, but goes on to lose the game 62-7.

“September 16th, 1973,” the narrator intones, solemnly.“They beat the spread.” Followed by: “This has been Great Moments in Gambling History.”

All joking aside, sports betting has become big business. But where does online betting — disavowed by virtually all the professional sports leagues — end and fantasy-sports betting begin? 

As the timely, engaging PBS Frontline program The Fantasy Sports Gamble points out, the line between the pro sports leagues and fantasy-sports sites that spend millions of dollars on commercial TV advertising has never been more murky, or hard to read.

Daily fantasy-sports sites have evolved into an incalculably valuable driver of consumer interest in pro sports — publicity that encourages fan interaction and does more to promote pro sports than any number of million-dollar ads during in the Super Bowl. 

Frontline produced The Fantasy Sports Gamble in association with the New York Times, following a Times investigation into fantasy leagues amd the line between fantasy leagues, in which members pick their own teams of players, and traditional gambling, which revolves around wins and losses, and point spreads. Gambling is as old as history itself, after all, and fantasy leagues were around long before SNL parodied them.

The difference now, as Frontline points out in the first four minutes — less time than many TV commercial breaks — is that millions of dollars are being wagered instantly, in real time, minute-by-minute, as the games are being played. The old days, when fantasy-sports leagues decided their winners at the end of a season, are long gone. Now winners are decided day by day.

The Internet, high-speed Internet connections and a renewed focus on real-time analytics have created a cyber-world in which sports fans can follow a game in tiny detail, in real time, as events are being played out on the field. Hard-core gamblers can place their bets in less time than it takes to say, "Gentlemen, place your bets." (Left unsaid in the program is that sports betting is still primarily a gentlemen’s game; the ladies, it seems, are usually the ones who have to clean up the mess after it’s happened.)

As one analyst notes early in the program, commercial advertisers — and the professional sports leagues they represent — are drawn to fantasy sports leagues because fantasy sports appeals to the most coveted, hard-to-reach demographic: Millennial 18- to 35-year-olds. Make it mobile, make it faster, and see where it goes.

FanDuel and Draft Kings are the two biggest names in the business, both valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Sixty per cent of fantasy-site members are under 30, an age group that has drawn interest from venture capitalists and private equity firms.

High-profile media companies like Comcast and 21st Century Fox — the media companies that own TV networks that broadcast the games — own minority stakes in prominent  fantasy sports sites.

Curiously, the professional sports leagues themselves have gone all in, despite being philosophically opposed to gambling, saying that it fosters corruption. Sports gambling, one analyst notes early in Frontline, can lead to match fixing, and even where that isn’t true, there’s a perception in fans’ minds that the games might not be on the level.

During last month’s Australian Open tennis championships, the first Grand Slam event of the tennis year, the New York Times was one of several media outlets that reported allegations of widespread match fixing at all levels of tennis, allegations that heightened fans’ anxiety over some of the Open’s more surprising results.

Fantasy sites’ defenders — and there are many — argue that picking your own players and forming your own team is a test of knowledge and skill, not gambling as the world knows it. Critics, including anti-gambling groups and some legal experts, insist that wagering money on the outcome of sporting contests is gambling, no matter which way you slice it.

At stake is millions of dollars in TV commercial revenue — at the exact moment in time when the TV industry as a whole faces serious questions about the future feasibility of commercial advertising in a rapidly evolving world of technological change and shifting consumer habits.

Is any of this legal? Should the industry be regulated? How is sports gambling any different from playing the stock market? Where does gambling end and "investing" begin? What exactly did the government’s Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 mean, and is it being assiduously ignored in 2016?

Frontline tackles these questions head-on, and the result is a program as engaging as any 62-7 blowout.


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Eric Stuve
When is this on?
Feb 14, 2016   |  Reply
Linda Donovan
Eric -- It was on Feb 9th (the day after the column first appeared), but check the listings of your local PBS station as it may air locally at a different time or date.
Feb 14, 2016
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