What would a nation of sports players look like?

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Circa Casino in downtown Las Vegas is home to the the biggest bookmaker in the worldfeatures one hundred and twenty by forty feet TV screenthree floors of stadium-style seating and a pool with an even bigger screen where you can rent a cabana for five hundred dollars a day. Las Vegas’ high-priced venues are usually the haunt of sweaty men wearing designer shirts who want to lure women into the VIP sections of clubs, but when I visited Circa last Sunday for eight hours of betting football maniacs, the clientele was mostly young, equally sweaty men wearing ill-fitting football shirts, baggy shorts they might have bought on Instagram, and baseball caps they wore backwards.

Circa opened its doors two years ago and was, according to the Nevada Independent, “the premier downtown hotel-casino in nearly four decades”. (Downtown is home to some of the oldest casinos, like the Golden Nugget and Binion’s; the Strip is where you’ll find luxury mega-resorts like the Bellagio and the Venetian.) The idea of ​​a casino built around a sports betting can seem like terrible for a lot of reasons: in 2021, sports betting represented less than 1.5% of total gambling revenue at a typical Las Vegas Strip casino, while slots accounted for almost sixty percent. If you consider that every square foot of a casino is designed to make money, building giant rooms where dudes watch the NFL for hours just to, maybe, sweat a single twenty dollar bet seems a lot less pragmatic than sticking to slots, which allow bettors to pump in money at a much faster rate, and usually at much worse odds.

Circa opened its doors at a time when online sports betting, which now legal in over twenty states and the District of Columbia, was on the march across the United States. This meant that Circa not only faced fierce competition from well-funded competitors like DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars, but it was also trying to sell an in-person experience that could very well be woefully outdated. For four of my friends and I, renting one of Circa’s “Millionaire’s Row” football viewing kiosks on an NFL Sunday required a minimum of twenty-five hundred dollars for food and drink, with mandatory tip five hundred dollars. Instead of just throwing bets on our phones in front of our own televisions, on our own sofas, we had to line up to place bets at a window. More hard to find at a brick-and-mortar casino like Circa. On a applicationyou can also bet on everything from South American football leagues and world cricket matches to political races, most of which weren’t offered at Circa sportsbook and probably not at the smaller Las Vegas sportsbook.

In interviews and in the hurry, Derek Stevens, the owner of Circa, seemed a bit shy about why he built this place. But here’s my theory: Stevens has a hunch, perhaps rightly, that widespread legalization of sports gambling will bring what was once a barely underground culture into the open. The betting apps are therefore not really its competition, but rather customer outreach vehicles that could help attract people to its casinos, especially for big events like March Madness and the Super Bowl. It created, in essence, the Disney world of sports betting, a place where large groups of people visit multiple times in their lives and splurge on everything from bets to cabanas and spa packages. All it needs to make the vision work is a nation of sports bettors ready to open their wallets.

Creating a nation of sports bettors would likely require the participation of the most populous state in the country. (Thirty percent of Las Vegas visitors last year came from California.) The state has two measures to legalize sports betting on the November ballot. Proposition 26 would allow sports betting, but only at tribal casinos and traditional racetracks. Proposition 27 would legalize online sports betting, and its passage could result in something like the heavily marketed, app-based gambling blitzes we’ve seen in New York and New Jersey.

Proponents and opponents of both proposals have spent hundreds of millions of dollars saturate Californians with advertisements; this created a lot of confusion among voters. No one seems to know which proposal does what, which ones are supported by tribes — a significant political concern, especially in the progressive nonprofit space — or even what the bills will actually do. The website of YESIle27, for example, mentions very little sports betting. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on the money the bill would cut homelessness through a monthly survey. ten percent state sports betting tax: the funds would first be used to cover the regulatory costs, but, after that, eighty-five percent of this money would go to the fight against homelessness, and the remaining fifteen percent would be distributed to Native American tribes who do not participate in sports betting.

Most of the money to stop Prop 27 has been raised by tribes of casino-operating gamblers who, along with a broad coalition that includes California’s Democratic and Republican parties, have raised everything from the addictive properties of gambling on your phone to tribal sovereignty. problems. Their argument rests on the assumption that online game is much worse than going to the casino in person, which, of course, is completely acceptable. In fact, the big gambling tribes seem to say that in-person betting is so good that everyone should instead support Prop 26 and allow sports betting, but only at racetracks and, of course, in their casinos.

This is all a bit silly and dishonest. Some are using the homelessness crisis as a cover to legalize sports betting apps; the other claims that only they can provide a safe gaming experience. Neither proposition is questioned well – a recent UC Berkeley poll showed that a simple twenty-seven percent of voters support Proposition 27, an answer that does only slightly worse than that of Prop 26, which receives the support of only thirty-one percent of likely voters. The stark lack of support has caused Prop 27 proponents, which include major app companies like FanDuel and DraftKings, to mostly give up and wait until 2024 to try again.

None of this means that online sports betting is dead in California; in fact, all it really highlights is that many powerful interests seem to be cornering what they think is a lucrative market. The amount of money in play and other states that have already bought can actually negotiate a kind of compromise between tribes and app-based game companies. Tribes could also spend the next few years trying to build their own apps and control the market themselves.

Online sports betting, as I written last year, appears to integrate with Robinhood, stock trading apps, and cryptocurrency trading to trick users — usually young, impressionable men — into losing their money. It took New York State about a month after legalization to become, for a time, the largest sports betting market in the country; through aggressive customer acquisition campaigns that included relentless advertising and bonuses and free bets, players in the state bet $2.8 billion in the first seven weeks. Some studies have shown that sports betting five times more likely lead to problematic gambling than other types of gambling. Other studies indicate that online gambling is more addictive than analog casino betting. (Although it should be pointed out that, at least in California, casinos contribute to push this story.) Because large online gambling companies can roll out their services almost immediately after legalization and have a seemingly unlimited amount of money available for promotions, they will likely outrun any supporting infrastructure which can be built to help addicted bettors.

I’ve spent far too much of my adult life in casinos, arcades, and sportsbooks, where I’ve encountered more than my fair share of problem gamblers. I still don’t know if app-based sports betting is much worse than placing bets in Circa sports betting, where a few steps in any direction land you straight into a slot machine. The idea that it’s somehow healthier to place your bets on a racetrack than on your phone doesn’t quite pass. Gambling addiction is, in many ways, based on sensory compulsions: the smell of grass on the track, the sound of a roulette ball bouncing off the face of the wheel, the sharp edges of dice s digging into your fingers. It’s still an open question whether apps can match the feel of physical spaces that were designed to suck money out of your pockets.

There’s a well-known maxim in the game that you should assume everyone is lying to you at all times. This rule also seems to have been applied to online sports betting debates, where the only thing you can really trust is that every press release and advertisement is specifically aimed at implicating someone in the action or excluding someone else. Instead of trying to cloak the problem in more palatable talking points like tax revenue and homelessness funding, politicians, lobbyists and corporations who want FanDuel and DraftKings in their state had better just ask the question more frankly. . Because Americans, as a whole, seem to want to become a nation of sports bettors – this year Maine, Kansas, Minnesota and Massachusetts passed sports betting legislation. The will of guys in Instagram shorts with a few consumer dollars to put on a game will be served. ♦

Share your thoughts and questions about this column by emailing the author at jaykangnewsletter@newyorker.com.

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