Pro sports and its strange bedfellow

The uncomfortable link connecting sports and gambling has always existed, and always will.

Baseball had its Black Sox scandal more than a century ago. Hockey’s first player suspended for gambling was Babe Pratt, in 1946. Football sat down its glamorous superstar, Green Bay’s Paul Horning, for betting in 1963. (Pratt and Horning are Hall of Famers). Pete Rose was sentenced to life in purgatory instead of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, in 1989, and still resides there. The list of National Football League gambling-related suspensions is longer than the injury lists sports teams used to provide. That also goes for the National Basketball Association, which just added lifetime ban to the resume of the Toronto Raptors’ Jontay Porter.

You get the picture.

Yet gambling’s partnership with sports is growing. You can’t watch a game now without knowing the betting line, the over/under and a myriad of ways fans can spend their entertainment dollars, or more. The monetary connection between all leagues and betting is stronger than ever, and has probably reached the point where profit-and-loss margins are dependent on gambling royalties.

I am not anti-gambling, but I do wonder where this is leading. In the dark ages, when Stanley Cup pools and Grey Cup raffle tickets were a form of entertainment, they made watching games more fun. It was all about bragging rights and trying to win a few dollars. Anything larger was illegal.

When Sports Toto in Manitoba first made it okay to make sports picks for, I was a participant — a friend of mine won a colour TV. And when Pro Line reached lottery players, I was a participant and a promoter. Many times, a trip to Las Vegas was primarily to watch the Super Bowl, alone with a batch of proposition bets spread on the bed, for a chance to win “big bucks” if that third-string receiver caught a touchdown pass thrown by that bald quarterback…from inside the 20…after a commercial break…in overtime. Just last week, I organized a Stanley Cup pool for two families: 13 entrants, $15 each for somebody to cash prizes totalling $195.

Win or lose, it’s always just fun. Yet fun can turn to expectations, and expectations can turn to addiction. Instead of simply having a choice to wager, today’s fans are being seduced to wager. Betting becomes, if you’ll pardon the expression, a fine line. The most vulnerable are the youngest fans, because they are young.

Beyond the player suspensions, it’s out of control. On game telecasts, commercials lure viewers across the country to download betting apps from private companies (45 of them) that can only sell to people residing in Ontario. Hockey icons Wayne Gretzky, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were briefly promoting that which was once suspendible, on commercials that can still be seen outside Ontario. Fans can bet during the games, predicting who will score first or next or last, or who will win each face-off. The odds, like the players, change on the fly.

CBC has called Ontario the “Wild West” gambling environment. That could apply to professional sports, period. Players, with some exceptions obviously, would probably prefer that image went away. Executives, too…but making that happen is…uncomfortable.