ESPN, America’s Gambling Network

ESPN, the cable TV empire, covers all things sports-related. Except sports betting. 

Apparently the wry, hip, knowing, ironic, slick, and authoritative on-air broadcasters may discuss anything and everything about the sports and athletes they cover provided there’s no mention of the pointspread line or the underlying odds that swirl around virtually every event that ESPN televises. Endorsement deals, off-court legal troubles, off-field romances — these are all newsworthy subjects for America’s leading sports media outlet. But the real reason most viewers watch any of these people and the mostly irrelevant games they play is taboo.

Even people like Jim Rome and Stephen Smith, who have built (loud) careers on the premise that they always “tell it like it is” are frightened to address the truth about sports in America. They’ll shout about phantom “issues” involving second-string shortstops and overpriced shooting guards, but they won’t admit what everyone knows but is unwilling to say out loud: ESPN’s success is built largely on its ability to deliver information to sports bettors. The interminable flood of statistics and breaking news and “insider perspective” is meant, officially, to make viewers a “better fan.” What this really means is, a “better informed gambler.”

The network, which broadcasts actual gambling events (the World Series of Poker, etc.) dozens of hours a week, is in the midst of promoting various programs about so-called Fantasy Football. For those who are unfamiliar with this game — meaning those who don’t gamble on sports — I’ll explain it. Team owners (gamblers) draft a team of players whose statistical results each game translate into fantasy points. The team owner whose fantasy team earns the most points wins a big pot (of money). Some leagues have buy-ins as high as $25,000. Most are in the hundreds. But make no mistake: Fantasy football is sports-betting; instead of wagering on an actual team, gamblers are wagering on an imaginary team. ESPN helps “owners” make smart draft picks and exhaustively reports the results, injuries, and psychological factors that add or subtract value. All of this is done with a wink-wink, and the NFL, which is adamantly opposed (on the record) to gambling, finds nothing untoward about the arrangement. After all, the pointspread isn’t involved, so everyone can pretend the nobility of the grand game hasn’t been compromised.

We live in a society obsessed with sex, violence, and gambling. Only one of those subjects, it seems, is fit for TV. As ESPN (and the stock market, and hedge funds, and every other sanctioned gambling forum) proves, the safest bet is to cash in on the mania, just so long as you never call it by its proper name.

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