Years ago, a friend and I came up with a term for people we encounter who strike us as transparently shady, completely full of shit, or both. We call them “Vegas Hotel Ad Guys.” The name was inspired by those jarring commercials you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever been to Vegas, the ones that run on a certain channel in hotels around town. They all feature some guy, often in a visor, perhaps with a whiteboard behind him, holding forth as all sorts of flashing graphics and scrolls of numbers fly across the screen at unsettling speed. The guy is always screaming at you about quick betting hits, can’t-miss tips, the Stone Cold Lead Pipe Locks, all available if you call his 900-number tip line or subscribe to his website right now. He caters specifically to the needy and forlorn, the “just lost it all but maybe I can win it back with one big all-in bet” Vegas gambler most likely to be alone in that room. He’s counting on someone just scared and desperate enough to believe him.
That guy was once a curio whose presence was restricted to one American city. But, these days, he’s no longer limited to swindling doomed chumps in sad hotel rooms. Now he has his own podcast and a deal with Barstool Sports. And, in a way, we’re all living in the sad hotel room now.
It’s been almost five years since the Supreme Court paved the way for states to legalize sports gambling. Since then, the world of sports media has changed dramatically, as some of us tried to warn it would back in 2018. Professional leagues went from shunning all talk of betting to embracing gambling with an exhausting fervor. We’re now at the point where every other ad during a football, basketball, or baseball broadcast looks a little like that grating Vegas commercial, as Chris Hayes recently observed:
"I know it makes me sound like a curmudgeon, but the *constant* gambling propaganda now integrated into every professional sports broadcast is really gross."
The reasons for this are not difficult to decipher. Sports gambling is big business. State governments are clearly benefiting: Illinois brought in $182 million in tax revenue from sports betting just last year. The leagues themselves are raking it in as well; one report said NFL teams reported a 14 percent increase in revenue from gambling in 2022. And as the sports-media business has contracted — for most of the reasons the rest of the media has contracted — gambling has stepped in to fill the void. Your favorite sports blogger a decade ago, who started writing about their team out of a pure love of the game, can now find work only by pretending to care about daily fantasy and three-team parlays. Each morning on every sports-highlight show has to include a segment in which some pasty white guy chimes in from Zoom to tell you how he, and only he, knows who’s going to cover in the NHL that night. One of these guys, I swear to God, actually asks his dog.
It’s now terrifyingly easy to bet, and lose, a large percentage of your income on your phone in a matter of seconds. But even if you’re not even tempted to gamble the occasional ten bucks, you can’t avoid a constant stream of gambling-related information. Jamie Foxx, J.B. Smoove, and Patton Oswalt are all wearing togas on your television screens. At several points during the Knicks-Cavaliers matchup this weekend (go, Knicks, by the way!), the terrific announcer Dave Pasch was required by ESPN to let us know that we should pause our enjoyment of that taut, exciting game one to head to the FanDuel app and, you know, make it a little bit more interesting. There was a time not long ago when Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were banned from baseball simply for signing a contract with a casino. Now announcers are pausing their broadcasts to actively encourage you to start wagering on the game you’re watching. And they are doing this constantly.
All this despite the clear dangers of sports gambling, dangers that have doubtless been magnified greatly because of its new ubiquity. I’m on record as predicting that, at some point, there will be a massive gambling scandal that engulfs the sports world. (Imagine the modern-day equivalent of a Tim Donaghy–like disgrace.) But, at this point, I’m not sure the leagues even care. They have gone all in on sports gambling as the cure for everything — I haven’t even mentioned the dangers of cord-cutting and a looming disaster involving the sports-viewing habits (or lack thereof) among Gen-Z consumers. The incessant hawking of gambling tips and “information,” almost always given by people who are not actual reporters with actual access to actual information, is beginning to have an end-of-capitalism feel to it: It’s like sports executives and leagues are desperately tossing their souls into an “Everything Must Go” sale. The average non-gambling consumer — which is to say, the average sports fan — may hate how ubiquitous this has all become. But it’s probably just going to get worse. This is just what sports television is now and what it will be moving forward. We’re all locked in this hotel room now, and forever.