First signs – and concerns – about how sports betting apps will be marketed in Kansans

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Thursday’s announcement that sports betting will start on September 1 in Kansas brings the state closer to a brave new world for sports fans, whether they support the Jayhawks, Chiefs, Wildcats, Shockers, Royals or Sporting KC.

When the Kansas Legislature sports games approved earlier this year, it unleashed a complex, multi-billion dollar marketing and technology machine that is already spinning to life, even before the start date. And this machine will certainly change our state’s relationship with sports.

Some of these changes will be minor and cosmetic. However, other changes will alter the way we watch games and, more drastically, who we root for.

Here are my notes on how the sport has already changed with the game on the scene – along with a prediction of the changes to come.

Paris signs in new places

The visual landscape of watching sports – or even reading about them – will never be the same. Since the Supreme Court of the United States opened the door to sports betting nationwide in 2018betting odds have invaded all mainstream sports apps.

On my phone, ESPN’s app offers a PickCenter, providing the running line, money line and over/unders for Friday’s Royals game against the Tampa Bay Rays. You can also get “exclusive PickCenter analysis” with a subscription payment. CBS Sports and most other apps offer the same betting details – sometimes on a homepage dashboard that doesn’t even require you to click to read about the game.

Like me, you may have spent decades scrolling through the daily newspaper and the sports page, with its hundreds of agate lines, displaying scores and betting lines. In most newspapers, betting news was relegated to a box on the periphery of the page, signaling an uneasy but joint relationship between sports journalism and gambling.

The newspaper sought to inform both your sheer love affair with your favorite team and your reluctant habit of betting against that same team with a local bookmaker.

We should also expect the same creeping presence of sports betting information when watching sports broadcasts. In previous NFL seasons, commentators have coyly hinted that a fourth-quarter field goal could impact a shaky betting line. Those same play-by-play personalities, like NBC’s Al Michaels, recognized that their increased release was more direct.

Like me, you may have spent decades scrolling through the daily newspaper and the sports page, with its hundreds of agate lines, displaying scores and betting lines. In most newspapers, betting news was relegated to a box on the periphery of the page, signaling an uneasy but joint relationship between sports journalism and gambling.

“So what I would do over the years is I’d come through the back door, sometimes I’d come through the side door, and now I guess they let me in through the front door, which isn’t as fun as doing it subtly,” Michaels told The Associated Press last year.

In addition to this shift to verbal posturing, networks carrying the games will provide more information about gambling in pre-game broadcasts,”but only to help contextualize game analysis or larger storyline.”

Looking to the countries where sports betting has had decades to seep into the culture, one can see how visually ubiquitous the brand of sports gambling could become and how much we might possibly regret it.

The English Premier League is arguably the best football league in the world in a country that has sports betting allowed for a long time. Forty percent of league teams have agreements with sports betting companies to provide an advertising image on the front of the team uniform. This summer the league looked about to ban such advertisements on the front of the shirts, but energy for the prohibition has to the point of death.

More and more North American sports teams are including advertising on their jerseys, big or small. The The Washington Capitals have signed a deal with Caesars Sportsbook last year to include a 3 x 3.5 inch patch on their jerseys. So don’t be surprised to see a FanDuel logo on your favorite player’s chest in an upcoming season.

The tension is clear. How can a gambler do his best to win while carrying an advertisement for a site where hundreds of people are financially investing in his loss?

The boundary between journalism and betting advertising

Publications constantly allow advertisers to blur the line between the advertising of a paid sponsor and the journalism of their staff members. This line is particularly blurred these days on the Kansas City Star sports webpage. The most visible real estate on the page in the upper left quadrant is dedicated to a module called “Bet”.

The packaging for this content uses the same fonts, story structures, and provides bylines for writers. However, the content is sponsored.

“We may earn fees if you make a purchase through one of our links”, the page explains. “The newsroom and editorial staff were not involved in the creation of this content.”

What follows this warning is a promotional blitz for each of the companies that will be offering sports betting in Kansas: DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars Sportsbook, WynnBET, FanDuel, BetRivers and PointsBet. While the titles of each article promise a “review”, the writer gushes over the features without ever considering a review.

In the closing words of these reviews (some of them stretching over 3,000 words), there is the same copy-and-paste disclaimer about “responsible gambling”.

The Wichita Eagle Sports Home Page does not display betting content in the same way, although the same “reviews” are there for readers. Both publications are owned by the same parent company and use the same website template.

Chatting during matches

Apart from sports media, Kansans should be prepared for their fellow fans to act differently during games. The endless buffet of betting options for a particular game could create perverse rooting incentives for the fan sitting next to you at the bar.

Imagine sitting next to your buddy, a rabid Kansas City Chiefs fan in his replica Patrick Mahomes jersey as he smashes chicken wings. By betting on the “under” for a game, he hopes for a low score game. So don’t be surprised if he wants the Chiefs to take a knee, rather than Mahomes throwing another touchdown pass, if the game is already secure for the Chiefs.

Sports gaming blurs our fandom.

Of course, many fans have known this for years of fantasy sports and illegal gambling. But legalized gambling promises to send many more fans to check their phones at the end of the game and determine which is more valuable: their $500 bet or their coveted team.

Tempting VIP packaging

In the mail this week, I received a glitzy DraftKings VIP brochure, promising “enhanced promotional offers”, “private event invitations” and “a dedicated host”. The ad’s cover featured a map of Kansas with a handful of awkwardly blooming sunflowers in the northwest corner of the state (Hello, St. Francis!).

The message of the black and bronze ad is clear: although playing is as simple as downloading an app, I can have an exclusive and classy experience (over the phone?). This call could be useful in separating DraftKings VIP from other game providers. However, the implicit message is that spending more (“skilled dynasty members”) will bring benefits.

Such marketing creates a slippery slope towards irresponsible gambling, even before the start of online betting is announced.

Of course, all these dominoes of sport, culture, advertising and journalism have been locked in place for a long time. What’s becoming clearer now is how this will affect Kansans as we revel in our couches – perhaps with a sports betting app on the phone in our hand.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own review, here.

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