For Professional Running, Sports Betting Is a Tantalizing Prospect
More money means a greater risk for corruption, but professional running needs something to shake up the status quo
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In the lead-up to this month’s Boston Marathon, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission denied a request from the sports betting company DraftKings to take wagers on the race. The commission cited concerns from the Boston Athletic Association that there wasn’t enough time to safeguard the integrity of their flagship event. (Gambling on sporting events was only legalized in Massachusetts earlier this year.) While it’s understandable that the BAA might be a little nervous about embracing the brave new world of legalized gambling, not everyone applauded their prudence. The sports business reporter Darren Rovell told his nearly two million Twitter followers that the decision was a “missed opportunity to draw more attention to running.”
Is this the kind of attention running needs? Rovell is a columnist for the Action Network, a sports betting industry trade publication, so he is not exactly unbiased. Nonetheless, he raises the larger question of whether it’s in professional running’s interest to get in on the action of a sports betting market that has skyrocketed since the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban in 2018. At present, some form of sports betting is legal in more than 30 states. According to the data website Statista, sports bets in the United States generated 4.33 billion dollars in revenue in 2021. This year, the site forecasts that around 23 million Americans will engage in online sports gambling.
For Jesse Williams, whose company Sound Running hosts some of the most competitive elite track races in the United States, the advent of legal sports betting is an opportunity that pro running can’t afford to pass up. “I don’t know if there’s a sport that needs betting more than track and field,” Williams told me, citing running’s perennial quest to find new fans and sources of revenue. He argued that allowing people to gamble on races had the potential to bolster the sport on multiple fronts. Sports betting would bring “more eyeballs,” which would lead to more sponsorship dollars, which means more prize money for athletes. On a fan engagement level, Williams suggested that gambling could help generate drama in some of the sleepier long races like the 10,000-meters—it would be easier to incentivize people to watch athletes run 25 laps around a track if they can also place wagers on specifics like splits, or on who will be leading at the halfway mark. The bottom line, for Williams, is that “track needs something to change the game and we have to keep our minds open to some of these new ideas.”
I’m personally a little skeptical that there is a vast untapped audience out there who’d be keen to wager on some esoteric detail of a track 10K. The people who have strong opinions about this stuff are already part of a minority of track super nerds. Whether or not gambling can bring in new fans would probably depend on how track and road races can assert themselves in an already crowded sports betting market. It will come as no surprise that the most popular sports for betting (football and basketball) are also the most popular sports in terms of TV ratings. As for why a prospective gambler would gravitate towards professional running when there’s already a near-infinite number of possible wagers to be made on major team sports, Williams suggested that the relative straightforwardness of track and field might make it more attractive to gamblers who think they can beat the system. In this line of thinking, the outcomes of popular ball sports are subject to more variables and are hence less predictable than in a sport where results are based entirely on individual performance.
As for why the BAA asked state gambling authorities to hold off on giving DraftKings the green light, the organization mentioned event security and “potential influence on the outcome of the race” as concerns. So far, the BAA has not elaborated on what specific protocols it would need to put in place to minimize these alleged risks. (Of course, the decision to allow betting on their race is ultimately not up to them. When contacted for comment, the BAA merely responded that: “Sports betting is legal in Massachusetts, and it is regulated by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.”) The New York Road Runners was similarly cautious when asked about weighing betting’s potential to increase fan engagement against any possible downsides: “The integrity of our sport is of the utmost importance. We are observing the sports betting landscape and its current impact on engaging audiences, but we do not have a stance to share at this time.”
At least hypothetically, it’s not hard to imagine how sports betting could have a corruptive influence on elite-level racing. Even someone as bullish on gambling as Rovell has written that: “If sportsbooks went all in, compromising the game wouldn’t be hard, especially given that first place prize money is only $150,000 and purposely losing isn’t hard to do in a marathon.” In theory, opening this particular Pandora’s box could mean that the sport’s regulators would have to fret about athletes intentionally throwing races, or nefarious henchmen lurking along a road race course.
Whether these fears are justified, however, is another question. In Europe, in any case, it’s long been possible to legally gamble on big-ticket running events. Betting platforms in the UK list odds for the London Marathon, as well as Diamond League meets and World Championships. You can place bets in person at Weltklasse in Zurich––an event that is arguably the most prestigious annual track meet in the world. So far, the sport’s principal scandals have involved doping and bureaucratic bigwigs accepting bribes. But gambling? Not so much.
At the risk of sounding like a finger-wagging puritan, domestic and international running organizations might also have to consider how a pro gambling stance would look from a public relations standpoint. (USATF did not respond to a request for comment.) Gambling, it’s no secret, can become a destructive addiction. I confess that I’ve been somewhat surprised at the speed at which sports betting has been embraced by major sports leagues, be it through sponsorship deals or TV anchors on major networks encouraging their viewership to get in on the action.
But I might just be very naive. It’s been almost ten years since the commissioner of the NBA published a New York Times op-ed arguing for the legalization of sports betting. In his article, David Silver makes the same “legalize and regulate” case that has been made for other illicit activities with a thriving black market. I think Silver is basically correct, even if he conveniently leaves out the obvious fact that legalizing gambling would constitute a financial bonanza for his league. It should go without saying that Silver’s article states that nothing is more paramount than “protecting the integrity of the game.” But you don’t have to be the world’s biggest cynic to imagine that, for some people, the risk of corruption and tampering will always be worth a few additional hundred million in profits.
Professional running can only dream of one day having the same problem.