While certain caveats are in order, it is expected that the May 2018 Supreme Court decision legalizing sports gambling will positively impact televised sports — that it will lead to larger, more engaged audiences for live games, as well as programming and advertising targeted toward those wagering on the competition.
The high court voted 6-3 to repeal the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the upshot being that states are now free to decide whether betting on athletic events is permissible within their borders. Through May 2019, eight states had moved to allow it — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico — and five others were poised to join them, along with the District of Columbia. Only six states had not introduced legislation, and another, Utah, is not expected to do so, as a prohibition on sports gambling is written into the state constitution.
The full impact on televised sports has yet to be seen, though Turner president David Levy told the Wall Street Journal shortly after the ruling that in his estimation disruption always leads to opportunity — and this one represents “a very big opportunity that every media company will have to look at.”
ESPN SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt, whose late-night show includes a betting-oriented segment called “Bad Beats,” told the Journal that “the number of revenue streams that come out of this are endless.”
The most recent television ratings for the top U.S. sports leagues are a mixed bag. NFL regular-season viewership increased by five percent from 2017 to 2018, but the ratings for the Super Bowl were the lowest since 2008. Similarly, the ratings for Regional Sports Networks covering Major League Baseball’s 2018 regular season were up (as they were for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball package), but those for the World Series sank to a level not seen since 2012.
It has been just the opposite for the NBA in 2018-19 — declining regular-season ratings (owing to the fact that two of the league’s worst teams resided in two of the largest television markets, New York and Chicago), but a 19 percent increase in viewership from ‘17-18 for the conference semifinals.
Television executives have reason to expect better as a result of last year’s ruling, as studies have shown a clear link between betting and sports viewership. Deloitte examined the question in an exhaustive report, and found that while young people are less likely to watch TV, they are far more likely to watch a game on which they have placed a wager. Of particular interest is the fact that 40 percent of U.S. males between the ages of 25 and 34 bet on sports, and 75 percent who do so watch the games.
So with gambling in the process of going mainstream, viewership could very well climb that much more, though there is reason to take a wait-and-see approach until more states decide whether or not they will adopt sports betting — and what steps (if any) Congress might take in terms of oversight.
But the expectation at present is that disruption can only be a good thing for TV sports, as Levy said — that this ruling will have a far-reaching impact.