FOX ran a promotion during the NFL playoffs last season with an unfathomably bizarre premise: If you’re gambling on FOX Bet, the network’s upstart sportsbook, then you — yes, you — could win some of Terry Bradshaw’s money. He’d appear in these 30-second bumpers looking progressively more Penguin-like in his old age, surrounded by a mountain of gilded briefcases. “All season long people have been winning my money. Now I’m completely flat broke,” says Bradshaw, hunched over a stool like a haggard country lawyer on the cusp of a vicious cross-examination.
Everyone understood that this was a total lark. No, Fox’s sportsbook was not staking the personal fortune of their prized panelist, and no, Bradshaw wasn’t going to book your action. That would be weird, unethical and potentially illegal. Instead, this was just the latest stunt marketing gambit engineered by the booming, carnivorous sports-betting bubble, as thousands of identical online casinos (and their willing media consiglieres) canvas our nightly sports broadcasts with increasingly craven attempts to separate the audience from their money. At last, we were given an intimate look at the way FOX perceives the sports-watching public: as rubes who could be suckered into a longshot by Terry Bradshaw.
Media is a precarious business. Since Covid, the industry has been mired in an era of agonizing, never-ending contraction. Netflix and HBO are paring down their services, as the streaming wars have whittled audiences into a constellation of infinitesimal micro-communities. Digital publications have tried, and failed, to find any sort of viable monetization scheme to replace the perpetually broken banner-ad model. (Thus far, the only answer management has come up with is yearly rounds of layoffs.) The Late Show With Stephen Colbert averages a pitiful two million viewers per episode, and people look at that like it’s a good number. Amidst all of this tanking, it’s understandable why the industry is in search of the faintest sustainable cash flow. So, as sportsbook legalization miraculously swept the nation, in 33 states and counting, it was a match made in hell. Sports gambling is known for its, shall we say, advantageous profit margins, and partnering with a sportsbook — or in FOX’s case, building one yourself — can absolutely boost a flagging bottom line.
But after four years of the gaming industry’s normalization, I am ready to say that we’ve gone too far. I simply can no longer endure the nonstop inundation of sportsbooks. It’s become genuinely inescapable. Every inch of my TV screen reminds me that I can make a wager; I’m unable to check the afternoon slate without getting bombarded by the over/unders. At this point, it feels like sports itself — the drama, the athleticism, the stuff that is free of charge — has become ancillary to our newfound ability to bet on them legally, which is a deeply unfortunate turn in our culture. This bubble needs to burst before it’s too late.
Bradshaw is really just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone with even a modicum of mainstream influence in sports media has hungrily sold their soul to the sportsbooks, and that has had a weirdly homogenizing effect on the media. The Manning brothers have enshrined themselves as the featured underwriters of Caesars Sportsbook — the most recent Vegas casino to get in on the craze — which is pretty brazen, considering the two are also calling Monday Night Football games. Charles Barkley gives out limp player props during the TNT basketball games now, which is acceptable only because I’m certain that Barkley has been betting on games for as long as he’s been a broadcaster. I get Twitter ads featuring Colin Cowherd — one of the most exhausting talk radio personalities in public society — sheathed in a Photoshopped pair of aviators and a Jimmy Buffett suit, giving his stamp of approval on some terrible parlay that never ever hits. (The same can be said for Bill Simmons, who’s mug is frequently emblazoned on top of the FanDuel website, boosting the odds on some doomed Patriots wager.)
An NFL broadcast used to be bracketed with car ads, pizza promotions, and movie trailers. Now, the only thing I see when we cut to commercials is a cavalcade of specious sportsbooks, blasting the viewer with terminology that used to be reserved for fraternity tailgates and Vegas bachelor parties. My dad doesn’t need to know what a moneyline is, but the world has turned and left us here.
I am not a gambling teetotaler. Not even close. I live in New York City, and when the sportsbooks became legal here in January, I blissfully placed a handful of $10 and $5 wagers in order to add a little juice to my Sundays. This is how monetary speculation is supposed to operate within our fandom; something fun to root for over the course of an afternoon, which won’t affect anyone’s long term financial projections. But these insurgent sports gambling partnerships seem to imagine a universe where everyone in America is lost in an Atlantic City fugue state; spiral-eyed, mouth agape, risking oodles of cash at a troubling clip, bringing to mind a 4am blackjack binge after your third trip to the ATM. I do not need to be reminded, every five minutes, that I can place a Same Game Parlay on Broncos/Raiders. And yet, the realities of a casino’s business model — to constantly provide more opportunities for people to chase their losses or double-down on their profits — has forced the sycophants involved into an uncomfortable position. Colin Cowherd must play the role of a sweaty advocate for the splendor of sports betting, without any accountability for how his picks actually perform. Is he up lifetime? Don’t ask that question! That, to me, is the most annoying thing about this racket; the laughable fantasy that Terry Bradshaw is exposing himself in a way that is in any way comparable to the betting public. They really do think we’re stupid.
Eventually this levee will break. Sports fans around the country will open their eyes, and become witness to the overwhelming fraudulence and laughable hubris of, say, someone like Dave Portnoy wagering $25,000 in a sportsbook that he owns. Sports gambling is always going to be a dirty business — that reality cannot be whitewashed — and before long, the world is going to snap back to its axis. FanDuel and DraftKings will be banished from television and exclusively advertise on PornHub, and the SEC will launch an investigation into how much money Terry Bradshaw was actually staking in those promotions. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards FOX Sports getting repossessed by the government. Most importantly, if we make sports gambling prohibitive again, nobody will take betting advice from people like Colin Cowherd, which is the greatest crime ever unleashed on good, god-fearing sports fans. Shame is an underrated sensation. It guides us towards the truth. I relish the day when sports gambling returns to its natural place in society; a hobby that is reserved for a time and place, when men are feeling especially grim and frighteningly loaded. A business trip to Las Vegas, a phone call with a guy who knows a guy, and yes, a tradition like no other.