Why the SCOTUS betting decision could be good for women's sports
The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a 1992 federal law that prohibited sports gambling, effectively enabling each state to decide whether such betting would be legal under its own laws. Bringing sports betting above ground wouldn't just serve to regulate an industry that's ever-prevalent, and helps fuel the popularity of men's sports. It could also help bring visibility to women's sports and marketability to individual women athletes who might otherwise go unseen.
Women's sports, especially the WNBA, have long been seen as a frontier for sports bettors, particularly those considered gambling pros, who point to the lack of attention, the absence of proper statistics and advanced analytics to aid the "science" of prediction and, perhaps most importantly, the high growth potential of women's sports revenue.
That last point might be self-reinforcing. As more gamblers who are not necessarily fans enter the sphere of women's sports, more gamblers might turn into viewers and fans. Some research has shown a correlation between sports betting, fantasy sports and continued or increased consumption of traditional sports, while critics argue it hurts the game overall by placing more emphasis on individual players and stats than teams and franchise loyalty.
Those who have long been "traditional" sports fans of specific teams, while playing fantasy sports, have had to confront the dilemma of rooting for opposing players while never ceasing loyalty to their respective teams. The pathway of entry to interest in these players, teams and sports through betting and fantasy is more about those who exist outside that fandom in the first place, which is where women's sports most stand to benefit.
For years, advocates of women's sports have had to defend their sheer merit, not to mention the very athletic value of the players. If that value is conveyed in monetary terms, and in turn translates into a recognition of their value on the court, field, ice, pitch, what have you ... that's a good thing.
In January, The Times (U.K.) reported that betting on women's soccer in the U.K., where sports gambling is much more established and sophisticated than we can expect in the immediate future stateside, has more than doubled in the past two years. Meanwhile, viewership of the England women's national team has continued to grow. According to a separate report, a record audience of 4 million viewers watched the Lionesses eliminated in the Euro 2017 semifinal in August.
The arguments against sports betting, specifically in its effects on women's sports, are similar to those involving college sports -- namely, that these sports don't necessarily need to follow the professional men's model, that the commodification of women's sports simply adds to the corporatization of sports in general, that betting opens up underpaid athletes to corruption and match-fixing, and that it strips away the layer of purity that makes the women's game, in all its fundamental glory, most enjoyable.
Those arguments, however, belie both the current climate of sports and the very notion of equality between men's and women's sports. Sports are big business, full stop. That's not going away, and neither is underground betting. Despite whatever disparaging notions you might have about the WNBA, women's sports are not the welfare cases of men's leagues. It's frankly been the fault of all of us in the industry, from leagues to unions to media, for not being forward-thinking enough to take the same risks on programming and prioritizing women's sports as we have men's, and we continue to do so.
The failure to properly promote women's leagues like the WNBA goes hand-in-hand with the lower revenues, and thus lower salaries, that cause many to fear the potential for match-fixing with legalized betting. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has advocated for legal sports gambling since 2014, while joining the many voices criticizing the marketing of the WNBA, even if his blame is misplaced. As espnW's Katie Barnes notes, Silver's idea to shift the WNBA season from summer to fall/winter to promote the game would require players to be paid enough so they wouldn't need to compete overseas in the offseason to make ends meet. If your primary concern about women athletes, like college athletes, is that they're susceptible to bribery precisely because they're improperly compensated, betting revenues could help solve that problem.
When you talk to women players, whether they play basketball, soccer, tennis or ice hockey, they mostly want to be seen as athletes and workers, and not simply as stand-ins for "pure" sports as men's sports continue to grow as businesses and male athletes continue to reap those benefits. If people are willing to bet on women's sports, and are in turn willing to watch women's sports at higher rates than now, it should only stand to benefit those athletes. Not coincidentally, both concepts ring true when it comes to college athletes and the myth of amateurism.
Bottom line: Women's sports being undervalued is why professional gamblers bet on them in the first place, and it might be the very reason some people finally take them seriously.