Opinion: L.A. Times Opposition To California Sports Betting Props Denies Reality

Written By Steve Friess on September 21, 2022

There are legitimate reasons to object to both of California’s 2022 gambling ballot questions. Proposition 26 gives tribal casinos and a few racetracks a monopoly on taking sports bets in person, and Proposition 27 sets the bar for entry into the online gambling space so insanely high that it amounts to a wholesale purchase of an emerging industry by some of the world’s wealthiest outfits.

Neither is the main objection in a withering Los Angeles Times Editorial Board screed urging voters to defeat both California sports betting measures.

No, the key takeaway from their 1,400-word jeremiad can be summarized thus: Gambling is bad. More gambling is worse. And government must protect the people from their vices.

More on the newspaper’s objection to CA sports betting

To wit, the pearl-clutching board of the state’s largest newspaper winds its way through warranted fears of increased gambling addiction and questionable estimates of potential tax revenues promised by the backers of both. All of that, though, is in the service of this:

“Sports betting has become more socially accepted in recent years, so some might look at Propositions 26 and 27 as indicative of a cultural evolution. Perhaps. But it’s an evolution spurred by greed. The normalization of sports betting has been egged on by betting platforms, athletic leagues and media companies, which see profit in convincing people to gamble away their dollars.”

You see, the editorial board doesn’t like gambling. Doesn’t think of it as a legitimate pastime. Talks about its “normalization” with the same sneer that the religious right used to use to scare people about marriage equality. Gambling, to the Times, is a valueless exchange between hapless dupes and sneaky, exploitative, greedy casino moguls. Never mind that “greed” here is a euphemism for “profit-seeking” which is the fundamental purpose of every capitalistic enterprise.

That $50 some unwashed schlub plans to put on the over/under for the Chargers over Jacksonville this weekend? That’s “money they’re not spending in other parts of the economy, or worse, money they borrowed that they may not be able to pay back.” This is a state where, per WalletHub, the average household owes $8,505 in credit card debt, presumably for having bought many, many things they didn’t have the money for.

But there’s no judgment to be found from this gang over those who pay more than $500 a seat to see Bad Bunny from the nosebleeds at SoFi Stadium or spend $1,000 on dinner at the French Laundry. Heck, they don’t even bemoan the lottery even as it represents the largest sector of the American gambling world.

No, no. It’s casino gambling that has no broader redeeming value. It magically, evidently, migrates money from your bank account into MGM Resorts’ coffers. It apparently does this without employing anyone in customer service, technology, design or data analysis, much less generating any substantial tax revenue.

Inconsistency on the value of legalization

The Times’ most intriguing paragraph is this:

“One argument from supporters of both measures is that sports betting is happening everywhere, whether legal or not, so California would be better off regulating and taxing the practice rather than relegating it to the shadows. Legalization will tamp down the black market, they say, and create a gusher of tax dollars for the state.”

Well, yeah. That’s exactly the reasoning the same editorial board offered up in September 2016 when it supported Proposition 64. Prop 64 passed with 57 percent of the vote and legalized recreational cannabis for adults. Here’s what they wrote then:

“It is ultimately better for public health, for law and order and for society if marijuana is a legal, regulated and controlled product for adults. Proposition 64 — while not perfect — offers a logical, pragmatic approach to legalization that also would give lawmakers and regulators the flexibility to change the law to address the inevitable unintended consequences. Proposition 64 would …  deal a blow to the illegal market, which thrives on prohibition.”

In its attack on sports betting, the Times reneges on its support of legal pot. The black market still thrives and the tax revenue hasn’t been as robust as predicted, they insist. And maybe that’s true for pot – because not all pot is the same. Some is better than others, and buying on the black market can be more convenient and less expensive.

But for sports betting, the opposite is actually true. The Times cites a UCLA Gambling Studies Program psychiatrist – not an economist or industry analyst – to insist otherwise.

That shrink is wrong. To place bets with illegal sports books is often more expensive and riskier to the consumer. Most bettors must pay credit-card or cryptocurrency fees just to fund accounts at off-shore or illicit casinos. A $50 bet, then, can cost more, even as the odds on the games are usually about the same.

In states with legal online gambling, like my state of Michigan, it costs nothing to debit my bank account and place a bet. Later, I can withdraw my profits seamlessly and within minutes. It’s cheaper, more secure, more convenient. Win, win, win.

For these reasons alone, it would seem rational to give more credence to the projections of proponents of these measures. Instead, here we have Times, which makes such a show of painting casino moguls as evil geniuses adept at pickpocketing hard-earned money from players deluded into thinking they’re having fun, also doubting those evil geniuses will actually make the money and generate the taxes.

The Times bemoans the money pouring in on both sides of these competing initiatives. PlayCA has that figure around $420 million right now. However, the paper also doubts the existence of those pots of gold at the end of the rainbows. Why, exactly, does the Times think major casino companies would blow $25 million apiece to get into California?

What are the real problems with Prop 26 and Prop 27?

To be fair, the Times does give some voice to a real, disputable element of Prop 26. It is “a toxic brew of industry interests designed not only to enrich the funders but also to push away their competitors. If California ever decides to embrace sports betting, it should be with a framework that is as evenhanded as possible, and not one that so blatantly picks winners and losers.” Sure.

But the best they’ve got against Prop 27 has nothing to do with how that measure also “blatantly picks winners and losers.” It’s that it’ll turn everyone’s phones into portable casinos.

They point to the fact that calls to problem gambling helplines in states with mobile sports betting have gone way up – even though it’s a good thing when more people reach out for help. Many of those calls actually are from users looking for technological assistance with the apps themselves. However, if there is a surge in addicts seeking help, shouldn’t we be applauding the increased awareness of these hotlines? Those are people gambling on legal and regulated outlets; the Times’ legions of black-market players remain lost to such outreach.

But that’s not really what the Times is trying to say here. They want to pretend that if something is not legal, it won’t exist. They do know better, but attacking people who enjoy gambling is just too easy and fun to pass up.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for PlayCA. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Ill., Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected]

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