The Future of Betting on Sport: The Billion Dollar American Parlay

With the recent landmark decision by the Supreme Court regarding sports betting, the industry is set to embark on a vastly different frontier.

Updated: Aug. 7, 2018 • 11:25 AM ET

Las Vegas has been at the forefront of gambling on sports.

Parlay – v. 1. to bet or gamble (an original amount and its winnings) on a subsequent race, contest, etc. 2. Informal. to use (one's money, talent, or other assets) to achieve a desired objective, as spectacular wealth or success 3. a bet of an original sum and the subsequent winnings. —


Americans and the parlay have had a long-existing love affair. We love a good Tatooine-style wager (think pod racing), defying the odds (think Mine That Bird in 2009) and especially arms raising into the classic “V” when they come in (think N.C. State in 1983, sorry UH). The scene from the Oscar-winning movie Silver Linings Playbook also comes to mind, as the detestable Dallas Cowboys fan’s wager is summarily defeated on the gridiron and across the dance floor — Eagles fly (if you haven’t seen it, you should). Sports may be, as the Jim MacKay moniker ascribed, about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I, however, like to think MacKay was really referencing making a wager.

Sports betting can transcend race, class and gender, yet it has the power to divide those that have and those that do not. In a fairly new book called, They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic, historian and curator Kenneth Cohen surmises that status, such as economic freedom and political inequality, were contested at the racetracks, theaters, gambling houses and other sporting venues, dating back to the days of British colonial rule. And, they still are.

Just a few months back the United States Supreme Court overturned a 1992 federal law (known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, aka PASPA) that inhibited legalized sports betting in all states (except of course the sin-havened confines of Nevada) and gave the power of yay/nay back to the other 49. The ruling was a landmark victory indeed, considering that an estimated $150 billion is wagered illegally each year. To clarify, it’s not that the Court endorsed wagering, rather they believed that the ability of the federal government to legislate on such matters was not their province.

So, what does this decision mean for players, ownership, gaming and the future? That unfortunately, is less certain. Here’s what we know.

As Cohen so deftly explains, gaming has always had and will for perpetuity have a negative connotation. For centuries in America, society’s ills are continually blamed on those who perpetuate gaming and engage in risky behavior with their money. Despite this, like the bumper sticker says, it happens.

Whether it’s near the ubiquitous office kitchen equipped with a microwave and Keurig around Super Bowl square time, in a seedy dark alley with an unmarked entrance that leads to a room full of soldier-esque slot machines saluting would-be officers masquerading as patrons full of pocket change, or at the horse track filled with older men who have just turned their Social Security checks into ticket vouchers, we cannot stop this betting train. There’s something deeply psychological and historical about it.

Having marshalled the past in such a fashion, the counter argument to these assertions is that wagering is up 440 percent since the mid-‘80s. It’s nothing short of a multi-billion-dollar industry. And, during the past 30 years, we’ve seen betting become an online phenomenon. Poker, in particular, rose to promise and became the first example of how mathematicians and hackers could manipulate the system.

Making a wager in this fiber-based world also expanded into horse racing, which was famously manipulated by an employee of a certain website, who hijacked the Pick 6 during the 2002 Breeder’s Cup. He almost got away with $3 million, were it not for a 43-1 shot that betrayed him and his cohorts during one of the legs.

The sheer definition of sport has even morphed into a website for a cadre of nerds that stream to do battle on sites like the Mark Cuban-invested company cleverly called Unikrn. Much like the “Oasis” in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, you can decimate your virtual opponent with a battle axe or drain a three from downtown to earn Unikoins.

Outside of Las Vegas, the western front of trying to push the Supreme Court to overturn the banning of sport betting is the state of New Jersey. There, sports books opened to much fanfare, a cathedral to wagers. During their truncated coverage of the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park late last month, even NBC Sports touted the fact that you could bet a parlay on the Cubs-Cards game and pair it with Chad Brown’s runner, Good Magic. As commentator Nick Luck grinned from ear to ear over this prospect and those at home probably were “Jonesing” at all the possibilities, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this good for sport?

I had to pinch myself. What was I thinking? Of course, it is! Who doesn’t like a parlay? Baseball and horse racing? My favorites. I’m old school, I know. But, the philosopher on my shoulder pursed their lips and uttered a reminder concerning this conundrum in the form of Hegelian dialecticism: a thesis and its counterpart, an antithesis, can only be solved when a third proposition based in a higher truth is offered — synthesis.

I understand that the valuation of sports teams will rise. I get that technology and entertainment are full or “joygasms” for all. And, I’m even willing to swallow the premise that if you’re wagering on individual games, you’re more likely to tune in, which provides networks with dreams that brim of empires of fiber. Thus, returning access to the people, a la the dream of the League of Shadows and the super Bat-villain Bane, could turn fiction into reality. But, the question still remains (and this can only be solved with a proper synthesis), what will each of the individual states do with the power they now possess?

In an age where costs continue to rise and trade wars loom, the future of sports betting has never been more uncertain. To be sure, legalization, just as it did at the end of the 1920s when Prohibition was finally overturned early in FDR’s first term, can have a positive impact on say, organized crime and underground parlor gaming. But, what happens when only certain states choose to legalize?

Will Texans continue to make the I-10 exodus to the nearby Pelican State? I’m certainly not against the revitalization of Atlantic City, which has become a veritable Hill Valley run by a dystopian Biff Tannen. Job creation is important, and I’m not implying that people employed by the gaming industry don’t matter.

What I’m a believer in is that when we leave decision-making to states, that has its pluses that conform to a Jeffersonian tradition. Yet, the Sage and his cohorts barely experienced the role played by the lobbyist in our political structure. They foresaw factions to be sure, but not the power and cash commanded by these folks. As long as the gaming industry that governs sports betting makes judicious decisions and includes the voices of the people, it might be possible to move this situation in a direction where outside manipulations can be kept at bay.

Will that happen? I’m not so sure. Working together isn’t always the American way on such political matters, even when gambling addictions are part of the equation. If states can form coalitions and share tax revenues, as is done with, say, horse racing in Britain, then a block chain might serve us well.

Subsequently, what is for certain is that a nexus of events will need to fall into place for this American parlay to succeed to the point where everyone has a legitimate chance to become a winner.

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