BY JOHN A. FORTUNATO

Image from PixabayImage from PixabayIntroduction

Ethical dilemmas exist in media organization content decision-making as well as how organizations use media as a means of marketing promotion. The concept of framing, where certain facts are emphasized in media content to the exclusion of others (Entman, 1993; Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997), invites ethical debate (Oates & Pauly, 2007; Schwartz, 2016). The importance of studying framing is that how topics are presented can influence how they are perceived by various audiences (Iyengar, 1991; McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 1997, 2014; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). Greater coverage of an issue can result in an increase in that topic’s perceived salience, and the facts presented and emphasized in that media content can result in an increase in those facts being perceived as more salient (McCombs et al., 1997, 2014).

The ethical concerns of framing are heightened when the communication messaging is about an industry where participation presents an inherent risk (Berg & Feldner, 2017; Fortunato & Gigliotti, 2019; Mirer & Mederson, 2017). The ethics of how the activity of sports gambling is framed is questioned in this essay. Sports gambling is an activity that has potentially harmful outcomes (Lamont, Hing, & Gainsbury, 2011; Monaghan, Derevensky, & Sklar, 2008; Winters & Derevensky, 2019). Participation in sports gambling can lead to addiction and economic hardship (Lamont et al., 2011; Winters & Derevensky, 2019). Those afflicted with addiction tend to spend more time and money gambling rather than focusing on employment or relationships (Lamont et al., 2011). Sports gambling addiction can also precipitate other problems, including an elevated likelihood of alcohol or drug use and psychological or mental health issues (Hing, Russell, & Browne, 2017).

Ethical concerns also exist through research that demonstrates that sports gambling participation is influenced by how the activity is promoted, or framed (Gainsbury, Delfabbro, King, & Hing, 2016; Parke, Harris, Parke, Rigbye, & Blasczynski, 2014). Sports gambling is presented as fun, harmless, entertaining, and socially acceptable (Gainsbury et al., 2016; McMullan & Miller, 2010; Parke et al., 2014; Winters & Derevensky, 2019). This positive framing for an activity with potentially profound negative consequences is particularly problematic when it is presented to vulnerable populations, most notably those who have experienced gambling addiction behaviors and the youth population (Derevensky, Sklar, Gupta, & Messerlian, 2010; Monaghan et al., 2008; Shaffer, LaBrie, & LaPlante, 2004).

The ethical calculation of how sports gambling is produced and framed is a timely topic due to the United States Supreme Court decision in May, 2018, that paved the way for states to legalize gambling on sports games (Kendall, Kirkham, & Beaton, 2018). By the end of 2019, laws permitting sports gambling were passed in 20 states and Washington D.C. (Sayre & Mullin, 2020). Several states are facilitating sports betting by allowing wagering through online and mobile platforms (King, 2019a; Krouse, 2019).

Ethical concerns in an industry are often countered by economic opportunity. With an increase in sports gambling availability and accessibility, investment firms estimate that by 2025 the sports gambling industry in the United States will generate between $7 billion and $8 billion in annual revenue (Parry, 2019b). State governments, sports gambling operators, sports leagues and teams, and sports media companies all benefit economically from an increase in sports gambling. State governments benefit from sports gambling being a source of tax revenue and job creation (Claussen & Miller, 2001; Johnson, 2019). Sports gambling operators have the opportunity to attract new customers as more states legalize the activity. Sports gambling operators are using sponsorships with sports leagues and teams to positively frame the activity and promote their brands in an attempt to acquire customers (King, 2020). Sports leagues accrue economic benefits through these lucrative sponsorships with sports gambling operators (Fortunato, 2013; O’Reilly & Lafrance Horning, 2013). Sports leagues and their broadcast partners also benefit from higher viewership for their games, an act assisted by sports gambling (Nesbit & King, 2010; Paul & Weinbach, 2015; Salaga & Tainsky, 2015). Sports media companies can also develop content specifically for the sports gambling audience as more people become interested in the activity (King, 2019a; Mullin, 2019).

The collective actions of these organizations serve to legitimize and normalize the sports gambling industry (Claussen & Miller, 2001; Lamont et al., 2011; McKelvey, 2004). Lamont et al. (2011) discuss the interplay between gambling companies acting as sponsors of sports leagues and teams, government regulation, and the effect on society. They explain their concern, stating, “regulators, sponsors and sports organizations should be mindful of the likely ethical and public health implications of promoting potentially harmful products through sport sponsorship” (p. 247).

The Supreme Court ruling transformed the sports gambling industry by giving more people the ability to bet on games. It is important to study the actions of the organizations that are responsible for producing and framing sports gambling participation since that inflection point. These actions can then be questioned from an ethical perspective by applying the scholarly literature on framing, the practice of sponsorship, and sports gambling marketing.

Literature Review

Media and Marketing Framing

Ward (2015) defines ethics as “the activity of constructing, critiquing, and enforcing norms, principles, and aims to guide individual and social conduct” (p. 4). He describes the challenge of ethics is that it “is both individualistic and social. It is individualistic because individuals are asked to make certain norms and values part of their character. It is social because ethics is not about every person formulating their own rules of behavior” (p. 5).

Every industry is presented with a series of ethical decisions and practices. The framing paradigm offers a valuable perspective for which to ethically evaluate media content decision-making and how organizations use media. Mass media organizations have the responsibility to select and frame the content that gets exposed to the audience (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). The limits of media time and space are such that every issue cannot be covered (Shaw & Martin, 1992). For those issues that do receive coverage, media organizations have to make decisions about the language and the pictures that are used, causing certain attributes of an issue to get emphasized (McCombs et al., 1997, 2014; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). The selected and emphasized attributes can result in being perceived as more salient by the audience (McCombs et al., 1997, 2014). Entman (1993) explains, “to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (p. 52). He adds that frames “call attention to some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements, which might lead audiences to have different reactions “ (p. 55). Nelson et al. (1997) similarly comment that “frames influence opinions by stressing specific values, facts, and other considerations, endowing them with greater apparent relevance to the issue than they might appear to have under an alternative frame “ (p. 569).

It is important to note that acceptance of media framing decisions is not absolute and audience members bring their own thoughts, experiences, and desires when interpreting messages (McCombs et al., 1997, 2014). Shen (2004) speaks to the interpretive ability of the audience, stating, “the persuasive impact of any given frame will likely depend on how the messages interact with individuals' own predispositions of knowledge structures. A framing effect is more likely to occur when the media frames comport with the existing beliefs of the audiences” (p. 126).

Many framing studies focus on mass media content decisions that lead to an increase in issue and fact salience (McCombs et al., 1997, 2014). It also becomes important to acknowledge that organizations play a role in framing themselves (Carroll, 2013; Dunn, 2009). First, organizations try to shape the media coverage that they receive. Second, they engage in promotional communication efforts that circumvent the media selection and framing decision-making process and provide unfiltered content directly to the audience (Caywood, 2013; Dunn, 2009). Online and social media vehicles have enhanced these promotional communication capabilities (Caywood, 2013; Martin, 2014).

The manner in which an organization presents, or frames, itself and its respective industry is where ethical considerations begin to emerge. Marketing efforts feature positive framing of a brand or an industry. Marketing is designed to move consumers along the path toward using the brand regardless of their perception of the brand or their need to purchase an item in that product category (Keller, 2001). Murphy, Cunningham, and Stavchansky de Lewis (2011) explain, “a marketing program is intended to plan how products or services are taken from the point of production to the point of consumption in such a way as to develop a positive relationship between consumers and the producer that will foster additional or repeat usage “ (p. 23). Their concept of generating repeat usage speaks to a marketing objective beyond one-time consumption, toward brand loyalty. In this ideal scenario a consumer of a product category no longer debates between the brand options and continues to support the same brand.

To help accomplish this level of brand loyalty, it is important to point out the advantageous characteristics of advertising and sponsorship in performing the framing function. In these forms of marketing companies pay media organizations, or a property such as a sports team or league, to receive control of the message placement and message content. The message placement gives a company access to the participating audience. By controlling the message content within that time or space, a company gets to emphasize the brand features that it chooses.

Sponsorship is a unique marketing platform where a company can achieve brand exposure, product category exclusivity, form a brand association with a league or team, and develop customized promotional programs to assist with brand recall and increase sales (Fortunato, 2013; O’Reilly & Lafrance Horning, 2013). Meenaghan (1991) defines sponsorship as “an investment, in cash or in kind, in an activity, in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that activity” (p. 36). Sponsorship can be a more impactful marketing platform than advertising by forming an emotional bond based on a brand association between a sponsor, a league or team, and a consumer (Gwinner & Eaton, 1999). An official sponsor receives the right to use the league or team brand logos, trademarks, and footage in its promotional communication to explicitly communicate a brand association. Cameron (2009) summarizes that “advertising involves a two-way communication process of ‘interruption’ in which the consumer views a brand message. In contrast, sponsorship involves a three-way communication process in which the consumer views the brand message together with the property in a ‘passion’ mode (p. 134).

Gambling Framing

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 offers a formal, legal definition of the terms “bet “ or “wager “ as, “the staking or risking by any person of something of value upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to chance, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or another person will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome” (The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, Public Law 109-347). For this essay, sports gambling is defined as any wager whose outcome is determined by the performance in a sporting event. This all-encompassing definition includes the vast array of game wagers, such as a win or loss against the game point spread, money line, or over/under game points total, as well as player proposition bets (i.e., how many yards a quarterback might pass for in a football game). Bets can also be placed on a team’s season performance, such as over/under team win total or a team winning a championship. This definition includes fantasy sports participation, office pools (i.e., Super Bowl boxes where the last digit of the teams’ score at the end of the quarter, half, and game determines the winner), and NCAA basketball tournament bracket selections.

Gambling behavior is first produced by an individual’s availability of time and money, combined with an interest in gambling (Humphreys, Lee, & Soebbing, 2011). Behavior is then dictated by the gambling opportunities available (Lamont et al., 2011). Gambling behavior can also be influenced by exposure to gambling marketing promotions (Binde, 2007; Parke et al., 2014; Shaffer et al., 2004). Gambling organizations use marketing to frame participation in a positive manner. Gambling is presented as fun, entertaining, and socially acceptable (Gainsbury et al., 2016; McMullan & Miller, 2010; Parke et al., 2014; Winters & Derevensky, 2019).

Monaghan et al. (2008) also note that gambling is presented as harmless. Even when the risks of gambling are present in the content of an advertisement, they are not prominent and are disproportionate to messages that convey positive outcomes (Friend & Ladd, 2009; McMullan & Miller, 2010). Gambling is often presented as an individual choice (Blaszczynski, Ladouceur, & Shaffer, 2004), but that choice is misleading if the activity is presented inaccurately and inappropriately (Parke et al., 2014). Friend and Ladd (2009) contend that the absence of risk or information about responsible participation offers a distorted perception of gambling. Parke et al. (2014) summarize, “gambling is overwhelmingly portrayed as a positive, enjoyable leisure activity, and while this may be the case for many individuals, there is a need to balance this portrayal with indications that there is potential for harm and self-control is required” (p. 32).

Marketing communication that legitimizes and normalizes gambling behavior by depicting it as a fun, harmless activity is especially disconcerting when presented to individuals who experienced gambling addiction behaviors and to the youth population (Derevensky et al., 2010; Monaghan et al., 2008; Shaffer et al., 2004). For those individuals who do not have issues with gambling addiction or have not engaged in any gambling behavior, marketing exposure could increase interest and participation, but when they experience any negative consequences due to this behavior their participation dissipates (Shaffer et al., 2004). In contrast, individuals who experience gambling addiction tendencies are more aware of gambling marketing and that this exposure does present a greater risk for detrimental gambling-related behavior (Derevensky et al., 2010; Monaghan et al., 2008; Shaffer et al., 2004).

For the youth population, gambling marketing has been shown to lead to a greater intention to gamble, and ultimately greater participation in gambling (Monaghan et al., 2008). Researchers do point out that there are several other environmental factors that contribute to sports gambling participation (Binde, 2007; Parke et al., 2014; Shaffer et al., 2004). For example, marketing exposure has often reinforced an individual’s gambling attitudes and behavior, which can already be learned through peer involvement with the activity (Derevensky et al., 2010).

Marketing exposure of gambling through social media platforms further normalizes gambling (Gainsbury et al., 2016; Krouse, 2019). Social media promotion of gambling particularly raises ethical concerns as gambling is increasingly done in online and mobile formats (Gainsbury et al., 2016). Promotion of online and mobile gambling has been found to have only a limited influence in attracting new gamblers (Hing, Cherney, Blasczynski, Gainsbury, & Lubman, 2014). Findings suggest that promotion of online and mobile gambling is more apt to cause gamblers to shift from non-online to online formats. However, these existing gamblers tend to bet more frequently in online formats (Hing et al., 2014; Krouse, 2019). This outcome could lead to greater gambling addiction (Binde, 2009; Hing et al., 2014).

One other outcome of gambling marketing is that this promotion tends to lead to brand transfer, rather than an increase in participation (Binde, 2007). Marketing has been found to be valuable when there is little differentiation between the brands in a product category (Lopez-Gonzalez, Estevez, & Griffiths, 2017). This would seemingly apply to gambling companies where similar types of wagering options are offered by all competitors (King, 2020). Chris Grove, an executive with Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, a firm specializing in gaming research and consulting, described the competitive environment of the sports gambling industry where, “sportsbooks are by and large commodities that then have a brand associated with them. What separates one sportsbook from another is not that visible to the consumer. It becomes a war of effective marketing (King, 2018).”

Two ethical concerns are specifically identified in researching the portrayal of sports gambling (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2017). The first concern is an over-emphasis on the skill and knowledge of the gambler, with a deemphasis on the role that luck could play in the outcome of a sporting event. The second concern is an over-emphasis on the likelihood of winning, with a deemphasis on the risks involved in sports gambling. The prominent messaging found in sports betting promotion is that betting is a normal social activity and that the consequences of losing are not overly detrimental (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2017). This framing makes the association formed through sponsorship between sports gambling operators and sports leagues and teams potentially problematic from an ethical perspective (Claussen & Miller, 2001; Lamont et al., 2011; McKelvey, 2004). Claussen and Miller (2001) contend that with the assistance of promotion through sport sponsorship, “gambling has shed its image as a corrupting vice and has been reconstructed as a socially acceptable activity” (p. 353).

Sports Leagues and Gambling

Sports leagues long-argued against the legalization of sports gambling. The primary claim by league executives was to protect the integrity of the games. For example, Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, stated that sports betting, “threatens to damage irreparably the integrity of, and the public confidence in, NFL football” (Purdum, 2013). Any ethical considerations of sports leagues are countered by the economic benefits of sports gambling (Beaton, 2018). Sponsorship is a major revenue source for sports leagues and teams (Fortunato, 2013). The expansion of new product categories for leagues and teams to offers sponsorships, such as sports gambling operators, simply means additional revenue (Beaton, 2020; Fischer & King, 2019).

Sports leagues and teams also benefit economically from higher viewership of their games (Bellamy, 2006). Sports are attractive programming for networks and advertisers because the audience often watches games during the live telecast, not at a later time or another day using a DVR device. One estimate is that more than 95 percent of televised sports is watched live (Ourand, 2014). In 2019, 92 of the top 100 most watched television programs were sports broadcasts (Karp, 2020). Sports gambling, both wagering on the results of an actual game as well as participating in fantasy sports, has been shown to increase the viewership of games (Nesbit & King, 2010; Paul & Weinbach, 2015; Salaga & Tainsky, 2015). Christopher Golier, NHL vice president of mobile marketing and strategy, commented, “we noticed that the average fan that played daily fantasy games was spending five to ten minutes more watching games than those that didn’t play. These sorts of games obviously appeal to the avid fans, but we also see an opportunity to reach more casual fans as well” (Thomas & Fisher, 2014).

Sports Gambling and the Government

The government serves as a legitimizing agent for sports gambling by making the activity legal and more accessible (Claussen & Miller, 2001; Lamont et al., 2011; McKelvey, 2004; Parke et al., 2014). Similar to sports leagues, any ethical concerns over the potential problems stemming from an increase in sports gambling are countered by governments seeking to use the activity as a source of tax revenue and job creation (Claussen & Miller, 2001; Johnson, 2019). Sports gambling policy in the United States was directed by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA), signed into law in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush. The law prohibited wagering on sports games except in the states where some form of sports betting had been established. New Jersey initiated the highest profile public challenge to PAPSA. In 2011, New Jersey voters supported a ballot referendum to legalize sports wagering. The legal arguments offered by New Jersey were that sports gambling policy should be determined by the states and that PAPSA was not preventing billions of dollars from being bet illegally (Mierswa, 2014). The American Gaming Association estimates that $150 billion is bet illegally each year (Sayre, 2019).

After a series of lower court rulings and appeals, the United States Supreme Court accepted the case. On May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision declared PAPSA unconstitutional. In writing the majority opinion of the Court, Justice Samuel Alito stated that PAPSA, “unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do, a more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine” (Kendall et al., 2018). Justice Alito also wrote, “the legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make. Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own” (Johnson & Salant, 2018).

The Approach

The purpose of this essay is to question the ethics of media and marketing framing in the context of sports gambling. The framing of this risk-behavior industry gained heightened importance with the Supreme Court ruling that permits states to legalize sports gambling. State governments, sports leagues and teams, sports gambling operators, and sports media companies are all in position to benefit economically from the increase in sports gambling availability and accessibility. These organizations all serve as legitimizing and normalizing agents of sports gambling through how they produce and frame the activity. Capturing their actions and messaging is necessary to advance this essay’s purpose.

The findings section details the actions that have rapidly changed the sports gambling industry, highlighting the noteworthy developments of state governments’ decision to permit online and mobile wagering, sports leagues and teams offering sponsorships to sports gambling operators, and media companies developing content specifically for the sports gambling audience.

The article focuses primarily on public actions and messaging associated with sports gambling — the industry as publicly defined and portrayed. The actions and messaging both perform the framing function of emphasizing certain attributes of an issue. Some of these actions are easily found by witnessing sports media content (i.e., simply turning to the ESPNews channel). Other noteworthy actions are documented in media reporting. The relevant academic literature summarized in this article allows for analysis of these actions. The concepts detailed in this literature help to better understand the sports gambling industry and illustrate a number of connections between the theory and practice of the ethics of framing.

Findings

State Governments and Sports Gambling

Several states moved quickly to legalize sports gambling after the Supreme Court ruling, with decisions having to be made about online and mobile wagering, sports gambling locations, and tax structures (King, 2019a; Kirkham & Bachman, 2018). States differed on permitting online and mobile wagering (King, 2019a; Sayre, 2019). Online and mobile apps have a technology referred to as “geofencing” which allows wagering only within a geographical area (Sayre, 2019). Online and mobile sports gambling accounted for approximately 80% of legal wagers in New Jersey (Sayre, 2019), helping the state hit its projected target of $25 million in tax revenue (Johnson, 2019). Rhode Island’s initial law did not permit online and mobile wagering, but when sports gambling revenue was lower than expected a change was made to the law to permit gambling on those platforms (King, 2018). Sports leagues recognizing the economic opportunity that was presented with an increase in sports gambling began to lobby states to allow for mobile and online wagering. David Miller, PGA Tour vice president and assistant general counsel, commented, “we want mobile platforms to be fully enabled. Brick and mortar is not realistic to engage fans” (Lombardo, 2018, p. 5).

Sports League and Team Sponsorship with Sports Gambling Operators

Sports leagues are generating revenue by creating a new sponsorship product category, “authorized sports betting operators.” Sports gambling operators are using these marketing partnerships to assist with customer acquisition (King, 2020). Sponsors received access to official real-time data and the use of league and team logos and trademarks (Fischer & King, 2019). The NBA became the first league to reach an agreement with a sports gambling operator when it partnered with MGM Resorts International in a three-year deal estimated at $8 million-per-year (King & Lombardo, 2018). The partnership with MGM was not exclusive and the NBA reached agreements with five other sports gambling operators: Bet 365, DraftKings, FanDuel, Fox Bet, and William Hill (King, 2019b). Scott Kaufman-Ross, NBA vice president and head of fantasy and gambling, explained, “we feel that by working together with the operators, we’re going to be in a better position to monitor sports betting. That’s one of the reasons it was so important to us that this (the agreement with MGM) be a non-exclusive deal, so that we can work with other sports operators to give them that same seal of approval” (King & Lombardo, 2018).

Leagues are allowing their teams to sell sponsorships in the sports gambling operator category as well (Beaton, 2020; Fischer & King, 2019). The NFL in February, 2020, became the last of the major sports leagues in the United States to permit these marketing partnerships. In 2020, more than half of the NFL teams will be in or near geographic locations where sports gambling is legal (Beaton, 2020).

Team sponsorships allow for direct brand engagement with customers at stadiums and arenas. For example, William Hill is a sponsor of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. A key component of the sponsorship is the William Hill lounge at the Devils home arena where a company representative is available to assist fans in signing up for an account. Ken Fuchs, William Hill United States president of digital, explained, “when you look at trying to roll out something nationally, that education aspect is important. And that touchpoint is a good thing. This space provides an access point for sports fans to learn how to bet. To understand how you download the app. The mechanics of paying and registering. The types of information you have to disclose. Our people are trained to walk them through all that” (King, 2019a). William Hill also receives brand exposure through in-arena signage that features an update of NHL game odds and as the title sponsor of the Devils pre and postgame shows on television (King, 2019a).

Sports Media Companies and Sports Gambling Content

Sports media companies understanding that more people will be wagering on sports games as it becomes more-widely legalized have created programming tailored for the sports gambling audience that offers detailed statistical information, betting options, and analysis (Bruell & Ramachandran, 2018; Mullin, 2019). After the Supreme Court decision, David Levy, then-president of Turner Sports, explained, “when disruption and change happen, it’s an opportunity” (Bruell & Ramachandran, 2018). He described sports betting content as something “that every media company will have to look at” (Bruell & Ramachandran, 2018). Brooke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling, stated, “we think the proliferation of legal sports gambling is going to create more engaged sports fans that will then manifest itself in the viewership, both in terms of reach and time spent” (Ourand, 2019b).

Media companies are using both television and digital media platforms to develop sports gambling content. NBC produced gambling-themed alternate game broadcasts on its regional sports network telecasts (Ourand, 2020). The game would be televised in a traditional format on the regular regional sports network. Using the regional sports network overflow channel, the “Predict the Game” gambling-themed telecast would be shown. NBC Sports Washington (NBCSW) scheduled twenty Washington Wizards “Predict the Game “telecasts on NBCSW Plus. During the gambling-themed broadcast fans are invited to go to the regional sports network web site and make predictions to the proposition bet scenarios put forth (i.e., which team will be the first to score 30 points). The “Predict the Game” contest announces one $500 winner after each quarter. A leaderboard appears on the screen so fans can view their position in the contest. Studio hosts during breaks in the game discuss the proposition bets that viewers have to make a prediction. The traditional game broadcast announcers will also interact with the gambling-themed broadcast studio hosts during the game telecast on the main regional sports network. Each quarter of the “Predict the Game” telecast also has its own sponsor (Ourand, 2020).

In May, 2019, ESPN reached an agreement with Caesars Entertainment. An ESPN studio was built at the Ling Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, a Caesars property, to produce gambling-related content (Prang, 2019). In August, 2019, ESPNews redesigned its on-screen graphics to provide information that is of interest to gamblers. The primary content on the channel was reduced, with the left side of the screen now featuring the gambling information. For example, the gambling information pertaining to an NFL game includes the point-spread, money line, over/under points total, and the teams’ season record against the point spread and against the over/under points total. It is indicated at the top of the screen that the odds are provided by Caesars. On the bottom-of-the-screen crawl that appears on all ESPN networks, among the information provided for an upcoming NFL game is the point-spread and the over/under points total.

ESPN introduced a segment on its midnight edition of SportsCenter called “Bad Beats” where host Scott Van Pelt discusses sports gambling outcomes. ESPN launched Daily Wager, a one-hour program that airs on ESPN2. The show was initially televised on ESPNews before it moved to ESPN2, which is in more television households, and expanded to six days, with a Sunday morning show (Fischer & King, 2019). Daily Wager has ESPN reporters and analysts provide information about upcoming games that gamblers would find of interest (i.e., injury updates and game strategy). The show has guests offering their best bets on upcoming games. These picks could be on a variety of bet types, such as game point-spread for a quarter or half or player proposition bets. The show features the same graphics that appear on the left side of the screen on ESPNews. A disclaimer does appear on the screen at the end of the broadcast that reads, “all forms of gambling and sports betting involves risk. Please gamble only using funds you are prepared to lose.” Connor Schell, ESPN executive vice president of content, stated, “we’ll continue to see that show grow on linear networks and then we’ll try to figure out if we do a specific digital show. That’s the spirit of the deal (with Caesars). We started a multiyear relationship. The expectation on both sides is that the relationship will grow and will lead to integration into existing programming and new programming” (Ourand, 2019b). ESPN does have a program entitled I’ll Take That Bet exclusively for its ESPN + app.

Fox produces a daily sports gambling program, Lock It In, that airs weekdays on FoxSports One. The show has three panelists analyzing betting options on upcoming games. When the analysts offer their best bets, the audience learns how much money would be won for a given amount of money wagered. A disclaimer is put on the screen at the end of the program that reads, “all betting was simulated. No actual money was wagered during the program. The opinions provided were intended solely for entertainment purposes and should not be relied upon to place real bets. See www.ncrg.org for more information regarding responsible gambling.”

Fox became the first media company to offer a sports betting service. On May 8, 2019, Fox announced that it purchased a 4.99% stake in The Stars Group for $236 million. The agreement includes an option for Fox to purchase 50% of The Stars Group within the next ten years (Ourand, 2019a). The Stars Group has online gambling assets that include PokerStars and Sky Bet, a global digital sports wagering platform (Parry, 2019a; Ourand, 2019a). The Stars Group also has affiliations with Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, Mount Airy Casino resort in Pennsylvania, and Eldorado Resorts, which has properties in eleven states (Parry, 2019a). Eric Shanks, Fox Sports CEO and Executive Producer, explained that the agreement “perfectly aligns our incentives for the long-term. It’s the lockup of the Fox Sports brand with a great global sports wagering operator” (Ourand, 2019a).

A major initiative of the agreement between Fox and The Stars Group was launching the Fox Bet app. Fox Bet allows the people in states that have legalized sports gambling to place bets on games. Fox Bet offers free-to-play games for those in states that do not have legalized gambling where participants can enter into contests without wagering any money. Fox is then positioned to convert these customers into legal gamblers if those states suddenly change their laws. The Fox Bet app is promoted during the Lock It In television show as when a game is discussed by the show’s analysts, the program’s host makes reference to the percentage of bets that are currently being placed on a particular team according to the Fox Bet App.

Discussion

The United States Supreme Court ruling that permitted states to legalize sports gambling transformed the industry by giving more people the ability to bet on games. The increase in sports gambling availability and accessibility reignites ethical concerns about how an industry where an individual can suffer harmful outcomes is produced and framed. Sports gambling is often framed as fun and harmless (Gainsbury et al., 2016; Parke et al., 2014; Winters & Derevensky, 2019). The importance of framing, where certain facts are emphasized while other facts are either downplayed or not even mentioned, is that the emphasized facts can be perceived as more salient by the audience (McCombs et al., 1997, 2014).

Ethical calculations are often countered by economic opportunity. The government, sports leagues, and sports media companies all benefit economically from an increase in sports gambling. Some states have made sports gambling participation easier through the approval of online and mobile wagering. Sports gambling provides state governments with a new source of tax revenue and job creation. Sports leagues are capitalizing economically by offering sponsorships to sports gambling operators. Sports leagues and their broadcast partners benefit from more viewers of their games, an act assisted by sports gambling. Sports media companies have expanded their offerings of sports gambling content. The combined efforts of these organizations all serve as legitimizing and normalizing agents for sports gambling. They collectively contribute to how the sports gambling industry is framed.

Sports gambling operators in a quest for customer acquisition are obviously going to frame the activity and their own brands in a positive manner (King, 2020). Their usage of sponsorship with sports leagues and teams is valuable in a product category where there is little differentiation (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2017; King, 2018). Sponsorship offers unique opportunities for brand exposure and a brand association that can help achieve brand goals (Fortunato, 2013; O’Reilly & Lafrance Horning, 2013). For example, William Hill’s sponsorship with the New Jersey Devils provides brand exposure and at the arena there is a location where a company representative is educating people about online and mobile sports gambling and assisting them in signing up for an account (King, 2019a). Sports leagues that once argued against widespread legalized sports gambling, albeit more for the protection of the integrity of their games rather than concerns of issues of individual addiction or economic hardship, can now be thought of as more complicit in enabling the activity by offering sports gambling operators access to the audience through their powerful marketing platforms.

Media companies are tailoring content to the sports gambling audience and framing the activity through an understanding that people will seek information and analysis to make them smarter gamblers and increase their chances of winning. Hour-long, daily programs produced by ESPN and Fox that are offering messages that imply that gambling on sports games can lead to positive outcomes are only countered by a graphic disclaimer at the end of the show cautioning about potential problems caused by gambling. This presentation is consistent with the research showing that risks to gambling are often disproportionate to messages that convey a positive perception (Friend & Ladd, 2009; Lopez et al., 2017; McMullan & Miller, 2010). Other prominent developments regarding the media industry that essentially condone sports gambling are Fox entering the sports gambling operator marketplace by creating the Fox Bet app and NBC regional sports networks producing gambling-themed alternate broadcasts of games.

Ethical complexity exists in the individualistic, social dynamic as described by Ward (2015). From an individualistic perspective, sports gambling is an activity that many people enjoy and do participate responsibly. Should the offering of this activity by the states, now with judicial protection by the Supreme Court, be prevented because there are some individuals who participate irresponsibly? Furthering the complexity is that the research on sports gambling can be interpreted in such a way so that there is not absolute clarity about participation effects. For example, there can be an acknowledgment that marketing makes gambling appear more socially acceptable (Gainsbury et al., 2016; Parke et al., 2014; Winters & Derevensky, 2019). However, there could be an argument that this framing is not ethically problematic based on the research that shows that gambling marketing is more likely to lead to brand transfer, rather than an increase in participation (Binde, 2007). Online and mobile gambling was also found to alter the form of gambling more than create new participants (Hing et al., 2014).

Greater consensus about negative consequences of gambling does emerge for vulnerable audiences, individuals with gambling addiction tendencies and the youth population (Derevensky et al., 2010; Monaghan et al., 2008; Shaffer et al., 2004). Framing often comports with an audience member’s existing beliefs (Shen, 2004) and sports gambling promotion has been shown to reinforce youth attitudes and behavior toward gambling (Derevensky et al. 2010). Sports gambling is becoming more normalized to a younger audience through the omnipresence of sports games on television and digital media that provide something to bet on, media content that provides sports gambling information and analysis, the various types of bets that people can place to increase interest, and the increasing accessibility to participate in sports betting. Through the positive framing when witnessing sports content, those younger individuals might not consider the negative aspects of sports gambling participation. For this reason alone, the ethical environment of sports gambling activity and messaging needs continued scrutiny.

Finally, it is critical to monitor sports gambling framing because a similar ethical dilemma of framing, the role of the government, sports leagues, the practice of sponsorship, and the sports media will develop as more states legalize marijuana (Lefton, 2019). The arguments presented, the actions taken, and the audience behavior response learned in the analysis of sports gambling promotion will only enhance the importance of understanding the framing process from an ethical perspective for all risk-behavior industries.

 

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  • John A. Fortunato is a Professor in the School of Business, Area of Communication & Media Management, Fordham University. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..