Pro Sports In Vegas

The NFL has approved the request of the Oakland Raiders franchise to move to Las Vegas.  It’s not clear when the Raiders will actually start playing in Vegas, and the team will likely play another season or two in Oakland, but a new stadium is expected to be built for them in their new home in southern Nevada in time for the 2020 season.

ows_149067187344496The story here isn’t another move of a pro sports franchise; teams packing up and hauling their operations to a new town is old news these days.  The Raiders, who have shuttled back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles and always seem to be either moving or on the verge of moving, are one of the hand-wringing teams that are forever working their local government for a more lucrative deal.  If Las Vegas wants to foot the bill for a lavish new domed stadium — which is expected to cost at least $1.9 billion, with the costs being split between revenues generated by an increased hotel room tax, the Raiders organization, and a Las Vegas gazillionaire — to get the NFL brand associated with Sin City, that’s its decision to make.

No, the real story here is that the Raiders’ approved move to Las Vegas is just the latest evidence of the increasingly accepted association of gambling and sports.  Gambling used to be one of the chief concerns of professional and college sports teams.  From the Chicago Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, to the college basketball point-shaving scandals of the ’40s and ’50s, to the suspension of Pete Rose from major league baseball for betting on baseball games, sports leagues traditionally reacted viscerally to any association with gambling.

But a lot has changed in America, and gambling has become much more commonplace and accepted.  When I was in Philadelphia recently the landscape was dotted with signs for casino gambling; the slot machines and table games that used to be reserved for Las Vegas can now be found in more than half the states in America.  Betting on sports events has become so routine that the lines and odds on games and matches are available to anyone with a few strokes of a keyboard, and one of America’s great annual pastimes is participating in the NCAA March Madness pool at the office.  There’s not as much of a taint to gambling as used to be the case.

But, is it good to have an NFL team in Las Vegas, where sports gambling is legal and people can make, or lose, huge sums of money if the point spread gets covered because of a flukey last-minute play?  Is it wise to have professional athletes living in a community where, at a party or charity event, they may hobnob with some well-heeled but shady characters who might drop a hint or two about how the athletes and their teammates could make some easy money without costing their team a game?  Could you envision a scenario where an NFL star has a bad run of luck at the gaming tables and is encouraged to even the score by missing a block or dropping a sure touchdown catch?  I suppose you can argue that pro athletes could be exposed to such characters, and temptations, anywhere in America, but gambling is so deeply engrained and accepted in the Las Vegas culture that I’m not sure other situations are really comparable to pro athletes being based in a place that is often called a “gambling mecca.”

We’ve come a long way since the days when pro sports teams did whatever they could to project a squeaky clean image.  Now we’ll have an NFL team located squarely in the most gambling-oriented town in America.

Sumo Scandals

The ideal of sport is a pristine competition in which skill and merit will determine the victor.  Often, matches begin with the statement:  “May the best man win!”  Of course, the reality often falls short of that ideal — and in America, the NCAA spends a lot of its time trying to police the cheaters.

Cheating is not a problem that is limited to America.  Pakistani cricketers are embroiled in a cheating scandal in which they are accused of (honest!) “bowling deliberate no-balls.” And Japan is being rocked by a sumo wrestling scandal.  Thirteen senior sumo wrestlers are implicated in a match-fixing scandal that is so serious that the Japanese Sumo Association grand tournament has been canceled for the first time in 65 years.  (This should not be wholly unexpected; years ago the book Freakonomics, by Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, postulated, based on a statistical analysis, that sumo involved rampant match-fixing.)

For Japan, however, the corruption in sumo is more difficult to accept than, say, an NCAA college football recruiting scandal.  Sumo has its origins in ancient religious rites and has been an organized activity in Japan for centuries.  It is generally viewed as Japan’s national sport.  The scandal strikes at the heart of sumo and is so serious that even Japan’s prime minister has spoken out about it.  He says that if match-fixing has occurred, “it is a very serious betrayal of the people.”

The reaction in Japan is probably akin to the reaction in America when people learned that the 1919 World Series was fixed.  That was a more innocent time,  when baseball was America’s undisputed national pastime and it was unimaginable that players would fix a game and betray their fans.  I wonder if, somewhere in Japan, a young boy will go up to one of the accused sumo champions and cry out:  “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”