Fantasy gambling threatens America’s game

I’ve had my ups and downs with sports gambling. I’ve sulked about the over-under even when my favorite teams were winning, almost had my ass kicked by a bar full of Manny Pacquiao fans and leaped off my couch because of meaningless touchdowns or home runs more times than I care to admit.

What I haven’t felt until recently is the suspicion that my bets are threatening the way games are played.

FanDuel and DraftKings, relative newcomers to the fantasy-football-driven genre of sports gambling, have clawed their way into prominence as of late through a series of aggressive ad campaigns and low-risk betting options. Both websites allow users weekly and even daily chances to digitally draft athletes from a number of sports and compete for cash prizes with their virtual teams. Their ascensions have been controversial– namely their exploitation of online gambling legislation loopholes and accusations that employees have used insider information to win money on the opposing site.

Illustration by Eva Rodriguez

While shady, these pitfalls are burdens on the gambling industry and will likely be dealt with as states rush to patch up ambiguities in their respective online gambling regulations. Just last week, a lawsuit filed in Ohio accused DraftKinds and FanDuel of operating illegally in the state that bans “game of chance.”

Sports fans, and particularly fans of the NFL, shouldn’t be worried about how these companies make their money. They should be concerned about the identities of the industry’s beneficiaries and their effect on the actual games.

The NFL is essentially the father of screaming twins at the supermarket who buys his kids an aisle’s worth of candy. The league has given the duo of DraftKings and FanDuel everything from ubiquitous advertising to built-in fantasy lounges in NFL stadiums, and it’s easy to see why.

The list of DraftKings investors reads like a who’s-who of professional sporting elites. It’s shamelessly studded with companies like Disney, the owners of ESPN, and 21st Century Fox, which airs NFL games on its networks. Most alarming on the list is the presence of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft whose stock in DraftKings is undoubtedly intertwined with his decision making when he votes on the NFL’s rule changes.

The relationship between daily fantasy gambling and the NFL is far past flirtatious. They’re so comfortably in bed with each other that they’re arguing about who should get up to cook breakfast, and the actual football game play– the finished product that is presented to fans– will suffer as a result.

It’s important to keep in mind the scoring systems of FanDuel and DraftKings when considering how their advents might affect football. A paying participant on the site drafts a team of predominantly offensive players who earn points by gaining yards and scoring touchdowns. This makes high-scoring games much more exciting than defensive stand-offs for fantasy gamblers. And as the NFL and daily fantasy sites know, more excitement leads to more wagers and more money, so the incentive to provide those high-octane offensive battles is even higher than it was from a purely aesthetic standpoint.

The league has already been trending toward favoring offenses when passing new rules. Quarterbacks are basically untouchable, and defensive backs are increasingly timid when covering receivers, resulting in a steady rise in QB completion percentages over time — excluding a certain pair of red-and-gold outliers.

Long gone are the days of “Defense wins championships,” and the popularity of daily fantasy sports could prod the NFL into passing even more offense-friendly rule changes. DraftKings and FanDuel are the catalysts that could finally squeeze the last bit of defensive dignity from the sport.

I truly fear the possibility of an NFL where daily fantasy sports are the king, unharnessed offenses are the queen and the sanctity of balanced football is the jester. I’m hooked on football for life, with no exceptions. I’d just rather not settle for less when it comes to the competitiveness of my favorite sport.

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