HERE IN CALIFORNIA, THERE’S WAY MORE TO LIFE THAN SPORTS OBSESSION
Legal gambling is booming across America, but in a state that doesn’t worship sports and makes billionaire owners build palaces with private money, voters rejected two ballot initiatives this week
In Denver, I was protected by police in a sports bar after a death threat was phoned to my radio show. In Chicago, a nail was wedged into my tire outside the White Sox ballpark, a tiny nuisance compared to the voicemail message left by a mob wannabe: “If you write one more thing about DePaul basketball, I’ll blow your skull to bits. I’ll do it goddammit!” In Detroit, the Pistons tried to revoke my media credentials because they didn’t like my coverage at the punky age of 22, requiring the NBA to intervene.
In Cincinnati, Bengals coach Sam Wyche, who since has left us, struck me with a blocking-sled-like, blindside shot on the field after a loss. His pal, a local radio host, liked to say he used my column as toilet paper.
And people wonder why I live in Los Angeles.
If sports in cold-weather, sorry-ass places are a live-or-die, psycho-killer proposition, California is where propositions are voted down. Specifically, a pair of expensively funded, highly orchestrated sports betting initiatives were soundly rejected this week, under a preposterous premise that gambling revenues would help solve the state’s homeless crisis.
Sure, DraftKings would eliminate tent encampments and take people off the streets. Voters saw right through the scam, keeping the usual proper perspective about ballgames in the bigger context of life. Here, sports are fun as an entertainment source, but they don’t consume folks to the point of personal humiliation and ruin. If the Dodgers fail again in the playoffs or the Lakers wreck LeBron James’ career twilight, the response is to head west — beach day! — and lather up with sunscreen on a 72-and-sunny afternoon … in December. The mood isn’t conducive to any raw intimidation of local sportswriters, who wouldn’t be recognized if they ran naked in Crypto.com Arena and aren’t bothered beyond a few snarky letters in the L.A. Times.
Sports don’t define or swallow the populace. Sports aren’t an addiction as much as an occasional vape hit. If you’re at a restaurant and want to watch ESPN, there’s a fair chance the bartender won’t know the channel number, assuming he/she knows how to work the remote. I know an ocean hangout that refuses sports requests, preferring to run a non-stop surfing reel. L.A.’s two sports-talk stations have numbers worse than Russell Westbrook’s three-point shooting percentage, way down there with oldies, college and ethnic outlets. Sports, thankfully, are just something to do. When the NFL wasn’t in La La Land for two decades, did anyone even notice? There is no religion of sports here.
Exhibit A: Every franchise owner who has tried to squeeze the state for public stadium funding has been rebuffed, which forces L.A. Rams owner Stan Kroenke to spend $6 billion to construct SoFi Stadium with his wife’s Walmart fortune. And forces Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob to build his own arena in San Francisco. And L.A. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer to do the same in Inglewood. And compels the Raiders to leave Oakland for Las Vegas, as the Athletics mull a similar escape.
Now, we have Exhibit B: The booming sports gambling industry, which has bull-rushed into 30-plus states after the Supreme Court’s ill-advised 2018 decision to legalize wagering, tried to take over California. The usual suspects — DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM and the grimy rest — used Wall Street’s bankroll to support Proposition 27. The companies invested more than $250 million in an aggressive attempt to win approval for online and mobile betting. Another initiative, Proposition 26, involved Native American casinos and horse tracks that sought control of in-person sports betting.
For weeks, dueling TV advertisements were everywhere. The gambling companies claimed an unsolvable homeless blight would be helped via tax revenue — when a corrupt political system already misappropriates billions intended for the unhoused. At stake was a sizable windfall in a California economy poised to overtake Germany as the world’s fourth-largest. If a record $5.28 billion was bet in New York’s first three months of legal gambling this year, imagine how much might be wagered in this state.
The bro-dudes who run the app traps couldn’t be stopped, right? The major American sports leagues that now embrace gambling, after outlawing it for decades, salivated over another new revenue stream and couldn’t be stopped, either.
Until they were.
Until they realized California doesn’t capitulate to sports interests, even if potential billions are sacrificed in a state of 40 million residents. With refreshing purpose and speed, voters resoundingly said no on Election Day, disgusted by the brazen tone of the ads. The competing interests — betting companies and Native American tribes — couldn’t convince voters that legal betting was healthy through devices or necessary at brick-and-mortar tribal shops. So, while wide swaths of a nation contribute to the surge of problem gambling, Cali wants no part of it. Oh, people go to stadiums and arenas, some 10 million attending 2021 home games of the dozen major pro teams in Los Angeles and Orange counties. They just don’t take the games home with them, as they do in, say, Chicago, where a local sportsbook targets fans with a TV ad of a man relieving himself on a toilet — noises and all — while he wagers on a phone app. They’re manic gamblers in Illinois.
Not so much in California. Kevin Hart can keep living here while doing his DraftKings commercials, but he can’t bet on a DraftKings app here. He’ll have to hit Vegas to feed his gambling fix, like everyone else.
So much for the legacy San Francisco radio station, KGO, that flipped over to a sports gambling format last month in anticipation of legal online betting. For 80 years, the station served the Bay Area, most recently as a 50,000-watt news-talk beacon. But Cumulus Media doesn’t care about tradition, one reason terrestrial radio is dead. Next thing you knew, the frequency was the home of “The Spread 810AM,” featuring shows such as “Bet MGM Tonight” and “BetQL Daily.”
The corporate wager lost this week. Can’t say I’m sad.
Undeterred, like millions of gamblers convinced they’ll win the next time after losing the big wager, the odds shops aren’t giving up. “More than likely,” said DraftKings CEO Jason Robins, “this will pass in 2024.”
Don’t bet on it. This is California, where a lifestyle means more to most of us than another tawdry over-under.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.