Column: College sports betting becomes mainstream with fantasy football, ESPN cover alerts

Bridget Bonasoro

The Texas Longhorns beat the Oklahoma Sooners 24-17 on Saturday. As a 17-point underdog, the Longhorns managed to win outright and continued a three-year trend of covering against the Sooners as underdogs.

Talking about college sports and betting lines is a subversive yet routine practice in the United States. With information readily available from ESPN and easy access to daily fantasy sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings, sports betting has become mainstream. But concerns about propriety arise when one considers the NCAA’s opposition to all forms of legal and
illegal sports wagering while the athletes themselves are not paid.

A spike in college sports betting came in the wake of DraftKings’ $250 million advertising deal with ESPN. ESPN made a name for itself by broadcasting college sports, with its first broadcasting rights agreement being made with the NCAA. ESPN’s 12-year, $5.64 billon agreement in 2012 with the NCAA to air the College Football Playoff — as well as other conference and team-specific deals such as the Longhorn Network — indicate that ESPN has remained tied to the NCAA.

This history of NCAA and ESPN entanglement has given the network an undue influence over the college sports landscape. The addition of daily fantasy sports has further complicated this arrangement as ESPN has been encouraged to provide betting lines for nearly every college football game. So, when ESPN decided to provide a “Cover Alert” for a Michigan State-Western Michigan game in Sept. 4, it received heaps of negative press and commentary from NCAA officials.

Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby did not approve of ESPN’s new interest in wagering, according to a USA Today report.

“I don’t think those are things that ought to be a part of the presentation of college football, but maybe that’s the environment in which we find ourselves,” Bowlsby said.

Wagering on college sports puts into question the lack of compensation for the college athletes who determine the outcome of bets. Although the NCAA continues to peddle amateurism as an ideal and a selling point, it continues to rake in billions of dollars in broadcasting rights deals as a nonprofit organization. This means NCAA President Mark Emmert can make $1.7 million in 2012, while 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel can earn nothing.

To maintain this hypocrisy, the NCAA must avoid sports betting and anything that resembles it. So, the NCAA has officially barred student-athletes from participating in any fantasy league games with a paid entry fee.

ESPN’s partnership with DraftKings has muddled the college sports landscape. This is why transparency is key. The legalization of sports betting appears to be inevitable, so the NCAA must develop a plan to pay its athletes and ensure fair play. Purposefully neglecting sports betting will not make it go away.