Money Talks: Why Track & Field Needs Sports Betting
By: Sam Ivanecky
It’s hard not to sound melodramatic when saying “track & field is dying”, but the harsh reality is the sport has continually struggled to innovate. The number of sponsored athletes has changed very little, with even some of the best (Ben True, Noah Droddy) going lengthy periods without representation. The Diamond League was once a thriving series of elite competitions but has cut down on distance events in recent years. Even if you can finagle a VPN to find a semi-working livestream, the content has been mediocre.
Look at how track & field has changed (or hasn’t) in the last decade and it’s clear that real change needs to happen. Sure, there have been attempts to make it more accessible (Sound Running livestreams), put it in front of a bigger audience (American Track League on ESPN2), and even feature crossover athletes from bigger sports (DK Metcalf in the 100m). These attempts aren’t to be overlooked but the sport needs a bigger shove to really get rolling.
Enter sports betting.
Sports betting comes in two flavors. There’s the “fantasy” side, where bettors assemble a team and compete against others. There’s also “sportsbook”, where bettors wager on odds around event(s) happening. The two most popular platforms for these are FanDuel and DraftKings. You can also use apps like Underdog Fantasy to pick over/unders in a parlay style which is similar to sportsbook but technically falls into the fantasy category.
That distinction is important because as of today, sportsbook betting is legal in in only eight states using the FanDuel app. That will likely expand in the future. However, you can play daily fantasy (DFS) through FanDuel in all but six states. Big difference.
So what’s the actual financial impact of sports betting? In an article from The Washington Post in August this year, an NFL executive said they expect sports betting to generate roughly $270 million this year. Some quick math for you. If players received 50% of that revenue and each player received an equal share, each rostered player would be making just shy of an additional $80k this season.
According to FanDuel, they have over six million registered users. DraftKings cites their userbase at just over eight million. If you go on FanDuel, they allow for betting on the major leagues (NFL, NBA, etc.) but also have sports such as cycling, cricket, table tennis, and darts.
Yes, darts has sports betting before track & field.
How would all of this help track grow? How would it even work? From an operation aspect, things are pretty simple. Bettors could pick over/under on times, place, or number of runners to eclipse a mark. In DFS, you could build a roster of athletes competing at a specific meet (track or XC) and play in fantasy matchups against other rosters. Horse racing already has betting but track brings the extra spice of real racing tactics and a plethora of events for some variation. Random people suddenly care about who’s jumping in pole vault because they have money on it. That’s attention the sport simply can’t produce right now.
Growing the sport is already hard. It’s a niche activity that isn’t necessarily exciting for those who didn’t grow up running around a rubber oval. Once people put money in, they become invested. Sure, at first their investment might be simply caring if they win, but longer term they start learning more about the sport. They want to understand who’s good and who’s not so they can make more educated bets and (hopefully) win more money. Gaining fans isn’t a linear process. It’s a step-by-step approach that lures people in through a variety of avenues. Do you think everyone who plays fantasy football really cares that much about football?
Beyond just growing fans, the influx of money would allow the sport to grow. The running community loves to talk about what ideas could grow the sport; Olympic cross country, a series of team meets, more television time with American competition. All of these are good ideas but they require financial backing to happen. Guess what sports betting provides?
This isn’t to say sports betting would create $270m for track in one year, but more money helps this sport in every way. It increases the resources available to put on competitions and make them actually accessible through real livestreams. It creates more incentives for companies to invest in athletes, creating more sponsorship options in a sport where they are desperately needed. It creates more engagement with athletes who might not be winning because bettors are focused on more than just the front of the race.
And while some may argue that it stops organic growth of the sport, the argument can easily be made the other direction. Football hasn’t grown just in the crowds who want to bet. The increase in money has allowed the NFL and teams to expand events and opportunities for those in grassroots programs. Track might gain money on the highest level but that trickles down into more funding in lower programs. Universities may invest more in a sport that produces professinal athletes. Increased popularity on a national scene shows youth that sport is a real career opportunity. And of course, people will always run simply because they love running. Money doesn’t take that away, it just increases exposure for those who may be less aware of this bizarre activity we all love.
Somewhere out there, someone is screaming about ruining the purity of the sport. That betting will cause athletes to throw races for money. It sounds like a valid concern, but is it?
Sports betting has been legal in plenty of sports and these organizations haven’t suddenly collapsed due to corrupt athletes. That’s not a guarantee that someone would never try and throw a race but the likelihood seems pretty slim.
Think about it this way. Introducing sports betting leads to more money in the sport. More money means there are more opportunities for athletes to get paid, which means runners are making more money. An athlete would conceivably through a race to make more money but they are already making more by just introducing betting. By introducing more money into the system, a more robust financial foundation provides substantially less incentives for athletes to cheat. In the current system, doping often means an athlete goes from not getting paid to making money. In a new system, that athlete may already be making money, so why cheat when you don’t need to?
There will always be running purists who argue that the sport needs to remain true to its roots. In that reality, the sport continues to scrape by, seeing shoe sponsorships cut, athletes quitting the sport for “real jobs”, and livestreams that are more pixels that picture.
Sports betting doesn't sabotage the sport, but it just might save it.