Of course it makes sense for the NCAA and its major college football conferences to oppose having their athletes participate in Daily Fantasy contests like those hosted by FanDuel or DraftKings. The ten conferences that make up the NCAA’s Football Bowl Division (FBS) are major sports leagues, selling a commercial product. Having the legitimacy of the outcomes of those games put at risk by the possibility that a group of players (perhaps concerned that they are underpaid) might be convinced to hurt their own statistics at the behest of gamblers is a legitimate concern for any sports organization that makes money by selling tickets and TV rights. Remember: Rules that stop point shaving and other forms of outcome manipulation are essential for the firms that need bettors/contestants to believe they are risking their money on good-faith competition. It goes without saying that FanDuel and DraftKings wouldn’t want point-shaving, or the illusion of it.
“The conference has decided that it will not allow advertising for college fantasy games on the Pac-12 Network. While advertising for fantasy sites geared toward the NFL has been allowed, Scott said, he is not aware of any conference-helmed network that would allow any advertised involving college players.” (emphasis added)
After all, the Pac-12 is a potentially lucrative commercial venture designed to make money showing sports. It wants to attract viewers and to sell access to those viewers to advertisers who think their products will appeal to those viewers. And since DraftKings thinks fans of college sports like the idea of sports contests involving money, it’s a natural fit. Never mind that the Pac-12 Network is owned by the Pac-12, which is wringing its hands over the fact that DraftKings and FanDuel are hosting college football daily fantasy contests. As a commercial entity, the Pac-12 Network has to act like a responsible business and ensure it maximizes the return to its investors, who just happen to be the twelves universities that make up the Pac-12
Of course it makes sense for the NCAA and the FBS conferences to wish that FanDuel and DraftKings weren’t having great success with their Daily Fantasy Leagues for college sports. Take a look at a FanDuel lineup for this Thursday/Friday’s upcoming games:
Notice anything odd? How about that word “salary”? It’s a bit out of place in a sport the NCAA claims is popular only because the athletes don’t earn a salary. And that “salary remaining” sure sounds lot like a collectively bargained salary cap. It would seem that if the popularity of college sports, as distinguished from professional sports, is primarily that the players in college are amateur, that a DFS contest involving college players ought to fall flat on its face if by introducing the concept of a “salary” into the pure world of amateurism. So the fact that FanDuel and DraftKings are betting huge stakes that a game based on salaries for college players will catch on, and are apparently correct, is a really troubling sign for the sports leagues and their collective price agreement that relies heavily on the unsubstantiated claims that “if we pay them, fans won’t watch.”
Of course ESPN wants to focus more of its coverage on daily fantasy and straight-up sports gambling in its college football programming. ESPN is an unabashedly commercial enterprise, also geared around maximizing the commercial appeal of its product. If it thought all this gambling talk would lower the interest of fans in college sports, the network would not be pushing it so hard. They apparently think that viewership is enhanced when money is involved and they clearly do not think that “amateurism” makes that any less true for college sports than elsewhere:
“We recognize that fans are very interested in this type of talk. Our goal on College GameDay is to serve the fans and we believe by doing this, from time to time and when we feel it’s right, serves the fan.”
Of course the NCAA and the FBS conferences are concerned that ESPN is doing this. Again, ESPN, just like FanDuel and DraftKings, only makes money if it gives the fans what they want. If ESPN is telling the world that “amateurism” is less important to the appeal of college sports than point spreads, what does that say about the reality of demand for college sports?
But all of this only makes sense if what the schools are selling is a sport where what matters is not the old college try and love of the game, but of ensuring that the outcome uncertainty makes the game interesting for gamblers and non-gamblers alike. It doesn’t make sense if fans will come whether teams win or lose because it’s about alma mater and not so much about who suits up or how they perform. It’s identical to how a fully professional league like the NFL feels about its athletes gambling because fan interest is effectively identical: love of team and winning and sports.
It also doesn’t make sense if what you need to make college sports great is to treat athletes exactly like all other students. It’s legal in most states for any 18-year-old college student to sign up and play Daily Fantasy for money. If you need to say that a college athlete has to be treated differently because otherwise the product you are selling, college sports, might seem rigged, or might not sell as well, that’s a fully commercial statement. And as a commercial statement, it makes sense. Others see it as hypocritical that colleges take DraftKings’ money while making noise that they think it’s bad. To me, the real hypocrisy is (a) acting 100 percent like a professional sport league, of making all sorts of rules for college athletes that make them DIFFERENT from other college students (like an athletes-only no-Daily-Fantasy rule—which makes sense, as far as it goes) because those rules help you sell your sport, and then (b) turning around when it comes time to compensate the source of all that revenue and claiming that allowing athletes to earn what they are worth would somehow make them different from other students. You just told me they have to be different earlier in that same run-on sentence! The impulse to say college athletes can’t play daily fantasy makes clear that “Athlete Integration” only matters when it happens, conveniently, to lower the real salary cap.
The dilemma of Daily Fantasy Sports for the NCAA and the FBS conferences is that it cuts through a lot of the gauzy mythos behind the product. This is a commercial sports product that fans consume much as they do other commercial sports products. Many of those fans like to make fantasy rosters using salary caps and allocating different dollar values to different athletes based on their perceived skill. Many fans also enjoy analysis of how well those teams will do against Las Vegas lines, over/unders, or other form of conventional gambling. The reasons that the college sports’ producers don’t like the emergence of daily fantasy is because it shows how clearly the “amateurism” distinction doesn’t matter. No one is selling a daily fantasy game based on GPAs. No one is selling a daily fantasy game based on going-pro-in-something-other-than-sports.
Daily Fantasy is the stark reality that College Sports are, first and foremost, Sports. Yes, they involve collegians, and yes the identity of their team as a college may matter, but their commercial appeal is driven by sports things. Any given alum of a D3 school probably loves his/her alma mater as much as a fan of an FBS school, but somehow the FBS schools sell more tickets. The popularity of Daily Fantasy for college sports is one more rub on the increasingly threadbare claim that people won’t watch college sports if we treat them like we do professional sports. We do, and they will, and the rest is just those making money providing convenient excuses for why they should keep it.