From the corner bookie to offshore sportsbooks to films about how good people get sucked into bad situations, sports betting gets a bad rap. And last month, that reputation took yet another hit when The New York Times released a series that painted the industry as the latest scourge sweeping America.
Legal now in more than 30 U.S. states and in many other parts of the world, somehow wagering is still viewed as the purview of organized crime sucking shady and/or scared citizens down a rabbit hole. But two people who love sports say wagering isn’t a bad thing. In fact, they argue it’s a very good thing when done in moderation.
Ben Valenta, an executive with FOX, and Dave Sikorjak, a strategy and analytics consultant, set out several years ago to crystalize the relationship between people and sports. The end result is Fans Have More Friends, a book that backs up the intangible idea that sports fans — and, by extension, sports bettors — have more friends and social connections and, ultimately, lead longer lives.
“Sports is so deeply embedded in our culture and we don’t see what’s happening behind it,” Sikorjak told Sports Handle. “It’s easy to put it down as the dumb jocks and that it’s frivolous and it’s meaningless, but the book is about how that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Or, as Valenta said, “The thing that motivates people to bet on sports is social connections. There are a lot of other parts of the betting purchase decision, but that’s the main reason. … And the more you lean into this stuff, you enjoy the benefits of fandom, these social benefits, to a great extent.”
Being a fan means joining a community
Sikorjak and Valenta have spent their careers working in and around sports. Every step of the way, they wondered: Why do people spend relatively huge amounts of money to support sports teams? The answer, it turned out, had more to do with each individual than the game itself.
When Valenta took his current job as senior vice president of strategy and analytics at FOX Sports, one of his goals was to figure out what made certain groups of fans unique.
“There was a common theme, which is that being a fan is about being part of a community,” Valenta said. “Buying a ticket is about being social. I was convinced that this was what really motivated consumers — the need to be social. People would tell me that the only time they would high-five a stranger [was at a sporting event] or that they would reach out to college friends during a game.”
There’s probably no question that sports are a key part of the fabric of America and other countries. National pride swirls in World Cup or Olympic years. And on an everyday basis, Americans offer a window into who they are by what team is on their baseball cap, T-shirt, or sweatshirt. Those logos often result in goodwill — or playful joshing — depending on where a Red Sox fans wears a logo ballcap or a Giants fan wears a team jersey.
Betting strengthens family ties
But either way, as the authors point out, every sports fan in the world has likely started a conversation with another sports fan just because of a hat or t-shirt. And when it comes to closer relationships, the authors say, being a fan helps brings friends and family closer, while being a sports bettor can cement those relationships.
Throughout the book, the authors often refer to the “social capital” that being a fan or bettor create for a person. In simple terms, being a fan or a bettor gives a person something to talk about or a way to connect.
“I have a brother in Colorado, and we have a DFS team together and we agreed to bet $50 per weekend on games,” Valenta said. “All this social interaction is great. We’re not only talking about betting. I am much more in tune about what’s going on with his family and his job. He’s more likely to talk to my son and I’m more likely to talk to his sons. It spills over into other things.”
In the book, Sikojak and Valenta created a “fan value score,” which “measures action, passion, and league orientation” for each fan. The scale has a minimum score of zero and a maximum score of 53. Fans are then broken down into three categories: low-value, mid-value, and high-value. In some sections of the book, the pair also make reference to non-fans. Basically, the more engaged you are, the higher the score.
According to his research, Valenta’s experience with his brother is not unique. In fact, while being a fan creates a community, being a sports bettor further expands that community.
Proof bettors have more friends
In a survey of more than 17,500 fans, Valenta and Sikojak found that non-betting fans have an average of 27.9 friends, while bettors have an average of 32.3. In a separate survey of just over 21,213 fans, non-bettors have an average of 273 social interactions per month ,while bettors have an average of 451.
The number of interactions spiked even more when the authors looked at high-value fans. Bettors in that category have an average of 521 social interactions per month versus 408 for non-betting high-value fans.
Sikojak and Valenta offer myriad studies to show that fandom and betting are positive life influences. While 16% of all non-sports fans said they were happy, 34% of high-value fans rated their lives as happy — and 50% of high-value fans said they were “very satisfied” with their family life compared to 34% of non-fans.
“Sports act as a bonding agent that galvanizes relationships,” according to a press release about Fans Have More Friends. “For example, sports can be the foundation of your relationship with a parent, sibling, or neighbor. It’s the thing you talk about, the activity you engage in together, the backdrop for some of your fondest memories.”
Be careful along the way
Alongside their enthusiasm for fandom and betting, both Sikojak and Valenta recognize that wagering, like other forms of gambling, can be a troubling experience for some. They say their book assumes that wagering would take place within a controlled, fun environment, and that those who are wagering are being smart about it.
“We believe betting is good when there are responsible financial boundaries,” Valenta said. ” We don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush and say that all sports betting is good, because there is a small percentage of people who are going to have trouble, but we’re aware of that.”
Said Sikojak, “We’re encouraging people to lean into their fandom, but there could be off-ramps that tap into the negative area of the brain. On the periphery, these things are happening anyway. Can it go awry? Yes. But so many other things could as well. Being a sports fan is good for you, and sports betting can bring you more of that.”