MLS has been quietly carving out a path to become the most thoughtful, most progressive, most multicultural sports league in American sport. Their main website has content in videos in three languages; English, Spanish, and French-Canadian. The players come from 57 countries, including Congo, Gambia, Finland, and Guam (Thanks AJ DeLaGarza!).
MLS embraces its hispanic market with TV like Viernes de Futbol on UniMas and programs like Sueno de MLS, a youth competition to get an MLS contract for players not identified through the academy system.
Being thoughtful and progressive means being ahead of the curve, not behind it. And it also means saying ‘no' to something with a short term benefit when it will ultimately hurt the league in the long run.
That's why MLS' decision to get into bed with Draft Kings, an online gambling website, is a really bad idea.
First, Draft Kings is certainly gambling on sport. It just purports to be something called ‘daily fantasy' for purposes of legality: daily fantasy can legally advertise, while Mikey the shady bookie from your dorm floor cannot (full disclosure: there was a shady bookie on my dorm floor named Mikey that ran book, sold quaaludes, and ran a ponzi scheme. No, I do not have his number, go get the hookup from somewhere else).
And legally advertise they have. Draft Kings, and its equally gross competitor 'Fan Duel' have bombarded TV, web, and social media ads completely. I think there's an even bet that while you are reading this article on SBNation, it is surrounded by a Draft Kings border, while a flashing graphic on the side begs you to give it a try, because there's $200 of free credits in it for you. Pro tip: don't do it. I'll get to that in a second.
I can conclude that daily fantasy is certainly gambling with this logical reduction: is it proper for an MLS player (or any pro athlete) to put money on themselves? Or on the opponent they are guarding? Is it possible some clever gangster could pay the Orlando backline $100,000 a pop to let Kaka and Co score five goals? Absolutely. It's gambling.
If you'd like to read more about how Draft Kings works and why it's such a scam, check out Deadspin's Drew Magary doing a pitch-perfect takedown of the site.
One thing that bothers Magary regarding NFL and ESPN bothers me regarding MLS too: they are blurring the line between advertising and content by having their own-air talent advocate and promote gambling. It's disingenuous.
I would be more ok with it had MLS not gone so completely and absolutely into this decision. Had MLS merely lent its players and league to Draft Kings for their game for $1 million a year, I could live with that. But MLS has prostituted some of its on-air content to Draft Kings, so that even previously non-advertisement content like 90+; or sponsored entertainment content like whatever the hell that Rachel Bonnetta-Heineken tie-in is; have been supplanted by Andrew Wiebe (poor, poor Andrew Wiebe) shilling a product that is morally problematic and possibly illegal. They've placed lots of direct links on the MLS website. And they've now turned their MLS Fantasy twitter account into a defacto advertising arm of Draft Kings.
Ucch. Et tu, Taylor Twellman?
It's really too bad, because I like the MLS Fantasy game a lot, and now I can't go 5 minutes of playing it without somehow being encouraged to throw my paycheck down a well with Draft Kings instead.
The worst thing about MLS hooking up with Draft Kings, though, is that the product itself is toxic: it has few benefits and tremendous negative effects. Of course people are free to spend their money however they like on all sorts of things that aren't good for them: chocolate, cigarettes, whiskey, etc. But those things aren't actually intertwined with the sport like gambling is: Draft Kings feeds off of Kei Kamara's goals and Clint Irwin's stops in a way Budweiser's Chelado cannot.
Moreover, sports gambling is highly addictive and highly destructive. Let's take the most innocuous form: say you play just a $5 bet a day on MLS and NBA. No biggie. Let's even say for the sake of argument you win ⅓ of the time, which sounds optimistic to me, but whatever. Roughly, that's a little more than $1000 lost a year. Putting that money aside in savings account, and over 15 years, you've just wasted a year's tuition at CU-Boulder.
Aside from the overall cost is the basic notion that, essentially, gambling preys upon people who aren't that bright: people who look at the statistics and the odds which are clearly against them, and say ‘but I'm different! I can beat these odds.' No, you can't. You are an idiot. In general, it's probably wrong to base an industry on people's stupidity; to produce something that results in temporary joy and long-term hardship.
Now look at the hardcore addicts. There are over 5 million ‘problem gamblers' in the US.
Problem gamblers are more likely to commit acts of domestic abuse related to their addiction.
Problem gamblers will gamble to the point of absolute collapse: they will lose their house, their life savings, their job, their marriage and their family chasing that next win, that big score. I had a colleague named Bill who was in Gamblers Anonymous, and he detailed for me how his addiction to sports betting destroyed his life and ruined him and his family. It's a common story.
I predict that in 10 or 20 years, we'll see this move by MLS as a mistake: like doctors of the 1950's that did ads for Camel cigarettes. It's shady and corrupt and sports business cozying up to this industry is a monumental mistake. Just this week, an insider betting scam rocked the industry on Monday. And the NY Times Editorial Board subsequently declared it was time for the Feds to rein in fantasy sports gambling.
It is likely, then, that MLS will someday look back and see that they were complicit in something really distasteful. So distasteful that the US Congress (the same US Congress that struggles to regulate gun purchases at a time of near-daily mass shootings) is inevitably going to have to step in and ban it. That's a really bad place to be in.
MLS hitching it's wagon to fantasy gambling is a problem for all the reasons I outlined: it has caused them to blur the line between promoting the sport and promoting gambling; sports gambling is destructive to those who engage in it; it will be a PR embarrassment when fantasy gambling becomes illegal. But it's also, lastly, a problem because... it's MLS behaving as stupidly and greedily as every other sports league in America.
One thing that has slowly but surely driven me into the arms of Major League Soccer has been the meatheaded, manipulative, profit-first corporatocracy which I've seen in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. Those leagues have been time and again guilty of falsely wrapping themselves in the American flag. Of pink-washing to appeal to female fans while barely giving a pittance to actual cancer research.
Of turning a blind eye to drug abuse, head injuries, and domestic abuse. Of allowing owners to extort the public by threatening to move unless they get a publicly-financed corporate-welfare stadium boondoggle to stay in town, siphoning tax money that could go to police or the homeless or schools right into their overstuffed billionaire pockets.
MLS isn't perfect, but I've appreciated that it is generally better and less immoral than those other leagues. It doesn't often behave like them, setting aside the abysmal pay scale for rank and file players for a moment. It produces its own entertaining, Middle and even high-brow video content (May the Lord bless and keep Matt Doyle, Amen). It's doesn't take itself too seriously (I'm looking at you MLB and the ‘unwritten rules'). But when you get into bed with a billion-dollar gambling corporation, you become just like everybody else.
It's a big mistake. One MLS will come to regret. Those unfortunate fantasy gamblers that throw away thousands of dollars on soccer gambling will regret it a great deal more, though.