How Sports Gambling Has Turned N.B.A. Games Into the ‘Wild West’

NBA players have always gotten an earful from fans, whether at home or on the road. It comes with the job.

But this season, it’s getting darker.

The recent surge in legalized gambling in every pro league, and throughout college athletics, has impacted American sports in ways thought unimaginable just a few years ago. But along with the potential good that hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues bring to the NBA and other leagues, something new and ominous has arrived: verbal abuse directed at players and coaches based solely on fans’ wagers.

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Fans can now bet in real-time on their smartphones, on all aspects of the game, including minutiae such as how many rebounds one player might get in the first half, and how many points will be scored by a team in the fourth quarter. And if their bets don’t deliver, they’re taking it out on the players.

“It’s getting outrageous,” LA Clippers forward P.J. Tucker said recently. “It’s getting kind of crazy. Even in the arenas, hearing fans yelling at guys about their bets. It’s unreal. It’s a problem. I think it’s something that’s got to be addressed.”

Teams have yet to make drastic changes to their security details, and the NBA has not recommended increased security near the court. But at least one team has added an extra security guard to its bench this season, in response to increased gambling-infused belligerence. Another team has beefed up its cybersecurity staff to detect especially odious vitriol sent by fans to its players online.

“It’s all over the place,” said Ochai Agbaji, a guard for the Toronto Raptors. “It’s the wild, wild west right now.”

For decades, other than one-off events like the Super Bowl and March Madness office pools, gambling was the third rail of sports. College basketball was rocked by numerous point-shaving scandals. Professional leagues forcefully distanced themselves from betting, even refusing to play games in Las Vegas, where it was legal and popular. Then the Supreme Court opened the door to legalized sports wagering in 2018, and a sea change ensued.

Fans rushed into the nascent market, and the pro leagues quickly pivoted. If fans were opening their now-virtual wallets to spend money on games, the leagues wanted a piece of the action.

Teams now have partnerships with casinos and build their arenas next to them. Announcers, long allergic to any references to betting, now commonly cite wagering information during broadcasts. The NBA recently announced that it would allow fans watching games on its streaming app to track betting odds and click through to make bets with the league’s betting partners, FanDuel and DraftKings.

(The Athletic has a partnership with BetMGM.)

But an unintended consequence of this new relationship comes out of the mouths of increasingly irked fans.

“You see people on Twitter, you know, fans going back and forth with players on Twitter about how you lost their money,” Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “I guess it’s kind of funny. I don’t know. I guess I do feel bad when I don’t hit people’s parlays. I don’t want to them lose money. But, you know, I just go out there and try to play the game.”

Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said last month that a gambler somehow accessed Bickerstaff’s cell phone number and left him threatening texts and voice messages, intimating he knew where Bickerstaff and his family lived.

“It is a dangerous game and a fine line that we’re walking for sure,” Bickerstaff said.

Toronto Raptors forward Jordan Nwora said that comments about betting from fans are “all the time, nonstop.”

“You get messages,” Nwora said. “You hear it on the sideline. You see guys talking about it all the time.

“It comes with being in the NBA. People bet on silly things on a daily basis. So I mean, it’s part of being in the NBA, it’s what comes with it. I get it. People don’t complain when you have a good game. I don’t get messages with people saying, ‘Thank you for helping me.’ ”

A league spokesman said that incidents of fan comments toward players and team staff about gambling were not more prevalent than other fan misbehavior at this point, but it is something the league continues to monitor.

The root of much of the fury is what’s known as a prop bet, formerly a quirky corner of the underground betting universe that has quickly caught on with fans. Prop bets are wagers on parts of a game that might not have anything to do with the outcome. How long will it take for the national anthem to be sung? How many turnovers will a certain player have in the first half? How many total rebounds will there be?

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Prop bets have been the subject of two recent incidents that raised questions about whether basketball players were under the sway of gamblers. A watchdog spotted irregular betting patterns on prop bets in some Temple University men’s basketball games this season. The NBA told ESPN last week that it was investigating Raptors forward Jontay Porter after betting irregularities were flagged on prop bets involving his performances in two games.

NBA players have noticed the shift in fans’ interests.

“To half the world, I’m just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever,” Tyrese Haliburton, an All-Star guard for the Indiana Pacers, said last month.

“I’m a prop,” he added. “You know what I mean? That’s what my social media mostly consists of.”

Haliburton elaborated on his comments in a recent interview with The Athletic. He said verbal abuse at games was much worse than when he came into the league four years ago.

“Bettors have this thing called the ‘banned’ list, and that’s when you don’t hit their bet,” Haliburton said. “So they’re like, ‘You’re on my banned list. I’m not going to continue to bet on you.’ And I think that’s literally all my mentions have been for the last six weeks,” he said, referring to social media.

Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony also mentioned the banned list in noting the increased attention and pressure created by parlay betting, when multiple bets are combined into one wager.

“There were a few where I was just like, ‘This is sickening,’ ” Anthony said. “Not sickening, but it’s funny, in a way, to see this stuff and see how serious a lot of people take this.”

The NBA is especially vulnerable to this new fan dynamic. Its players are not hidden behind pads and helmets, and they perform close to fans, some of whom have conversations with coaches and players during games.

Team security does not confront abusive fans — that falls to arena security. Behavior considered  “verbal abuse, or being disruptive,” including talk about gambling if it’s particularly nasty, can lead to ejections. Normally, fans are given a verbal warning by arena security that they are violating the NBA Fan Code of Conduct, which is promoted at games. A fan who does not stop the disruptive behavior may then be given a warning card — a written warning that further inappropriate behavior will lead to ejection. A third incident will cause the fan to be removed — though fans can be ejected if they are particularly nasty toward players or staff just once.

The league monitors social media activity through its Global Security Operations Center, with an eight-to-10-person staff. The NBA also shares intel with other sports leagues. Certain players, coaches and referees tend to attract more attention on social platforms than others. League security meets with teams twice a season to remind them about gambling protocols.

Bickerstaff, the Cavaliers coach, said he informed team security about the fan who was threatening him. Security tracked down the person who left the messages and texts, but Bickerstaff and the team declined to pursue a legal case.

Tatum says the discourse “definitely has changed” from his first few seasons in the league.

“I guess when you hit people’s parlays and do good for them, they tell me,” he said. “But then they also talk s–t. Like I’m on the court and I didn’t get 29.5 or whatever I was supposed to do.”

— Sam Amick, Eric Koreen, Josh Robbins, James Boyd, Jared Weiss and Jason Lloyd contributed reporting.

(Photo of Tyrese Haliburton: Ron Hoskins / NBAE via Getty Images)


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