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They don’t care if you watch the game

Disney’s foray into gambling is the latest disconnect between us and what’s on the field.

The Walt Disney Co Will Report Q2 2023 Results On Tuesday Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress

In the time that Giancarlo Stanton has been a Yankee, Americans have spent $220 billion gambling on sports through legal books — and that doesn’t cover California, where betting is still technically illegal — after a 2018 Supreme Court decision gave the power of legalization back to individual states. The firehose of gambling money has led to an ad every nine minutes, push notifications to my phone when I don’t even have a gambling app, and overall an air of disconnect from what’s happening on the field.

This disconnect has been growing for a while. Humans are actually kind of bad at focusing on multiple things at once. To wit, if you’re waiting on the results of a five-way parlay, you’re probably not focusing on Michael King’s 2.2-inning performance Tuesday night. The accoutrements, these additional revenue streams, have become primary and the game secondary. It’s going to get worse, too, now that one of the world’s most famous companies has cannonballed off the diving board and into the gambling world.

You can’t blame Disney themselves for getting into this game, they’re just the latest to do so. You can dread future editions of Sunday Night Baseball, which for years has struggled to focus on what’s actually happening in the weekly primetime game and that will only continue as David Cone navigates an ad read while trying to explain effective spin rate. This gambling creep is but one example of a larger problem with the sports experience, though; the leagues don’t care if you watch the games.

The Blue Jays spent $300 million on renovations for Rogers Center, focused on removing seats in the outfield and iconic, or perhaps infamous, 500 level. That space was then repurposed for bars and patio space, because if you’re sitting in your seat, watching the game, you’re not spending money. The home plate seats at Yankee Stadium are often emptier than you’d think, not because they’re unsold but because the patrons are up, about, and spending money.

I understand that I’m coming across as a bit of a curmudgeon, that back in MY day we sat and watched the game, damnit. But I think this is less curmudgeon behavior and more despair with this particular iteration of late stage capitalism, that the up-front fee we already pay — the ticket price, or the cable subscription, or the streaming platform — is no longer sufficient. Cash vacuums will slurp up every possible drop of excess value, monetizing the experience in a way not dissimilar from the microtransaction surge that’s burned through video games over the last ten years.

Even if you manage to avoid these additional revenue traps, the user experience is ground down every time Michael Kay begrudgingly tells us what the over/under is in the third and sixth innings or ESPN goes to picture-in-picture so Jaime Foxx can tell me how much excitement I’m missing out on by not betting on a game I’m not even watching. These additional taxes, either hitting our wallet or our attention, become particularly insulting when you remember that the onfield product is better than it’s ever been.

I don’t need to go deep on how historic Shohei Ohtani’s season is. Ronald Acuña Jr. is going to blow past a 40-40 season, with a 40-80 season very much in his sights. Every team has three relievers boasting movement on secondary pitches that would have them tried for witchcraft in Salem. Those up front fees, the things we were all on board with paying, give us access to the best pure talent the sport has ever seen — and the administrators of the sport seem determined to take our attention away from it.

Gambling creep is a part of the game now, unfortunately. The club has every incentive to get you out of your seat and spending $14 on an IPA. As we’ve seen financial success become decoupled from onfield success across the league, we’ve begun to see that The Baseball Experience has become decoupled from what happens between the foul lines.