It’s a night game, but fans start showing up to the arena by lunch. Some catch a couple European soccer games on the Jumbotron, placing bets in an app with the swipe of a finger.
When the live action starts, the wagers move into overdrive, as thousands of fans gamble on every conceivable outcome. Who will lead at halftime? Who’s going to foul out first? Will Terry Rozier make his next shot?
The possibilities are endless, giving spectators the chance to put money on the line virtually every second of the game, a phenomenon known as in-game wagering.
This is the future of the American sports fan experience, industry experts say, and not a particularly distant one. With the US Supreme Court this week clearing the way for a national expansion of sports betting, many specialists predict an explosion of mobile games and fantasy competitions that will connect viewers — play by play — to the center of the action.
“Five, 10 years ago, when you engaged in sports, you were literally sitting there in front of your TV, drinking a beer and watching the game,” said Paul Liberman, cofounder of DraftKings, a Boston-based fantasy sports company that’s hoping to expand into betting. “Ten years from now, I think you’re going to be a part of that game.”
Industry observers see legalized sports betting as rocket fuel for a trend that has taken hold in the age of social media and fantasy sports — the rise of “second screens” as a supplement to the main event. While posting live commentary and checking on their fantasy teams, many fans split their attention between the game itself and their phones, as anyone who has been to Fenway Park or a sports bar in recent years can attest.
With billions in wagers and advertising up for grabs, developers will be motivated to build even more immersive products for an audience that revels in competition, specialists say.
“Now you’re really engaged, because not only are you watching the game, and you’re tweeting pictures — ‘Look at the great seats I have. Here’s LeBron. He just fell into my lap’ — but now you’re fantasy gaming or gambling,” said Ted Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals, the Washington Wizards, and the arena where the teams play. “That’s going to be huge.”
Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs echoed that sentiment Wednesday, saying legalized gambling would boost fan engagement.
Consumer advocates warn that a hasty expansion into mobile gaming could bring grim consequences, giving problem gamblers unfettered, around-the-clock betting opportunities.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts are in early discussions over whether to legalize sports betting here, and state leaders have not said whether they favor mobile gambling or what forms might be allowed. But several other states are moving quickly toward allowing mobile bets.
Keith S. Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said he can envision a sports world in which the outcome of games is almost beside the point.
“When you’ve got one-to-one access to your bookie, who has access to your bank account or credit card, it can allow for an immediacy and frequency of gambling that is really unprecedented in our experience,” he said. “It’s almost like winning and losing is passe, because I have more money on how many times Tom Brady is going to throw to the left versus the right, or how many times Gisele is going to be shown on screen.”
Whyte said lawmakers here and around the country now have a chance to create forward-thinking rules to help gamblers set reasonable limits for themselves, and to use technology to prevent betting from eroding the integrity of sporting events.
‘Ten years from now, I think you’re going to be a part of that game.’
Such safeguards could fall by the wayside, however, amid what is expected to be frenzied competition for new customers. The market for illegal sports betting has been estimated by industry groups at $150 billion, and legalization could bring that money into legitimate businesses.
Casino operators are going to want a piece of the action, as are race tracks, professional leagues, entertainment companies, social networks, and lotteries. The shape of the industry will hinge on how those companies share the pie.
Meanwhile, companies from Europe, where mobile sports betting is already legal, are poised to move in. Paddy Power Betfair, a global gaming company that said it already processes about $2 billion in legal US wagers each year, confirmed Wednesday that it is in merger talks with FanDuel, a longtime rival to DraftKings.
Laila Mintas, who manages US offices for the sports data company Sportradar, said the most successful products will boast the best real-time information about what is happening in games.
For instance, she envisions an artificial intelligence product that can survey the field at a soccer game and instantly come up with a gambling proposition about something as immediate as the next player to receive a pass.
Such innovations will be “applying these new technologies to say something really precise about what goes on in the game,” she said. “That’s what nobody does right now.”
The sale of proprietary data to support such an application could be a revenue stream for sports leagues, which have been deeply conflicted about their position on gambling.
The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have been the most amenable, though they have been pushing for a cut of the proceeds. Boston’s team owners have mostly been tight-lipped about their positions.
Leonsis, on the other hand, has been one of the most outspoken owners in US sports. He said he sees value in the engagement offered by gambling as a way to keep an increasingly distractible audience coming to the arena and focusing on the games.
“It blows my mind to watch people who pay thousands of dollars for their seats, and they’re sending e-mails or reading news articles,” he said. “It doesn’t blow my mind if they’re at the game and they’re reading stats, they’re looking at replays. That enhances your experience.”Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.