The Case For And Against Legal Academy Awards Betting In NJ

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If you think allowing people to bet legally on the results of the Academy Awards will be a controversy-free endeavor, wake up — you must be in La La Land.

Oh, no, wait. Correction: You’re in Moonlight.

The point of that hacky attempt at humor is to remind everyone that the Oscars can be as controversial as an un-flagged Nickell Robey-Coleman pass interference.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for would-be Oscars gamblers in New Jersey’s regulated sports betting market the last several days, as what had always been an outlawed activity in Nevada suddenly became a legal offering in New Jersey last Thursday … only to see the odds come off the board on Saturday … then reappear hours later.

It’s unclear exactly what’s going on behind the scenes and whether Academy Awards bets will indeed be permitted up through the currently hostless Feb. 24 awards ceremony.

But with the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement planning, for now, to give Oscars betting the OK, and with odds posted at FanDuel Sportsbook in 16 categories, at PointsBet in six categories, at BetStars NJ in five categories, and at DraftKings Sportsbook for Best Picture only, it’s worth exploring the pros and cons of allowing this decidedly non-sports activity to become part of the sports betting landscape.

Three arguments in favor of Oscars betting

1. A whole new audience

We all have people in our lives who would never dream of betting on sports, who swipe away at their little screen instead of looking up at the big screen when sitting in a room with a #sportsball game on the TV, and who tell us every year that the commercials are better than the Super Bowl.

Some of those same people love taking part in Academy Awards office pools, have strong opinions on who and what should win, and will make prop bets on what Melissa Rivers says about a celebrity’s dress if they can.

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When it comes to the mobile apps attracting new customers who never would have downloaded/deposited otherwise, the Oscars is one of those events that crosses over into an entirely different crowd. For the sake of the burgeoning New Jersey sports betting business, Oscars odds can draw new patrons in a way that adding a new fringe sport probably wouldn’t.

2. It’s a slow season for sports betting

There’s still plenty of action to be had every night, from NBA to NHL, from college hoops to combat sports. But in a relative sense, the period between the Super Bowl and March Madness is a lull.

The Academy Awards give the gambling community one more thing to wager on — and just as importantly, one more thing to talk about and (guilty as charged) write about wagering on. The Oscars keep the conversation going. They’re a perfect bridge of the gap between the end of the NFL postseason and the beginning of the NCAA basketball postseason.

3. Always better to regulate than to send the money offshore

This is the omnipresent argument in favor of legalizing any supposedly illicit activity: People are going to do it anyway, and regulation beats prohibition.

Oscars betting has been available in unregulated markets for years, with Americans sending money to offshore sites, never knowing for sure if their bankrolls are safe or if cashouts will be honored, having no legal recourse if they find themselves in a dispute with the sportsbook. Allowing Oscars betting at FanDuel, DraftKings, etc., gives bettors in New Jersey a secure alternative, with the knowledge that the DGE is watching over everything.

Three arguments against Oscars betting

1. The fix could, theoretically, be in

Whenever the results of an event are voted on, rather than achieved by tallying points on a field of play, bettors and operators are taking on extra risk. Yes, the threat of a “fix” exists in all sports. Players can potentially be bought, referees can swing a game, and in sports like boxing, MMA, gymnastics, or diving, points are accrued through subjective judging.

If the betting limits for the Oscars are low enough, you’d think nobody could possibly influence a voter. But what if, hypothetically, someone could bet $5 million on Roma to win Best Picture? Could that bettor offer $5,000 to 500 different Academy voters to provide a significant swing that makes the bet almost a sure thing?

Oscars voting takes place between Feb. 12-19. So the timeline makes it conceivable. The above scenario is not exactly what you’d call realistic. But the vague notion of bribery being possible, no matter how faintly, creates a troubling perception issue.

2. Inside information exists

Let’s move to the window of time after voting takes place. Voters know how they voted. Maybe they have friends in the Academy and they talk to each other. Maybe one of them starts getting a strong sense that +500 underdog Olivia Colman has a better shot at Best Actress than the odds suggest.

Sure, inside information is everywhere — whether you’re doing that legal form of gambling known as playing the stock market, or you have an injury scoop direct from an NBA locker room. But just as there’s danger in allowing betting on WWE because there are people who know the results in advance, there’s a slim chance of impropriety with awards like the Oscars as well.

To be fair, that’s more of a sportsbook concern than a public concern. But which side is more likely to get screwed shouldn’t matter if we’re looking out for the integrity of the game.

3. Why poke the bear?

Things are mostly going swimmingly some seven months into the legal New Jersey sports betting age. But there’s something of a fight going on right now between online gambling proponents and some folks in the Department of Justice doing Sheldon Adelson’s bidding. It’s a stretch to say online gaming is in danger, but still, this isn’t the best time to be rocking the boat.

Any minor controversy can become a target of flame fanning. We’re just days removed from a ridiculous debate over how long Gladys Knight’s Super Bowl national anthem lasted that led to at least one offshore book calling it a win for both over and under bettors.

Wisely, regulated U.S. sportsbooks didn’t take anthem action. So the question of whether or not the song ends when you say “brave” the first time is somebody else’s mess to clean up.

But next time, it could be the regulated gambling industry’s mess. This is a business that is already under plenty of scrutiny. Is now the time to invite more, by allowing betting on an awards ceremony with outcomes that are determined in advance?

The folks running the NJ DGE have decided, for now, that it is. Stay tuned for the next couple of weeks to see if they change their minds.

Photo by Shutterstock.com

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Eric Raskin

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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