Texas Hold ‘Em? Hold Up! – March 2005

Ah, tourney time. One and done time. Win and go on, lose and go home. Love it.

It’s a time when keeping track of all the conference championship games makes access to an internet scoreboard essential. When scouring the news provides key information for filling out my NCAA championship brackets. While prowling through the ESPN.com women’s basketball site I was intrigued by a strategically, yet subtly, placed green poker chip in the upper left-hand corner. With one click, I arrived at the newly launched site the ESPN Poker Club.

Not surprisingly, ESPN is capitalizing on the surging popularity of poker, specifically “Texas Hold’em,” that has brought celebrities to tables on cable and tins of poker chips to the display windows of the local bookstore.

“This is a game that for decades, and maybe even longer, hundreds of thousands have played and enjoyed.,” said Paul Melvin of ESPN communications. As the result of the booming popularity due to television exposure, there’s been a big demand for more stuff. In response, multiple units of ESPN have looked to how the could serve that ‘crave’ that fans have.” In addition to the new member of the Fantasy game stable, ESPN books will release a book of one-on-one interviews with famous poker players and their first-hand accounts of the best hand they ever played, while ESPN Enterprises will release the DVD sets of the 2004 World Series of Poker, and the first season of their new dramatic series, the poker-themed “Tilt.”

ESPN is not alone is seeing the potential for profit in poker – Fox Sports Net, the Travel Channel and Bravo have their own cable shows, drawn by the high ratings, low rights fees and relatively straight-forward production needs.

So how did we get from women’s tourney to cable shows about poker? The logic probably won’t impress my high school geometry teacher, but here it is:

* The NCAA has a very clear and strong Anti-Wagering and Gambling Policy for the student athletes.
* The NCAA also has very clear advertising policies for all its Championships. They are designed to “exclude those advertisements that do not appear to be in the best interests of higher education” including “organizations promoting gambling.”
* The NCAA’s 2003 National Study on Collegiate Sports Wagering and Associated Health Risks showed that almost 35 percent of male student-athletes have engaged in some type of sports wagering behavior in the past year, compared to only 10 percent of female student-athletes. 1.1 percent of football players reported taking money for playing poorly in a game, and 2.3 percent of football players admitted they had been asked to affect the outcome of a game because of gambling debts. Additionally, 1.4 percent of football players admitted having affected the outcome of a game because of gambling debts.
* The NCAA has a major broadcast partnership with ESPN.
* The fact ESPN now broadcasts the entire NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship is often considered a measure of the incredible growth and popularity of the sport.
* Many fans consider the fact that ESPN has a fantasy game devoted to the WNBA as a sign of respect earned. (The same might be said, though perhaps less enthusiastically, for the first time Las Vegas had a line on the WNBA Finals)
* ESPN broadcasts the World Series of Poker, and one of its sponsoring partners is Harrah’s Casino
* The NCAA has a very clear and strong Anti-Wagering and Gambling Policy for the student athletes.
The complex, almost paradoxical, nature of the situation is not lost upon Grant Teaff, both executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and vice-chair of the national task force to further analyze the 2003 study’s results. “We can’t tell ESPN not to have a poker show,” said Teaff. “We have to live in the realities of the time period in which were living in. The NCCA’s focus is on sports wagering. Our athletes, our coaches, our athletic administrators may not wager on professional or college athletics.”
“When it gets to the poker phenomenon,” he continued. “that frankly, is new. Obviously, it’s outside the area of sports wagering, and traditionally the NCAA has not taken a position on gambling in general – whether it’s poker or blackjack, or slot machines. In regards to our student athlete’s well being, it’s something we encourage our institutions to be attentive to. We can’t tell our students not to play poker, we can’t tell them not to watch poker games on TV, but we can continue to educate them about good financial management and also educate our coaches that the very athletes they’ve recruited have some real live risk-taking behaviors.”

The reality of that risk-taking behavior and the impact of sudden hip-ness of poker has not been lost on professionals dealing with problem gambling. “Texas Hold’em is a classic example,” says Ray Scott, head of DePaul’s Problem Gamblers Program. “A number of people simply view that as a harmless pastime, it’s a fun sport. You have any number of parents saying, about their children, ‘Well at least they’re not into alcohol or drugs.’ What that does is legitimize the gambling environment. Consequently a person, once they really get involved with that, can cross the line – and then the kid has a problem. I know you’re talking about women’s sports, but my point is that what is being created nationwide is a gambling environment that can suck in anybody. Now, gambling, by and large is becoming acceptable.”

The level of “acceptance” is illustrated by some impressive numbers: According to the River City group, a research information firm, 7.4 million American will gamble online in 2005. Online gambling has taken in an estimated 7.5 billion dollars. Currently, ESPN estimates there are over 100,000 people online playing internet poker during peak times of its show, the World Series of Poker. “That to me is just a huge statement,” says James Maney of the New York Council on Problem Gambling. “We didn’t have that five years ago. A whole new group of folks are learning to gamble. That’s different. I was a jock growing up, and all the guys that played sports gambled,” adds Maney. “We all played cards. But now what you see is not only the jocks playing, every kid is playing.”

Maney identifies a difference that is not always clear when gambling and student-athletes are discussed: gambling (the well-being of the student) vs. cheating (the integrity of the game).

Problem or addictive gambling can impact all students – athlete or otherwise. It’s a student-welfare issue that is coming, however reluctantly, more into the social consciousness and needs active discussion at all levels. “Three or four years ago, no one really cared about the problem gambler,” said Meany. “As more gambling became more available, more problems started, and newspapers got hold of them, and now all of a sudden it’s good policy to put in responsible gambling programs for states to give more money for treatment programs in their states if they’re sponsoring lotteries or any type of gambling. The analogy we always try to use is if you put a road in, and there’s a cliff, you always put a guard rail in. Most people aren’t going to drive over it, but you put it in just in case. And that’s what we always say about problem gambling, there’s got to be some guardrails in for folks. We need some prevention, some education, some awareness.”

Some of these guardrails are already in place. ESPN, for example, already airs public service announcements addressing issues of responsible gambling during their poker broadcasts, and they have both front and back end checks of their fantasy games that help monitor that their participants are of legal age. Where the waters become a little cloudy is the link with gambling in general and cheating in the form of throwing a game for the benefit of yourself or others. This is a situation unique to the student-athlete, and, argues Teaf, one of the reasons the NCAA is firmly against pools.

“Lot’s of people don’t understand why we’re opposed. It’s the beginning. It’s the first step. We know for a fact that young people participate in pools. Some math teachers are using them as mathematical lessons. At the beginning of the process,”Teaff continued, “I used to believe out young people game to our campuses and they became gamblers. What I believe now is they’re coming in as gamblers.” And it follows that, if you’re a gambler, you can get yourself into debt. And if you’re in debt, you can open yourself to victimization by a the outsider who offers to settle your debt if you manage to shave points or throw the game.

Though the NCAA study indicated that women athletes were far less likely to bet on sports, Teaff can already see how the games growth has impacted how coaches must deal with their players. “Women’s basketball is incredibly successful,” he said. “The game is outstanding. The challenge is we have is yes, people bet on it now. More important to a bettor than money is information. Bettors want to know who’s sick, who’s hurt, what’s the game plan, who didn’t get any sleep last night. Ten years ago we didn’t need to talk to [women athletes] about sharing information. We need to say that to them now.”

Suddenly filling out my 64-bracket doesn’t seem as innocent. How about you?

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