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31.4 million Americans are expected to bet $7.6 billion dollars on the Super Bowl

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Later today, millions will watch the Los Angeles Rams face the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl. And like most professional sports games recently, the entire event will be peppered with enticing ads for viewers to get in on the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

JAMIE FOXX: You want to make every game interesting? Step one - open the BetMGM Sportsbook. Step two - put some skin in the game. And step three - showtime.

SNELL: More than 30 million Americans are expected to bet over $7 billion on today's game, all thanks to a Supreme Court decision that completely upended the relationship between gambling and professional sports. Joining us is Jon Frankel. He's a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," and he's been following this explosion in sports gambling. Welcome.

JON FRANKEL: Thanks so much. And I'm going to bet - underlying bet - that you're going to be watching the game today.

SNELL: I will be. That is for sure. So gambling, it used to be a huge taboo in professional sports in the U.S.. It actually used to be illegal. And the major professional sports leagues used to petition Congress to keep it that way. So how did we get to this moment?

FRANKEL: I think the short answer, as is so often the case, unfortunately - money, money, money. And money talks. And I think that the leagues resisted, and whether it was the NFL and Major League Baseball who were out in front of this for so many years - they didn't want to have teams in a place like Las Vegas, Nev., because they didn't want to be guilty by association. And then all of a sudden, they saw the potential for incremental amounts of money - into the billions is what we're talking about.

SNELL: For someone who maybe is not familiar with this, can you kind of describe what a viewer might see when they're watching a game? So - and, like, how gambling would fit into what they're seeing?

FRANKEL: It used to be when I was a kid, you might have a sheet that you would fill out, or there was a line on the game, right? One team was favored. One team was an underdog. You might take the spread and say, OK, that's your bet. I think they're going to win. They're going to lose by a certain amount of points. OK, that's it. You couldn't do anything else. Now, what's changed is that particularly with having these mobile devices in your hand - is that they are offering you the opportunity to bet on any number - hundreds and thousands of things. So, for instance, you can bet who's going to sing the national anthem. OK, let's say the Rams get the ball first. Now, is their first play going to be a pass, or is it going to be a run? There are just thousands of opportunities. And people sitting at home - they can sit there and say, OK, I'll take this bet for this amount of money, and they can do this repeatedly through the course of the game.

SNELL: So it's almost like these people who are, you know, engaged in this are playing their own separate parallel game that is only sort of related to what's happening on the field.

FRANKEL: You hit on a word there that's really important, which is they are engaged. And that's what is really the crux of this. If somebody is betting on a game, they are now more likely to want to watch that game. So the minute that this was legalized in states, the amount of take, the amount of money that was being bet on sports skyrocketed. We asked Nielsen ratings to look at the television ratings. And in states where sports had been legalized, the television ratings were up year over year compared to states that hadn't yet legalized the gambling.

SNELL: Does that mean that gambling is now part of the business model for the leagues and the teams themselves?

FRANKEL: Absolutely. When they are looking for more ways to increase revenues - you know, so they're making money in a bunch of different ways. They're making money from their deals with these betting sites - FanDuel, DraftKings, etc. But then what they're doing is that if there are more people who are betting on sports and more people who are engaged, therefore more people who are watching, the ratings go up so they can then turn around to their television partners who are paying licensing fees to televise it, and they can say, hey, we're going to charge you more to televise our games because we're delivering more viewers. And the same thing goes then to the advertisers. So there's a direct and an indirect source of funds and revenues that are now coming into the respective leagues.

SNELL: Some people might be getting involved in all this betting with just a few bucks here or there. But in your reporting, you talk to people whose lives were completely ruined by gambling. And you also mentioned that it's mostly men in their 20s and 30s who are placing these bets. So how does this impact them?

FRANKEL: It's the same thing as asking, how does a fast-food restaurant impact everybody that walks by it or walks into it? And that's different, right? There are some people who can go into a fast-food restaurant but can say, I'm OK having a hamburger and a french fry, and I'm not going to be back here tomorrow or the week after. There are going to be other people - and we know this - who live off of this, right? And so they need this fix. Are we saying that everybody is going to become addicted to gambling? No, but I think there is a huge potential now for this opportunity for people who don't quite understand the definitive nature of this, which is I'm making a bet, and there are real consequences to this. And maybe this generation that has grown up playing these electronic games and these sporting games, you know, whether it's Madden or these other things - right? - there are no consequences, right? And through this, there are no consequences that you know of because the way the apps are set up, they're trying to limit the amount of cash that you actually see flow, right? You're not making the payment right out of your pocket on the spot. They want to set up as few boundaries or limitations or interruptions, if you will, to make you aware of that.

SNELL: Are leagues and casinos taking any measures to protect fans who are playing irresponsibly or might have an addiction?

FRANKEL: The betting sites do have these cooling off periods. I don't know for a fact whether they are shutting people down who are seeing losses mount into the - to the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. I think if you watch a game today, you are inundated with commercials from the NFL. So just the opposite. Not trying to - yes, they have the the PSA commercial that says, hey, bet wisely. Be careful. Here's a 1-800 number. All that. But those are almost footnotes in general. You'll see different ads from different sites one after the other.

SNELL: So it's basically integrated into the fabric of the game.

FRANKEL: Absolutely. You know, one might say - if you were being really cynical, you might say, well, they don't even trust their own product anymore. They don't trust the entertainment value of the game itself to draw in viewers. Now they have to rely on gambling because that's really where their audience is.

SNELL: Jon Frankel is a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel." Thank you so much for joining us.

FRANKEL: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.