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Outdated entry drafts find relevance in feeding gambling’s insatiable appetite


This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The San Antonio Spurs selecting Victor Wembanyama with the first pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft is the least surprising outcome of any sports event, any year, ever. 

Wembanyama stands seven-foot-five but moves with the agility of a six-foot point guard. He drains three-pointers, and when he misses, he can take a couple of big steps in from the perimeter and dunk his own rebound. Futuristic size and speed, combined with old-school, follow-your-shot fundamentals made him too appealing a prospect for the Spurs, who won the NBA’s draft lottery, to pass up.

Before the draft, FanDuel offered -50,000 betting odds that San Antonio would draft the French phenom first. For people who need calculators to comprehend gambling odds (people like me, for the record) a $100 bet on Wembanyama would have earned 20 cents of profit. If the median Canadian worker had wagered their whole annual salary — $68,400 — they would have won $136.80.

Offering odds that long is essentially not offering them at all.

If I were a gambling man (I absolutely am not, for the record), I might have dropped $10 on one of the Thompson Twins going first. Any late-game change of heart from the Spurs would have netted me $2,000. That’s a big enough reward at a low enough risk to get me to consider betting again on next year’s draft, whose rankings are already taking shape.

WATCH | Canadian Leonard Miller might be the most intriguing NBA draft prospect:

Canadian Leonard Miller might be the most intriguing 2023 NBA Draft prospect

Bring It In host Morgan Campbell explains what makes Canadian forward Leonard Miller of the G League Ignite such an interesting prospect ahead of the 2023 NBA Draft.

Which, of course, is part of the point under the sports industry’s current setup.

To the extent that every aspect of pro sports is a competition, drafts make almost no sense. But their importance to leagues, sponsors and broadcast partners increases by the year, and not just because they offer straggling teams a chance to land a superstar. Entry drafts, and the lengthening lead-ups to them, also furnish two commodities that sports business stakeholders crave: content and gambling inventory.

Before we continue, let’s recognize how abnormal entry drafts actually are.

Should drafts exist?

Every year, the sports business puts more emphasis on “business.” If you needed a reminder, you got one Thursday on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, where Larry Tanenbaum was set to sell his 25 per cent stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to OMERS, a pension plan for Ontario municipal employees. 

But if North American pro sports leagues operated like regular businesses, drafts might not even exist. 

What other industry rewards failing outfits with the best young talent in the field?

What kind of business burdens its future superstars with saving foundering franchises? 

If the off-field action were a pure competition, quarterback Justin Fields would have had the right to pit NFL suitors against each other on his way into the league in 2021. He and his advisers could have chosen the team that offered the best balance of salary, opportunity and team success, and signed there.

Instead, in that year’s NFL draft, he went to the inept Chicago Bears, who traded up to select him, hoping Fields could produce wins quickly for a coach and front office on the hot seat. The Bears kept losing and the braintrust lost their jobs anyway. And now, as Fields enters year three, we might finally see how good he actually is — or isn’t.

A basketball player celebrates.
Wembanyama is considered the best NBA prospect since LeBron James 20 years ago. (Thibault Camus/The Associated Press)

Of course, the pro sports ownership class accepts the draft’s downsides in exchange for the control the system provides. The draft is the last, strongest vestige of the days before free agency, when teams controlled who played where, for how long, and for what price. Teams, and not players themselves, determine where players enter the league, and rookie pay scales provide team-friendly limits on how much they earn.

Another upside to draft season?

Leagues can monetize the pre-draft process by turning it into content that fills airtime, either for league-owned TV networks, or for their various broadcast partners.

Without an NFL draft, we wouldn’t have an NFL draft combine, which has transformed from a closed-door audition between talent scouts and top prospects into a week-long event that keeps viewers tuned to their TVs, and die-hard NFL fans refreshing their browsers as new results trickle in.

For a league with aggressive growth goals, the draft, and the weeks leading up to it, help hold consumer attention over the winter. Football fans used to tune out after the Super Bowl, but now they can spend eight weeks obsessing about everything from Anthony Richardson’s vertical leap, to Chase Brown’s 40-yard dash time, to Deuce Vaughn’s true height.

The NBA hasn’t pumped its draft combine up into a full-blown TV ratings driver, but that day might come. Either way, the event still contributes to the steady drip of news keeping fans engaged between seasons. Before the combine, we figured Montreal’s Olivier-Maxence Prosper might get selected somewhere in Thursday’s draft. Then a series of dispatches from the combine made clear he was a contender to land in the draft’s top-20.

Some pre-draft info, like Prosper’s 40.5-inch vertical leap, is genuinely interesting. Much of the rest is merely filler. But it all helps service an appetite for information that sports fans have proven is bottomless.

That need for data and anecdotes runs even deeper now that sports betting is legal nearly everywhere in North America, and gambling outfits have struck partnerships with every major league and several active superstar athletes. A generation ago, only the hardest of hardcore gamblers would place a wager on draft outcomes. Doing it would have involved finding a jurisdiction — likely Nevada — where bets like those were permitted, and figuring out how to get your money there.

Can bet on anything

Now, thanks to new laws and the internet, we can bet on any permutation of draft outcomes. Betting odds are as easy to find as standings and boxscores, and easier to understand than the advanced stats that say Tyler Herro is, pound for pound, the NBA’s best offensive player.

And the sports books are the beneficiaries of anything we can gamify, from combine results, to draft order, to just which team selects Scarborough’s Leonard Miller

That dynamic doesn’t just apply to basketball, obviously. And it has implications far beyond draft night.

Earlier this month, Forbes reported that the XFL lost $60 million US this season. Last month David Roth, a fantastic writer over at the Defector, pointed out that wins, losses, ratings and profits barely factor into the XFL’s actual value. The league, he argues, will have a chance to survive as long as it gives gamblers something to bet on.

Drafts fill a similar need for the various sports books that have partnered with pro leagues.

As for the firehose of pre-draft content the leagues and their broadcast partners aim at us every off season — they only cost us our attention, but sports teams accept that currency, too.

And every year, we keep proving how eager we are to pay.


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