Sports Betting Has a Chance to Step Into the Sunlight

Sports betting is booming. Reuters estimates one trillion dollars is bet annually on sports worldwide. Yes, trillion with a T!
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Sports betting is booming. Reuters estimates one trillion dollars is bet annually on sports worldwide. Yes, trillion with a T! It's estimated that half of adult Americans bet something on this year's Super Bowl. Betting on sports has been big business for a long time, but what's different recently is the modern media's acceptance of this reality.

Lotteries, poker rooms, and casinos are everywhere these days -- resulting in a general waning of the taboo associated with gambling. So it makes sense that the ever expanding national sports networks (television and radio) have embraced the Vegas perspective in their hunt for differentiated content.

Considering that countless hours are spent on these networks previewing games -- it's only logical to include Vegas odds, the most accurate predictor of sporting event outcomes. Which team is expected to win, and by how much, creates compelling context for any sports conversation -- going all the way back to David and Goliath! And when covers an NFL coach talking about the point spread -- like they did this season -- it's obvious that any remaining resistance is no more than perfunctory.

Yet, sports betting's reputation, in the minds of some, is still unsavory. In some ways this is Hollywood fiction, while in other ways the skepticism is deserved. The industry must make a clean break from the objectionable elements of its past -- establishing a new, clear standard of professionalism. This standard cannot rely upon nuance. It's vital that both sports bettors and the sports media are able to identify at a glance the legitimate from the illegitimate.

The requirements of legitimacy should be no different than any other industry: fair business dealings; delivery of what is promised; accurate and honest promotion; a transparent business history allowing for review and audit. It's the responsibility of the industry to work together toward this goal. It's the responsibility of sports bettors themselves to accept nothing less. It's not surprising that a business which has historically taken place in the shadows has a history of shadowy dealings. Now, finally, sports betting has the chance to step into the sunlight.

Adherence to a customer-friendly code of conduct will earn the industry respect while undermining the arguments of naysayers. The qualms of the sports networks will be assuaged, freeing them to satisfy their growing appetite for sports betting content. Bettors will be empowered to make fully informed decisions, no longer inhibited by the shadows.

My vision is no utopian fantasy. Anytime money is involved, some will try to steal. It's impossible for any industry to totally eliminate that. Even so, accepted standards help by stigmatizing those who reject them -- while those who do comply to the transparency requirements will have a much harder time covering up wrong-doing. There's no reason the sports betting cannot compare favorably to the investment industry. Once the standards are comparable, treatment by the mainstream -- including the press -- deserve to be comparable. Anything less is prejudice.

Imagine the virtuous cycle legitimacy will fuel! The increase in esteem and compensation for Vegas experts will incentivize a better quality of participants with a greater willingness to share. The growth of a trusted marketplace will encourage a culture of free information flow, allowing sports bettors to judge for themselves which content, if any, is worth paying for. And beyond the minimum standards, businesses will aggressively compete to provide the customer with ever greater value.

The sports betting industry cannot move toward this future until zero-tolerance for unethical behavior becomes the standard. I personally pledge to champion this necessary journey.

RJ Bell speaks about sports betting in the mainstream media tomorrow afternoon at SXsports.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and SXSW, in conjunction with their annual festival (March 7-16, 2014, in Austin, TX.). To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on SXSW Music, Film and Interactive, click here.

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