Cultural Tension: There’s no I in TEAM, there's ME

April 30, 2024

The sports betting market is booming, as Americans open their wallets and up the ante on their favorite players and teams. Last year, people in the U.S. bet $120 billion on sports, a 28% increase from the year prior. 

A combination of factors is behind the rapid rise of sports betting. They include: a change in the regulatory landscape that has made betting legal in more places, the convenience of mobile phones and apps, and, perhaps most significantly, increased reception from sports organizations and networks that have accepted betting as an intrinsic part of the viewership experience. As NPR stated: “If you're the NFL, you can get people not just to watch their local team, but you can get [them] to watch games across the country every Sunday because they're betting on all of the games and multiple parts of the games.” 

From a consumer point of view, does an increase in sports betting correspond to greater sports watching? Perhaps. According to, the number of people in the U.S. who watched live sports at least once a month increased from 158 million in 2022 to 159 million in 2023, and is expected to reach 162 million by 2025.

Can newfound financial motivation drive up viewership by itself? Maybe, maybe not. (Sixty-two percent of Americans said they do not follow professional or college sports too closely, or at all.) Given the dynamics of betting, and the rise of NIL (“Name, Image and Likeness” compensation recently made eligible to student athletes), we find a cultural tension emerging in how and why more people are engaging in sports: one that puts individuals at the center, rather than the team.

Within the world of sports betting, parlays – the combination of multiple wagers into a single bet – have become increasingly popular. This has changed the attitude of betting, with consumers often focusing more on individual elements of the game than the final score or end result, given the higher upside for such bets. One of the main outcomes of this shift is focus pinpointing more on individual players. 

Let’s take the recent NCAA Women’s College Basketball Championship as an example: it was the most watched sporting event since the NCAA Men’s basketball championship in 2019, excluding football and the Olympics, according to the NCAA. This record is due primarily to one exceptional player: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Betting for women’s college basketball was up 250% from last year per Forbes, and according to BetMGM, with Clark receiving the second-most bets of any player, man or woman, in both brackets.

For the President of the NCAA, Charlie Barker, this movement has sparked concern, with fears of the integrity of the game suffering as a consequence, and student athletes being put at risk. (The NCAA, for its part, had of course received its own long standing criticism for appearing to financially benefit from those athletes’ production, without them receiving a share.) Regardless, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Clark, and the potential to bet on her performance, has driven increased interest and viewership in the sport.

Such rising interest in individuals can be seen in the success of the NIL program, which has allowed athletes to establish their personal brands independently and earn income from endorsements, appearances, autograph signings, and more. And consumers are thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to celebrate and support them. Research conducted by Bill Carter at the Sports Business Journal highlighted that followers of student athletes rate such athletes’ content about 30% higher on both quality and relevance as compared to the followers of traditional influencers. 

Brands are reaping the benefits as well: for traditional influencers on Instagram, an engagement rate between 1%-3% is considered average (over 3% is deemed a success). Student athletes, meanwhile, boast an average engagement rate of about 5.5%, per the SBJ.  

As we think about the new generation of sports fans, research shows that younger fans, especially those aged 16-24, are more likely to follow individual athletes on social media compared to following leagues, sports experts, or coaches. And if we return to betting, in a survey of over 3,000 college students, nearly 60% had bet on sports and 4% did so daily, per NCAA Research Report

It is apparent that people are often betting more on individual athletes compared to on games, at least in part due to a lower barrier to entry from an education perspective. This is, in turn, driving greater interest in the game. Fans have also claimed that doing so makes the game more exciting and engaging (it doesn’t hurt that the payout is potentially higher, too). 

What that means for the sports themselves in the long run is less certain. Sports betting may be driving interest and thereby viewership in sports, but to us, it’s most interesting as a conduit: a way for consumers to engage and establish connection on a personal level with players they see see on TV and follow online, and another example of a win for individuals over institutions.

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