Several years ago, friends of Luke Korem, a documentary film-maker and Texas A&M grad, dared him to favor his team, an underdog, over college football powerhouse Alabama. He Googled “sports betting”, clicked on a website, and placed a $100 wager. Weeks later, his credit card statement included a mysterious and unassuming $100 debit for a spa treatment in the Caribbean. Without realizing it, he’d made an illegal offshore sports bet.
Until May of last year, this was the nature of sports betting in the United States: illegal enough to be confined to underground networks or offshore books, yet widespread enough for an amateur to access with a simple Google search. But around the world gambling is legal, for sites like the Finnish Casino website. And Korem wasn’t the only fan casually betting on games; like a marijuana cloud hanging over a music festival, sports betting has been an unmistakable, if hazy, the denominator of America’s prolific sports culture even before last year’s supreme court ruling left its legality up to individual states. Now, as states from New Jersey to New Mexico pass their own legalization measures, sports gambling has rapidly emerged out of the shadows as a nationwide, money-soaked industry, whose high-stakes and often freewheeling process is explored in Korem’s latest documentary series, Action.
The four-part series follows some of the industry’s major players over a watershed period, as sports betting rapidly erects legal infrastructure in the months leading up to the most prolific betting day in the US: the 2019 Super Bowl, which put nearly $5bn at stake. Action is a decidedly of-the-moment project, striking in its portrayal of how quickly fortunes can change and how recently this all developed. The series opens with footage from the Super Bowl, less than two months ago, and premieres on the first weekend of the NCAA’s March Madness college basketball tournament, in which Americans are expected to bet over $8.5bn, according to the American Gaming Association.
The mushrooming bets are just the latest evidence of sports gambling’s soaring profile. “I’ve always been interested in sports betting, in particular, because it’s ingrained in the sports world and in America, sports is huge,” Korem said by phone. “We all know that there’s all this money being bet on sports” – the American Gambling Association estimated that illegal sports bets totaled as absurdly high as $500bn – “but we’re not allowed to talk about it.”
Korem was already in talks with Boardwalk Pictures about sports betting documentary when the ruling provided the crucial “why now?” He immediately got the OK from Showtime, “and a week later, I was on a plane to Vegas”.
Korem’s first order of business was to find colorful figures to pepper Action from various levels of the sports betting world: expert commentators (so-called “handicappers”), amateur and professional bettors, gambling addiction experts, an illegal bookie and many others who “represented a different part of the ecosystem”, and could contrast the established gambling circuit of Las Vegas with the big-swinging upstarts, such as Atlantic City.
In the high-stakes world of gambling, story arc-making conflict is not hard to find. “If you live on a day-to-day basis in the world of gambling, if you wake up and you don’t know if you’re going to lose money or make money, your life is just a rollercoaster,” Korem said. “It became apparent that everyone we met with, their lives every day were an adventure.”
Adventure might be an understatement for those uninitiated to the staggering cash flow of an average Vegas day. In one scene, the controversial gambling figure “Vegas Dave” Oancea performs a standard work morning on camera, jostling between Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat as he sells his picks for the day’s games. “Five hundred bucks, 500 bucks,” he repeats with an auctioneer’s pacing as he scrolls through his email until, an hour later, he’s made $180,000.
In another scene, a professional bettor, Dave “Krack” Krackomberger, demonstrates “the easiest way to keep a $10,000 pack” (increments of $1,000, rubber-banded in opposite ways). “I’m not your typical sports bettor. I do this for a living, and this is a business to me,” he says in his typical short-sleeve button-up and newsboy cap. When an off-screen interviewer wonders if he’d wager a million dollars, Krack replies incredulously. “Of course, are you kidding me?”
Action’s most cutting analysis on the burgeoning ecosystem of sports gambling comes from a handicapper, Kelly Stewart, one of Vegas’s only female sports gambling experts and a former bottle-service girl who can spit odds and honest barbs on the Vegas media landscape in equal measure. Stewart was one plane ticket away from moving to Costa Rica last year when legalization kicked her media career, formerly siloed in betting circles, into the mainstream. Now, she’s zigzagging between radio shows and WagerTalk videos, with the added women’s work of protecting respect and relevance through the expensive and relentless pursuit of youth. The camera lingers on Stewart’s makeup brushes, her spiked stilettos and sheath dresses, the blood on her face as she undergoes a painful laser procedure. “As someone who knows she has a shelf life, I have five years to maximize what I want to do,” she says.
The candidness can be staggering, frustrating, but “I did want them to see that side because men don’t have to do that in our industry,” Stewart says by phone. “The reality is that I do have to go get Botox, I do have to get my teeth whitened,” because you don’t see unattractive women on sports media TV. “That’s the world that we live in, and I wasn’t afraid to say that.”
Though flush with the sounds of freshly aired bills and cheers from a buzzed crowd, Action doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of sports gambling – there’s a row of liquor bottles, Stewart’s grimaces as she keeps up appearances, Oancea staving off loneliness through weekends living at his parents’ house. A large part of the second episode focuses on the testimony of both gambling addicts and addiction experts.
“I always wanted to put a total objective lens on the industry,” Korem says of those choices. “I don’t want to just praise sports betting as something that’s going to be great. With the good is the bad.”
If we’re already in a world saturated by the language of gambling – “underdog” and “favorite” are Vegas terms, after all – then any examination of sports gambling is an opportunity to see the parameters of sports today more clearly. “Ultimately, I hope that it stirs up a conversation,” Korem said of his hope for Action. “I think that’s really healthy, so that we go into this with an open mindset and not just with rosy glasses.”
Via the Guardian.