Did Apple Just Make a Gambling App?

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Written By Pinang Driod

On Tuesday, I downloaded the new Apple Sports app just before watching basketball on TNT, and soon noticed something strange: The scores on the app were ahead of the telecast. Presumably the game between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers was appearing on my TV in near-real time, but it was still behind the app’s ticking game clock.

Launched last week, the Apple Sports app is mostly sleek and mostly intuitive, as Apple products tend to be. But it’s also something of a misnomer. Apple Scores would be a better name for the app, because it does almost nothing else. Unlike ESPN and the many other major sports apps you can download to track scores and follow games, it offers no highlights. There is no news. The app doesn’t even show what channel or streaming service the games are airing on. Nor does it show the results of any game more than a day ago, or any team’s schedule more than a single game in advance. And yet what it does show you is betting odds, prominently displayed in the home screen.

Click on a specific game, and you’ll get detailed betting odds, such as odds for the total number of points that will be scored in a game, all provided by the sports-betting juggernaut DraftKings. You can hide these details in your iPhone’s general settings, and the app doesn’t link to DraftKings, where you can actually put money down. But this seems to be the crux of the app. It’s the beginning of a betting app.

Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment on the app, but it’s hard to rationalize the app’s purpose in any other way. If you look at Apple Sports as an ESPN competitor, it pales in comparison. No news? No highlights? If you are a die-hard soccer fan, the app is essentially unusable: Along with the MLS, you can track the top five European men’s soccer leagues, but not the super-popular UEFA Champions League or any matches between national teams. It allows you to follow your favorite teams and leagues—if you don’t select any, you’ll see nothing when you open the app—but does not include NFL or college football. Though Apple has promised that these will be available by the start of their respective seasons, it has made no such promises about tennis or golf, which the app doesn’t include either.

Nor does it make much sense as part of Apple’s broader push into sports streaming. In 2022, Apple began airing Friday night Major League Baseball doubleheaders on its streaming service, Apple TV+. The following year, it became the exclusive broadcaster of Major League Soccer, and now it may be readying an up to $2 billion bid for the rights to Formula 1 racing. And yet the Apple Sports app seems ill-equipped to advance its grand sports-streaming ambitions. Though it launched the same day as the start of the new MLS season, the app doesn’t even tell you that you can watch upcoming games on Apple TV+.

In terms of betting, it makes a lot more sense. What little the app does, it does well. It loads extremely fast, and stays constantly up to date. This is a marked improvement over, say, the ESPN app, which in my experience refreshes only intermittently and is usually a few minutes behind the action. Maybe you don’t care much whether your scores app lags by two seconds or two minutes. Otherwise you’d probably be watching the game on TV—or, if necessary, secretly streaming it on your iPhone under the table. But if what you care about is betting during a game, then the difference between a two-second lag and a two-minute lag can mean everything. In those two minutes, the star quarterback for the team you’re betting on could have thrown an interception or been sidelined with a concussion—information you’ll sure wish you had. All of which suggests that Apple Sports is less useful as a sports app, or even really a scores app, than as a sort of quasi-betting app.

And eventually, it could become something like an actual betting app. Apple hasn’t ruled out allowing users to click through to DraftKings or some other sportsbook. “Whether we let you tap on it to go to DraftKings or not … we’ll decide that later,” Eddy Cue, the Apple executive leading the sports push, told CNET last week. “We just decided right now we just want to show the odds and see.” Apple, he added, is “not against” betting.

Even the idea that Apple would flirt with betting is curious, because the company has traditionally been pretty averse to anything that could be construed as a vice. Its extensive rules prohibit apps that encourage the use of “tobacco and vape products, illegal drugs, or excessive amounts of alcohol.” The same is true of anything promoting the “illegal or reckless use of weapons and dangerous objects.” And also overtly sexual or pornographic content—no surprise from the famously prudish company. “While it’s a cliché, I don’t think Steve Jobs would have signed off on showing betting odds in the Apple Sports app,” Joe Rossignol, a senior reporter for MacRumors who has covered Apple since 2008, told me via email. “Even nowadays, however, I don’t see Apple ever allowing users to place wagers directly in the app.” It just doesn’t seem to align with the spirit of the company.

If Apple doesn’t see sports gambling as a vice, though, maybe that’s because America no longer sees it as a vice. Only in 2018 did the Supreme Court let states allow online sports betting. Now it has become so normalized that commentators regularly discuss betting lines, throwing around lingo about “parlays” and “prop bets.” Entire TV shows and podcasts are devoted to gambling. ESPN now has its own betting service. Sports betting has eaten sports alive, and not without consequence: Calls to gambling-addiction hotlines are way up since 2018. Even before releasing the Sports app, Apple has quietly abetted this. It has allowed sportsbooks to create apps that have made placing a bet easier than ever. In an article for The Conversation, Meredith Ginley, a specialist in gambling addiction, wrote about how betting apps deploy in-game push notifications to encourage risky behavior.

If the sports app really is a nascent sports-betting venture—still a big if—that would be the final confirmation of gambling’s acceptance into mainstream American culture, and a move that would mainstream gambling even more. Apple Sports, despite such limited functionality, is already high on the App Store charts. It could become a default, like the weather app or the camera app, potentially putting sports betting a touch-screen tap away from the world’s 1.5 billion iPhone users. Sports betting, which has grown bigger than almost anyone could have imagined in 2018, would grow bigger still than almost anyone can imagine now.

Jacob Stern is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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