What exactly feels so off about this World Cup? Could it be the last-minute beer ban? The fake fans imported from Lebanon in exchange for airfare and a small stipend? Or perhaps the tournament is haunted by the scores of migrant laborers who died building the $200 billion infrastructure for the four-week event, a fact Qatari officials chillingly attempted to downplay by placing the estimated death toll at 400 rather than the reported 6,500.
The diagnoses vary: The New York Times blamed racist crowds, The Wall Street Journal pointed to Qatar’s human rights record, The Intercept focused on Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace deal, and Jacobin bemoaned the absence of a socialist midfielder inspiring the masses. Taking it a step further, The London Review of Books asked how we could even “justify burning this much of our carbon budget on international football,” since this World Cup represents “a gigantic dose of hydrocarbon wealth” spent on “an immensely carbon-intensive spectacle.”
Notably, none of these explanations have to do with the thing itself: the sport taking place on the field, and our relationship to it. As sports become increasingly politicized, and as we enter a new era of online gambling, the pleasure of rooting for the home team is steadily being squeezed out by a ruthless logic of instrumentality that leaves sports fans poorer in every sense.
Writing in the late 1970s, social critic Christopher Lasch explained that professional sports offered spectators a unique form of escape, fantasy, and play. The American public craved this play more than ever as managerial capitalism pushed them into jobs that offered little in the way of creative challenge.
“Games enlist skill and intelligence, the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of activities utterly useless, which makes no contribution to the struggle of man against nature, to the wealth or comfort of the community, or to its physical survival,” Lasch wrote in his 1979 bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism.
Rather than see this uselessness as a flaw, Lasch understood the lack of instrumentality as fundamental to the appeal of sports. If sports served a purpose, they would lose their charm—we would “perform” rather than “play” them. “The essence of play,” Lasch reminded us, “lies in taking seriously activities that have no purpose, serve no utilitarian ends.” The Catholic philosopher Michael Novak explored the same idea, writing that play provides “the fundamental metaphors and the paradigmatic experiences for understanding the other elements of life.” He knew play was “not tied to necessity, except to the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom.” In this way, Novak placed sports in the same category as religion, seeing both rooted in the “historic response of humans to their own liberty.” In a culture growing increasingly hostile to religion, is it any wonder play suffers the same fate?
Yet Lasch also warned that the degradation of sport consisted “not in its being taken too seriously, but in its trivialization.” He worried about a sporting culture that valued spectacle above all else, and saw this process happening everywhere he looked: in baseball rules changed to stimulate bored fans, the growing dimensions of jumbotrons, stadium trinket giveaways, and attempts to popularize hockey by encouraging brutal fights. These examples look quaint when stacked against this World Cup’s opening ceremony, which was narrated live by Morgan Freeman from an air-conditioned stadium and capped off with a performance from Korean pop megastar Jungkook of BTS.
In Qatar, we have all the spectacle money can buy, and yet the soul of the game, its playfulness, feels uncompelling. Politicizing the World Cup has stripped it of its vitality by making it seem as if nothing on the field matters—and judged by the standards of the political, it doesn’t. Oh, Messi scored on a magnificent volley from beyond the penalty box? Well, he did so in a stadium built by brutalized migrants, paid for by a government hell-bent on destroying the environment, in front of fans pleading for basic human rights. Maradona didn’t dig Argentina out of its debt crisis. Landon Donovan didn’t make Americans any less obese. Mbappé couldn’t ease France’s immigration tensions. And when the confetti clears from this World Cup, the gas will still flow out of Qatar while the migrant workers flow in—only the media attention paid to these issues will have changed.
We are on the precipice of a decline in sporting culture much steeper than Lasch imagined.
The result of giving sports over to pure politics and spectacle could be seen in the all-out marketing blitz that took over the billboards of New York in 2022 after the state legalized gambling. For months after the initial publicity wave, you would be hard-pressed to walk a single city block without encountering a DraftKings, BetMGM, or FanDuel ad. The promotions at first seemed too good to be true, with promises that financial freedom stood only a $10-deposit-to-your-smartphone away. Some companies offered thousands of dollars in betting credits, assured that new customers would return the favor with loyalty. (Here “customer loyalty” serves as a polite corporate euphemism for “spending enough time on our apps to lose your entire initial deposit and hopefully a whole lot more.”)
And of course, the companies were right: In less than 10 months, mobile sports betting companies generated $13 billion in the state of New York. Gov. Kathy Hochul boasted having “opened the door to responsible entertainment for millions of sports fans.”
As a twentysomething male with a bored tic of checking ESPN, I found myself a prime target for these corporations. Yet I also considered myself prudent (some might say stingy) and intuitively disliked the idea of betting on sports. If I loved sports on their own terms, why complicate the relationship with money? Sports betting wasn’t even particularly new. Beginning in the 2010s, any moderately tech-savvy sports fan could list two or three dodgy websites (denoted by their lack of a “.com’' domain) that took advantage of some overseas loophole to facilitate “legal” gambling.
But the onslaught of promotions proved too tempting to resist, and hubris got the best of me. I deposited $20 in one of the apps and decided it would be all the money I ever gambled, drawing inspiration from the family relative who returns from Las Vegas bragging about a single sober trip to the roulette tables (she went primarily for Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, as one does).
In the months that followed, I managed to build my account balance up to about $500. Naturally, I took credit for this excellent rate of return, though it had more to do with the steady flow of promotions undoubtedly intended to flatter my gambling esteem until I developed a habit. When I won, it meant I could buy dinner and feel that it was free. When I lost, well … I only deposited $20, so I was playing with house money anyway.
Slowly but surely, I took note of changes in the way I experienced sports. The first few games pleasantly intensified my viewing experience. But eventually the excitement of the bets took precedence over the games themselves, and the two decoupled: I could watch a spectacular NFL playoff game and fixate only on whether a particular receiver would make his third catch. Conversely, I could watch a complete blowout and be incredibly tense, waiting to see if the total score would surpass 70 points.
The betting stopped “enhancing” games because it superseded them entirely. Team loyalties held since childhood began to fray. I only consciously realized what was happening when, while listening to Cleveland sports radio one day, a professional gambler explained that he couldn’t watch sports for fun anymore. In fact, serious gamblers don’t watch games based on interest—they only watch those that lend the greatest betting advantage, which could just as well be semi-pro basketball in Japan or pickleball in Italy.
We can look to the extremes to see what’s ahead. Like the alcohol industry, sports-betting companies know the real money comes from their most addicted customers. They have had tremendous success finding these users among young men. And while sports gambling has been around for a long time, this wave of seamless app-based betting has been different: Revenues are nearly tripling year-over-year, while the National Problem Gambling Helpline reported a 84% increase in chats during 2021 and said it expects those numbers will further increase. Wall Street analysts predict a staggering $35 billion will be wagered on this World Cup.
My foray into gambling—limited as it was—convinced me that we are on the precipice of a decline in sporting culture much steeper than Lasch imagined. Betting creates a synthetic substitution for the true joy of sports; it allows us to feel the thrill of a touchdown or buzzer-beater again, only we aren’t reacting to the on-field play, but to our correct prediction of it and our resulting profit. Betting is similar to social media in this way, as both mimic sensation without the underlying substance. And, as with social media, sports betting makes us so accustomed to the synthetic substitute that we eventually struggle to return to the real thing.
Lasch noticed that the “same forces that have organized the factory and the office have organized leisure as well, reducing it to an appendage of industry.” Betting lets young men participate in sports the same way they participate in the financialized information economy. In simpler times, watching sports meant appreciating the virtuosity of player performance; now it means flattering our own presumed ability to navigate a financial market, only one where the derivatives have to do with actions taking place in a stadium rather than the prices of cotton, Bitcoin, or gold. When fantasy remains out of reach, we can only imagine ourselves participating as we see ourselves working—with spreadsheets, data, and steady profit margins eked out patiently over time.
Hirsh Chitkara is a writer living in New York.