An image of people at a baseball game on the left; a sign for gambling app Bet-Tenders on the right
The view at a recent Cubs preseason game at Arizona's Surprise Stadium; a sign for gambling app Bet-Tenders Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Something else took me to Arizona last week, but on what the locals considered a pleasant Tuesday afternoon I was in Surprise Stadium, in the Phoenix suburb of the same name, for the Cubs’s final preseason game. They were facing the Texas Rangers.   

Both teams were wearing Cubbie blue.

The temperature on the field was approaching 100 degrees, and attendance was sparse. 

After the second inning, a clutch of major leaguers left the Cubs dugout and paraded off the field, gear in tow. Apparently they had a plane to catch.  

The rest of us suffered through seven more error-laden innings to witness an 11 to 5 loss by the minor league team we’d been left with.    

Nothing on the field approached the impact of sporadic roaring flyovers from nearby Luke Air Force Base that shook us awake. So there was plenty of time to reflect on the future of baseball. Like print journalism, it’s a slow game in a fast world. And outrageously expensive for fans. 

Are we already in the ninth inning? 

According to Baseball Almanac, television viewership for the World Series dropped from 44 million in 1978 to less than 14 million in 2019. In-person attendance has been declining for years. People are no longer willing to sit for three, four, or more hours to see a few precious minutes of bat-on-ball action. Like dropping a line in the water and waiting for fish to bite, that’s the thrill of a former, more relaxed time. What to do? In Surprise Stadium they were featuring Face the Cookie challenges on the jumbotron. 

That might work, but in case not, out on the concourse you could sign up for the Bet-Tenders app and get some skin in the game. They’re so sure you’ll like it, if you place a $10 initial wager, they’ll give you $200 in credits for future bets.

After a century of aversion that included banning Pete Rose and ousting the Black Sox, Major League Baseball is betting that this is the future of the game. Credit a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way and estimates that $35 billion or more was being wagered in illegal bets on baseball every year—estimates that had baseball owners, taxing bodies, and, most of all, the gaming industry salivating.

It wasn’t news around here. Before the Bleacher Bums became a play (dreamed up by Joe Mantegna and written and produced at Stuart Gordon’s Organic Theater in 1977), and a cable TV movie (in 2002), they were real Chicagoans, entrenched in the cheap seats at Wrigley Field. They operated in a cloud of cigar smoke and a profusion of curse words, betting each other as little as 50 cents on everything from pitches, hits, and win margins, to whether, when the umpire threw the ball to the mound to launch a new inning, it would land on dirt or grass. 

I’m not a baseball fan, but I live with three generations of them—former high school and college players, and diehard lovers of the game. They say the betting that went on in the bleachers then was a richly social activity, the game providing the platform for intense personal interaction. In contrast, they say, the online betting that’s replacing it will have heads buried in phones, the interaction—like so much else today—only between “man and machine.”    

Still, it might be a lifeline. The fan connection to individual players has been broken since the advent of free agency and multi-multi-million dollar contracts. (As I write this, former Cubs favorite Kyle Schwarber’s swinging his bat for the Phillies and Anthony Rizzo’s at first for the Yankees.) And, since the mind-bending events of 2016, the Cubs’s long-running lovable losers mystique is gone. They’re just another contender now, while the fans—hungry for an active role—are the stars of their own experience. Skin in the game, even machine-managed, will count.  

Betting is a cheap thrill and an expensive addiction but it might suffice.