On Sunday night, after the conclusion of the AFC Championship game, “#NFLRigged” was trending on Twitter. Tens of thousands of tweets were sent out decrying the perceived rigging of the game between the Chiefs and Bengals.
I’ll admit, there were some questionable calls in that game. I’m not going to list them all here because you know my thoughts on that game: the Bengals lost because they have no offensive line, not because of the refs (although the refs were also bad).
But there are a lot of people out there who truly believe the NFL is rigged. I haven’t personally interviewed or questioned each and every one of the people using the hashtag, so I can’t presume to speak on their behalf, but I am going to guess that “#NFLRigged” means exactly what it sounds like: that the outcomes of NFL games are predetermined.
For example: The league decided the Chiefs were winning the AFC Championship before the game even started, and Cincinnati never had a chance. The league’s corporate sponsors wanted State Farm’s Favorite NFL Team playing in State Farm Stadium down there in Arizona. The league wanted Andy Reid to be going up against his old team for all the marbles, and the league wanted “the Kelce Bowl” for the storyline.
Now, I don’t doubt any of that stuff is true, but just because that stuff is true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the NFL rigged the AFC Championship game so the Chiefs would win. Just because there is a motive doesn’t mean there’s a crime.
Another reason I’m skeptical of the idea that the league rigged the AFC Championship for the Chiefs is that there would’ve been plenty of compelling storylines if the Bengals were playing in the Super Bowl instead of the Chiefs. The NFL wants Burrow to be one of the faces of the league for years to come. You’d have the storyline of him seeking redemption after losing in last year’s Super Bowl, you’d have tons of star power, the Bengals seeking their first ever Super Bowl–it definitely wouldn’t be quite as compelling a matchup as KC vs. Philly, but Joe Burrow is a ratings draw nonetheless. He’s a highly compelling figure and there’s no way the league would be upset with him in the Super Bowl.
If Joe Burrow got to another Super Bowl and this time won it, he would ascend to the same sort of rarefied air as Patrick Mahomes, and would maybe even begin to take on a “villain” role, or at least the guy that wins so much that he’s starting to get annoying, which is great for ratings–people love to “hatewatch” villains, and in fact without “villains” pro sports leagues are considerably less interesting and appealing (my favorite era of the NBA was LeBron in Miami, personally). The league wants polarizing figures–guys that fans either love or hate. If you love a player or hate a player, either way it means you’re emotionally invested in that player, and thus the league, in some capacity. Obviously the league wants people emotionally invested. The worst thing for them is indifference. I don’t think many people would’ve felt indifferent about the Bengals in the Super Bowl.
Joe Burrow with a Super Bowl ring would basically mean the league has Brady vs. Manning 2.0. Burrow vs. Mahomes is already turning into that as it is (they even have the same last initials), but it would gain even more stature if both guys win rings early in their careers and then for the next 10 years we have them battling it out to try to chase Brady’s legacy to become the new GOAT.
I really don’t think the league was all that desperate to have the Chiefs win that game and the Bengals lose it. The Chiefs playing in the Super Bowl was probably preferable for the league to the Bengals, but only marginally so. There would have been plenty of upside to the Bengals making it to the Super Bowl. In fact I’ve almost talked myself into the idea that it would have been better for the league if the Bengals made it instead of the Chiefs.
Honestly, if the league was going to be rigged this year, I think it would have been rigged for Buffalo. Despite being in a small market, they’re a highly compelling team. The Bills this year were one of the most talked-about teams in the league when it came to sports talk shows. They get national play. Colin Cowherd, ESPN, First Things First, Mike Florio–they talked about the Bills frequently. The narrative from the media all year was that the Bills were the Main Characters of the 2022 NFL season, it’s all about them trying to win a Super Bowl, avenge their loss to the Chiefs from last year’s playoffs, win one for the city of Buffalo finally. Josh Allen and the Bills were portrayed this year as the protagonists of the league. I can’t think of another team that was more talked about than they were this year other than the Cowboys, who are always the most talked-about team every season.
And yet Buffalo got stomped in the playoffs in the Divisional round. The team that the media had all been pretty transparently pulling for and portraying to us as the team of destiny–they got tossed aside in the second round of the playoffs.
So I don’t think it was rigged this year. But what about “rigged” in a more general sense?
First, we should get on the same page here regarding the definition of “rigged,” though. Like I said earlier, I’m taking “rigged” to mean “predetermined.” But even that word could mean different things to different people. In other words, if the league is rigged, exactly how rigged is it? Because “rigged” is on a spectrum.
Is it rigged in the sense of Tim Donaghy-esque referee corruption, or is the NFL not actually a competitive sports league but in reality pure Hollywood entertainment, like the WWE, with the entire season scripted out before it even starts? Or is it somewhere in between?
The first thing I want to address is the “scripted” version of rigging, because there are actually people out there who believe the NFL is completely fake and predetermined.
If all the players and coaches are paid actors, that’s an awful lot of people to involve in a secret conspiracy. Especially when you consider how many fringe guys there are in the league that get signed and then cut after one game, practice squad guys–the number of “marginally attached” NFL players means that the number of co-conspirators is even higher than the ~1,700 active roster guys (53 * 32 = 1696) plus coaches.
And what, the second you get signed to an NFL team they let you in on the big secret, and bring you up to speed on the fact that the whole league is actually just like the WWE, it’s rigged and scripted, and all the real football you played from Pop Warner up through college, yeah, that was the last time you’ll ever play real football, because the NFL is totally scripted?
If this is the case, don’t you think a bunch of guys would’ve broken off from the NFL and said, “Yeah, we’d actually prefer to play real football, not scripted WWE football. So we’re going to form our own league that isn’t scripted, and where we actually play real football and actually compete, because, you know, we like to play real football and actually compete.”
To have 1,700 players, plus coaches, plus front office staff, plus referees, plus owners, all involved in a conspiracy to script the league, it’s impossible. Somebody along the way would spill the beans. Somebody would get pissed off and blow the lid on the whole thing. There’s just way too many moving parts. Think of all the people who have ever been employed by the NFL. It’s got to be in the tens of thousands over the years. It would be the biggest conspiracy ever.
Plus, if it’s all scripted, then why are there even front offices? Why are there general managers and scouts and offensive coordinators and quality control assistants and trainers and strength coaches and nutrition experts and physical therapists, and team doctors? Those people would not have jobs if the games were all WWE style Hollywood shows.
And why would there be as many injuries as there are, if the action isn’t real? Sure, they could have some injuries written into the script to create drama and plot twists, but not as many injuries as we actually see. There’s no need for all these injuries if the sport is not actually a sport, but in fact a Hollywood production.
Also, if it the NFL is fake and scripted, then why are you allowed to gamble on NFL games? Why are there sportsbooks that offer NFL bets? That would be illegal, letting people bet on a game that is secretly scripted and predetermined.
There is no way the league is scripted. It just wouldn’t work. You cannot just tell guys who have played football all their lives and dream of competing at the highest level that the competition ends after college, once you get to the NFL it’s all fake. You’re not actually playing football anymore, you’re acting. You’re a paid actor.
No way, man.
Unless you think college football is also scripted and rigged. You’d have to really have a massive conspiracy going on there if that were the case, because there’s a hell of a lot more college football players than pro players.
Plus, and this is the biggest thing in my view: authentic competition is a better product. It just is. If the players were acting and not really playing, you’d be able to tell. At some point in the 272 total games of each NFL season, you would be able to tell that the players in some of the games are just not really playing football. The mask would slip inevitably.
On the other hand, authentic competition–players giving 100%, going all-out, getting into fights because they’re so jacked up, and crying their eyes out when they lose in the playoffs–is just an inherently better product than acting, fake, scripted. I just don’t think it would even be worth going through all the trouble to script the league when authentic competition is a superior product.
So there’s no way the NFL is scripted WWE style.
People often say, “The league is legally listed as an entertainment entity, not a professional sports league!” Pat McAfee talked about this on his show on Monday (Jan. 30) and actually debunked that. He said the league did that for tax purposes or something, but stopped doing it in 2015, and now it is no longer classified as an entertainment business.
Okay, so the league isn’t scripted, it’s not an entertainment business. But it could still be “rigged” in some form, right? Just because there aren’t script writers and directors doesn’t mean it still isn’t rigged, right?
Sure, that’s a fair assessment.
But if the league was rigged, then the Packers, Steelers, Cowboys, Jets, and Bears would all be a heck of a lot better than they currently are. The two best teams in the AFC would not be located in Kansas City and Cincinnati.
If the league was rigged and scripted, then that would be awfully, awfully cruel to teams like the Browns and the Lions. Those franchises have been bad for decades, and if the league was scripted, then that means the “script-writers” have made the conscious decision to subject people in Cleveland and Detroit to decades of sports misery.
Now, that said, there has definitely been some stuff that really made me question whether things were scripted. For one, the Harbaugh Bowl in 2012. Two brothers coaching against each other in the Super Bowl? The odds of becoming an NFL head coach are astronomical as it is, but for two brothers to become NFL head coaches at the exact same time–and, not only that, to be coaching the two best teams in the league and meet in the Super Bowl? Incalculable odds.
So the Harbaugh Bowl was pretty unbelievable, but then again, is anyone going to deny that Jim and John Harbaugh are great football coaches? They’re great coaches, and great coaches often get to the Super Bowl, period. And both of their teams were really good at the time. John Harbaugh’s Ravens were in the AFC Championship game the year before and lost narrowly to the Patriots. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers were in the NFC Championship in 2011 and 2013, losing narrowly both times. So the Harbaugh Bowl could’ve very well happened in 2011 as well, but both guys lost in the semifinals.
The 28-3 comeback in the Super Bowl, that’s pretty far-fetched when you think about it. But I don’t remember any bad calls by the officials really boosting the Patriots in that game, do you? I remember that insane Julian Edelman catch, but how the hell do you script that? Even if you believe all the players and coaches are actors, and that every single play down to the incompletions and runs for no gain are scripted, there is no way you can replicate the bounce that happened on that play if you tried it 100 times.
The Saints getting blatantly screwed over and cheated out of a Super Bowl berth in the 2018 NFC Championship against the Rams–I’ve long thought that could’ve been a result of some sort of fixing or rigging by the league to try to get one of the new Los Angeles teams into the Super Bowl over small-market New Orleans. The missed call was not only so egregious and so devastating to the Saints, it was also blatantly obvious pass interference that anybody with a functioning set of eyeballs could’ve seen.
That was one of the big moments that stuck out to me. My theory is that the NFL really wanted pro football to catch on in LA, so they gave the Rams a second chance in that NFC Championship game against the Saints. To me, that’s plausible.
Or it could have been that the NFL decided after “Bountygate” that Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints were never getting to another Super Bowl again, period, and that the no-call in the NFC Championship game was the manifestation of that.
There are definitely things that have happened in the NFL that made me wonder if it was actually scripted.
I could see the NFL having desired Super Bowl matchups, for sure. They want an authentic product with real competition and real football, obviously, but they could also have the refs doing whatever they can to nudge and encourage certain outcomes that the league prefers.
The NFL doesn’t want a Super Bowl of, say, Jacksonville vs. Detroit. Those are two small market teams, not exactly prestige franchises, not a lot of history, not a lot of strong feelings about them nationwide–that is not an ideal Super Bowl from the league’s perspective. The league wants compelling matchups, and obviously some matchups are more compelling than others.
But I seriously doubt that if those teams were in their respective conference championship games, that Roger Goodell would place a call to the refs and say, “Whatever you do, don’t let Jacksonville and Detroit meet in the Super Bowl.” I don’t think that happens.
Then again, this very thing may well have happened to the New Orleans Saints in 2018.
Some games, though, are just impossible to rig. If a game is really one-sided, there ain’t much the refs can do to alter the outcome. There was no way to rig that NFC Championship game between the Eagles and the Niners. Even if the league desperately wanted San Fran in the Super Bowl over Philly (which they wouldn’t as the Eagles are a huge draw), the fact that both of San Fran’s quarterbacks got knocked out of the game meant it was basically impossible for them to win, no matter how much help they got from the referees.
I don’t think the league is scripted. Not at all. But I do think the league wants close, dramatic games, and that the referees are a big part of this. A late flag on a crucial 3rd down play that gives a trailing team a new set of downs, etc.
Next I want to get into the NBA, because I think there’s actually more compelling evidence that the NBA is “rigged” to a certain extent than there is for the NFL.
I think by this point it’s pretty much confirmed that the NBA is rigged to some degree. I’m not saying the outcomes of games and Championships are predetermined (for the same reason I think it’s impossible for the NFL to be completely scripted), but I do think the league puts its thumb on the scales behind the scenes (and sometimes even out in the open) all the time to maximize revenues and profits.
For one, I think the Draft Lottery has always been sort of rigged, at least when it comes to the most hyped prospects. From making sure Patrick Ewing went to the Knicks in 1985, to making sure LeBron went to Cleveland in 2003, and also ensuring Derrick Rose went to the Bulls in 2008, I just think the NBA has 100% fixed the outcomes of the draft lottery on multiple occasions to ensure these can’t-miss prospects go where the league wants them to go.
I have a hunch that several of those draft lotteries were rigged from 2011-2014, in which the Cleveland Cavaliers won the first pick three out of four years. Those years just so happened to coincide with the years that LeBron was playing in Miami, after publicly leaving Cleveland in 2010 primarily because the Cavaliers could never surround him with enough talent to win.
Well, the league knew LeBron always had in the back of his mind that he wanted to go back to Cleveland eventually, but also that he would only do so if the Cavs could actually provide him with a good supporting cast. The league wanted LeBron back in Cleveland to atone for “the Decision,” and to have that incredible storyline of him coming home and winning a Championship for Cleveland. I also think the NBA’s reputation took a serious hit after The Decision. People hated the LeBron Heat teams, and felt like they were ruining the league. A lot of people tuned the NBA out after that, and the league must’ve felt it was bad for business. The solution, in their mind, was to entice LeBron to come back to Cleveland as soon as possible.
So the league gave the Cavs the #1 pick in 2011, and they used the pick on Kyrie Irving. The Cavs got the #1 pick in 2013, but wasted it on Anthony Bennett, arguably the worst draft bust in NBA history. The Cavs also got the #1 pick in 2014, using it on Andrew Wiggins, and then just a few weeks later, LeBron announced his return, and the Cavs were able to trade both Anthony Bennett and Wiggins to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Love. And just like that, with Kyrie and Kevin Love in the fold, LeBron had a Championship-caliber supporting cast in Cleveland, unlike his first stint there from 2004-2010. What also encouraged LeBron to leave Miami was Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the whole supporting cast there really falling off a cliff, but I think the big thing was that with Kyrie in Cleveland and lots of tradeable assets, the Cavs could finally build a contender for LeBron.
I also think the NBA wanted Zion Williamson to go to the Pelicans in the 2019 draft because the league doesn’t want that franchise to move out of New Orleans. They wanted Zion to make the Pelicans good and reinvigorate interest in basketball in New Orleans. New Orleans really isn’t a basketball town, and the owner wants to sell the team, but I believe the league has made a stipulation that if the team is sold, it can’t be relocated, and so there aren’t many people interested in buying the team.
Remember, the league used to own the Pelicans franchise barely a decade ago and they have gone to great lengths to keep the team in New Orleans. I think the reason behind this is that the likely destination spot for the team, if relocated, would be to either Las Vegas or Seattle. But while the NBA definitely wants teams in those two cities, they want them to be expansion franchises, not relocated franchises.
League expansion is a huge windfall for the league due to the fees and bidding wars that go on, in addition to the permanently increased revenues. But the league specifically is interested in those relocation fees, as it has the power to choose who gets the new franchises. If the Pelicans were to move to Vegas or Seattle, that would cost the league billions of dollars, because that means no expansion. Apparently, NBA expansion fees are at minimum $2.5 billion, and we’re talking about two expansion franchises here. Not only that but in regard to that $2.5 billion figure, Adam Silver has said that that figure is “very low,” and given that the Suns just sold for $4 billion, $2.5 billion is indeed “very low.”
So there’s at least $8 billion in expansion fees to be had for the NBA when they expand to Seattle and Las Vegas. The Pelicans being relocated to either of those cities screws that all up, because you can’t really expand by just one team and have 31, an odd number. I mean you could, but it’s way more ideal to have either 30 or 32. And obviously New Orleans wouldn’t be an expansion city candidate given that a team would have just left there.
Long story short, I think the league wanted Zion in New Orleans to make some basketball headway in that city, in order to make relocation less likely. If the Pels are really good, and really popular, then how can you uproot them? At least keep them in New Orleans until the league has pocketed the expansion fees from the Seattle and Las Vegas teams.
Knicks fans thought the league would for sure rig the lottery to make sure Zion went to New York, and I thought that would be the case as well. But it didn’t happen, and I think the expansion fee money is the reason why.
So, if the draft lottery is rigged, does this mean it will be rigged this year for Victor Wembanyama? Almost certainly. Where will he end up? I have no idea. I’m looking at Tankathon, and I see teams at the top of the draft like Houston, Detroit, San Antonio, Charlotte, Orlando and Toronto. I don’t know if any of those teams are ideal landing spots for Wemby, honestly. Perhaps the Spurs since they at least have a recent history of winning, and are considered to be a competent franchise that would not mismanage Wemby and remain a loser team.
But then again, San Antonio is considered a “small market team.” They are not a media draw, and I’m sure the league was kind of pissed that they were a dynasty for so many years because of how boring they were, and because of how little the Spurs as a franchise actually move the needle nationally. It’s possible the NBA could see some upside in reviving the Spurs “brand,” but I doubt it.
Perhaps the NBA would want Wemby to play in Toronto, given that Canada has a very large French-speaking population. Over 80% of people in Quebec speak French as their first language. Now, Toronto isn’t in Quebec, of course, but it’s pretty close, and I’m sure just the fact that Toronto is in Canada really works to its advantage in terms of the Raptors being the possible beneficiaries of a rigged draft lottery for the 7’4″ Frenchman this summer.
If Wemby doesn’t end up in Toronto, I guess Houston would be the best landing spot for him kind of by default. Houston is the 4th-largest city in the country, although it’s not often thought of as a “major media market” along with places like NYC, LA and Chicago. I don’t know… Houston isn’t really an ideal landing spot for Wemby, either. Guess we’ll find out soon enough.
But in addition to frequently rigging the draft lottery, what about the games themselves? Does the NBA fix outcomes?
Most definitely they have in the past. In the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers were down 3 games to 2 against a team that the NBA really did not want to see in the Finals: the Sacramento Kings. It’s not even a question that the NBA would much rather have the Lakers in the Finals over the Kings. The Kings are basically the NBA’s red-headed stepchild franchise, and former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who was in charge of the league from 1984-2014, once said that his dream Finals matchup would be “the Lakers vs. the Lakers.” So there was no doubt who the league wanted to go to the Finals that year.
Additionally, the NBA always wants Game Sevens as well. They want as many playoff series to go to seven games as possible, because everybody loves Game Seven.
So the league at the very minimum wanted this Kings vs. Lakers Conference Finals series to go to seven games, and there’s no doubt the league vastly preferred the Lakers to make the Finals instead of the Kings. Word has it that they sent in their “fixer” refs (one of them being the infamous Dick Bavetta) to make sure the Lakers won that Game 6, and with the Lakers’ chances in doubt in the 4th quarter, the refs sent LA to the free throw line 27 times in that quarter alone, helping the Lakers pull out a 106-102 win and force Game 7.
Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post wrote at the time:
“To ignore the role officiating played in Game 6 of the NBA’s showcase playoff series would essentially be to ignore the primary story line in the Lakers’ 106-102 victory. And not addressing it would leave unexamined the swelling chorus of concern among everyday basketball fans that the league and/or its TV partner, NBC, has an interest in either helping the league’s most glamorous and marketable team, the Lakers, or at the very least prolonging an already dramatic series.
Of course people believe that. The players themselves sometimes believe it. Yes, Vlade Divac has a flair for the dramatic, but he spoke for any number of people when he said late Friday night, “Why don’t they [the NBA powers-that-be] just let us know in advance? We come here, we go back to Sacramento, back here. Just let us know.”
I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6. It was bad in Game 5 in Sacramento, when the Kings got the benefit of some very questionable calls, then unforgivably rotten on Friday night in Game 6. Scot Pollard, on his sixth and final foul, didn’t as much as touch Shaq. Didn’t touch any part of him. You could see it on TV, see it at courtside. It wasn’t a foul in any league in the world. And Divac, on his fifth foul, didn’t foul Shaq. They weren’t subjective or borderline or debatable. And these fouls not only resulted in free throws, they helped disqualify Sacramento’s two low-post defenders.
On the other hand, Kobe Bryant elbowed Mike Bibby in the nose in plain view with the Lakers up by one, but no foul was called on Kobe, even though Bibby lay on the court and then went to the sideline bleeding.“
Basketball is the only sport where the refs can directly award players points, and thus it’s theoretically the easiest to “rig.” It’s true that in football the refs can get very close to determining the outcome of the games (they can call holding to negate any play they want, for instance), but they cannot do anything like sending a player to the free throw line.
So if the NBA wants to prolong a playoff series, all they have to do is send in the fixers, and they’ll make it happen.
However, I will say that, in the NBA’s defense, I don’t think they intended to flip the outcome of the series. Certainly the league wanted the Lakers in the Finals over the Kings, but I don’t think they’d go so far as to outright fix the outcome. The risks of doing so far outweigh the benefits the league would get from having the Lakers in the Finals. Getting caught rigging a playoff series could stain the league’s reputation for a generation, but the benefits of the Lakers being in the Finals over the Kings is short term. You think about it, the league did get caught, as everyone knows about it. And we’re still talking about it today in 2023, 21 years after the fact.
I think the league was just trying to force a Game 7, not make the Lakers win instead of the Kings. Because the rigged game that we just went over was Game 6, not Game 7. In Game 7, if we look at the box score, we can see that the Lakers went to the free throw line 33 times, but the Kings were sent there 30 times. Unfortunately for the Kings, they went just 16/30 from the line, while the Lakers went 27/33. The Lakers won the game 112-106, went to the Finals, and swept the New Jersey Nets with ease. If the Kings would’ve hit their free throws in Game 7, it would’ve been them.
But also, if the league didn’t rig Game 6, the Kings would’ve won the West right then and there with no need for a Game 7. So regardless of the league’s intent, the bottom line is that they did rob the Sacramento Kings of an NBA Championship in 2002.
All this is to say that there are, in my opinion, examples of pro sports leagues in this country being rigged to some extent.
But the “rigging” is mostly done around the edges, at the margins–fixing the draft lottery so a highly-touted prospect ends up in a better media market, having the refs extend playoff series to force Game 7s, and, in the specific case of the infamous veto of the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers in 2012, outright meddling in team personnel decisions.
The “rigging” does not, in my opinion, rise to the level of outright pre-determining the outcomes of games and championships.
And that’s really the central charge here behind the whole “#NFLRigged” campaign on social media, right? That the Bengals never had any chance at winning that game because the league had already decided that the Chiefs were going to the Super Bowl no matter what?
I’m not saying the leagues don’t ever do anything questionable. I just went over a whole host of examples of what I believe to be examples of “rigging” by the NBA, including one instance where it’s widely believed across the country that the league straight up had the refs rig a playoff game.
But there’s a big difference between pro sports leagues using the refs to nudge certain games toward more financially lucrative outcomes and the leagues being fully and completely scripted, WWE-style.
Back in 2007, when the Cavs made it to the Finals for the first time in LeBron’s career, I knew they were significantly overmatched against the Spurs. But in my mind at the time, I actually thought LeBron and the Cavs would win, because I thought (hoped) the league would rig the series for LeBron to win. I figured the league would want LeBron to get a championship early in his career so he’d be on the GOAT trajectory. Well, that idea was quickly squashed, as the Spurs swept the Cavs in one of the most forgettable NBA Finals in years.
But don’t you think the league back then would’ve preferred for LeBron and the Cavs to win? The NBA probably hated every minute of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty because of how boring and uncompelling they were. The Spurs were just so “blah” back in the day. Tim Duncan never said anything or did anything controversial. He barely even showed emotion. The most controversial thing he ever did in his career was get ejected for laughing on the bench. True story. The Spurs’ colors are even bland and boring (even though I do like their unis). They weren’t really hated, or villains–most people nationally were indifferent to them more than anything. There just wasn’t much to latch on to there.
The Spurs’ three championships in the 2000s (2003, 2005, 2007) were among the lowest-rated NBA Finals ever. The NBA would’ve loved for LeBron to upset bland old San Antonio. Instead, the Spurs dominated young LeBron and 2007 wound up being literally the lowest-rated NBA Finals series on record, other than the 2020 Bubble Finals.
LeBron and the Cavs turning that into a real series would’ve been great for ratings, but it didn’t happen.
If the NBA was rigging outcomes, it would’ve happened. The Cavs would’ve won that series in 7 if it was rigged.
The NBA also would’ve rigged the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals between the Cavs and the Magic. That year was the closest we ever got to seeing a Kobe vs. LeBron Finals. It would’ve been unreal. But instead the Cavs lost to the Magic 6 games in the ECF, and we got a forgettable Finals matchup instead (although the series was actually closer than the 4-1 margin indicates).
Along these lines, if the NFL were truly rigged, don’t you think we would’ve seen at least one Brady vs. Rodgers/Packers vs. Patriots Super Bowl at some point over the past decade, like 2014, or 2016?
Wouldn’t we have gotten a Chiefs vs. Packers Super Bowl in 2019 instead of Chiefs vs. 49ers? Mahomes vs. Rodgers would’ve been a much more compelling storyline than Mahomes vs. Jimmy Garoppolo.
I think the NFL really screwed up in depriving us of Brady vs. Brees in the 2018 Super Bowl, but alas.
I’m beating a dead horse here so I’ll move on, but the main takeaway here is that pro sports leagues aren’t scripted.
And to the extent that there are instances of the suits and execs intervening and manipulating things, I don’t think even that rises to the level where I would classify these leagues as “rigged,” or predetermined.
Rigged… But Not Wrong?
I’m sure the leagues themselves would say they’re simply pursuing their own best interests, which is in turn good for the fans.
I mean, if the leagues are after ratings, who comprises those ratings? Us. We’re the ones who watch, and the leagues are always trying to boost ratings, meaning make their products more appealing to us.
When the NBA used the refs to force a Game 7 in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, that was done to give the fans the excitement of a Game 7.
Obviously the NBA went way overboard in that moment and wound up depriving the Kings of a Championship that they probably should have won.
But they were doing it to make the NBA more interesting and compelling for you and me. It was done for our enjoyment. The league wanted a Game 7 because we the fans love Game 7s.
When the NFL talks about parity, and about how every year there’s a team that goes from last place to first place in its division, that’s because they want to make the league more engaging and compelling for us. They want a different Super Bowl champion every year. It’s harder than ever to repeat nowadays, and that’s by design. They’re proud of the fact that no team has repeated since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004.
The rules are designed to favor offenses, and that’s because we the fans like higher scoring games.
Refs throwing flags late in games to help out trailing teams, that’s for our enjoyment. Now obviously it has kind of gone a bit overboard, but I do remember there was a stretch early in the 2022 regular season where the quality of the games was shit; it was a lot of blowouts and non-competitive games.
I remember writing an article back then (can’t find the link) saying, tongue in cheek, something to the effect of, if this is what “un-rigged” games look like, then give me the “rigged” games back any day of the week.
The NFL does not want blowouts and dynasties. It wants close games, and like 8-9 different teams that can realistically win the Super Bowl every year–different teams every year, preferably.
The NFL wants that stuff because we, the fans, the viewers, want that stuff.
The NFL is in a great place if the majority of fanbases going into a given year think their team has a chance at winning the Super Bowl, because that means lots and lots of fanbases are engaged. The league does not want 2/3rds of the fanbases in the league to be apathetic and pessimistic about their teams.
You notice now how teams can go from shit to the Super Bowl in like 2-3 years tops? The Bengals drafted Joe Burrow #1 overall in 2020 and then were in the Super Bowl not even 24 months later. That is what the league wants.
Everything the NFL and NBA do that we consider “rigging” is designed to make things more interesting for us.
What if the Charlotte Bobcats would’ve won the 2003 NBA Draft lottery instead of the Cavaliers, and LeBron James ended up playing for the Bobcats to start his career? That would’ve sucked. If the NBA did rig that lottery for the Cavs, I’m glad.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the pro sports leagues “rig” certain things in order to deliver a more compelling and entertaining product for us, the fans.
They are not scripting the whole damn thing. And in fact even the perception that they are is a huge deal for both the NFL and NBA; I’m sure they’re freaking out at the league office right now. Adam Schefter went on Pat McAfee the other day and was talking about how the league is well aware of the problem it has with how its referees are perceived:
“The league knows it has an issue on its hands.”
And I’ll bet they take some steps to address that issue. Because they know what the fans are saying online.
The “NFLRigged” talk on social media is a mortal threat to the very core of the league, because the reason we tune in and watch these games is because we don’t know what’s going to happen; anything can happen! The craziest shit you’ve ever seen might just happen when you watch sports.
In a society where everything from the business world to social media to politics to pop culture is fake, scripted, focus-grouped, monetized, bastardized and carefully crafted by a sophisticated marketing firm, professional sports are basically our last refuge: the one thing we have left that isn’t fake.
We love sports because, again, we feel like anything can happen, the outcome is not predetermined, and because the players care as much as we do. The tears we saw on Joseph Ossai’s face after he got that late hit penalty that basically ended the game–that was the only time you’re actually going to see someone on your television express real, raw emotion.
You aren’t getting real emotions on reality TV shows. You damn sure aren’t getting it in politics. You’re not getting it on TikTok.
The only place you’re getting getting real, human emotions is from sports.
When LeBron had that complete meltdown at the end of the game against the Celtics on Saturday, whether you love him or hate him, you have to appreciate the fact that it was real, and that he was only acting like that because he cares about winning.
The dude is a billionaire, been in the league 20 years, done everything you can possibly do, a few games away from scoring more points than anyone ever has, and he’s showing that much emotion and passion during a regular season game, totally unscripted.
You only get that from sports.
If people out there are starting to think the NFL is fake and rigged, that is a very big problem. The league has to address that, nip it in the bud immediately.
The lifeblood of the NFL is the perception that it is real, authentic, and unscripted. If they lose that they are in serious trouble.
You’re not going to be able to do anything to convince the hardcore conspiracy theorists who think every last play–from the batted balls to the fumbles to the long touchdowns–is scripted. Fortunately, I think they’re a small minority of people, and many of them aren’t even true fans (after all, how could they be?)
I think the vast majority of fans just think the officiating is terrible, and that the league merely acknowledging that officiating is not up to par and have to change would go a long way.
It’s the perceived inconsistency of the calls that’s the real problem. People feel like the refs are selective about when they call holding, and that whenever the refs do call holding, it’s only to screw over the team they want to lose. Same with other things like block in the back, and ESPECIALLY roughing the passer. You lay a pinky finger on Patrick Mahomes or Brady and it’s instantly 15 yards, but then there’s other quarterbacks who get absolutely blasted after releasing the ball and the refs totally ignore it.
The NFL really just has to let it be known that they what people are saying, and then do something, anything to begin to address the situation. They really have to hit on the key word of consistency. They have to announce that their goal is consistency of calls, and that they’ll do whatever it takes to improve the consistency of the officiating.
I’m Skeptical of Pro Sports Leagues Partnering with Sports Gambling Books
Okay, so that was my two cents on the whole “#NFLRigged” situation.
Now I’ll tell you what I do actually have some real suspicions about.
In 2021, the NFL and NBA were thrilled to announce that they had partnered with several of the major online sports books:
As sports gambling becomes legalized in more and more states, and becomes a part of mainstream sports culture, this was bound to happen.
It started out a decade or so ago, with Brent Musberger’s subtle acknowledgements of pivotal plays that tipped the over/unders or point spreads late in big time college football games, and his occasional nods to his “friends out in the desert.” That was when it was taboo to talk about sports betting and you had to be sly about it. It was kind of a no-no even 5-10 years ago to even mention the existence of sports gambling in America.
Nowadays ESPN and Fox Sports have full fledged betting shows on a daily basis. They display point spreads everywhere. Sports betting is now an integral part of sports media. Van Pelt has a whole segment called Bad Beats, and it’s awesome.
But at the same time, there’s a lot of money at stake here, right?
And you have to wonder, given that the NFL and NBA are proudly partnered up with these big gambling corporations, just how close are those partnerships?
My big worry is that the sports books get into a situation where they are going to get crushed if a certain team covers the spread, and they need them not to cover, so they call up their partners, the league, and say hey, we can’t have this team cover tonight, we’ll lose a ton of money. And then the league makes a call to the referee crew for the game and says we can’t let this team cover the spread, make sure the game is close.
It’s not such a crazy scenario, is it?
In theory, no it’s not. But in reality, although the leagues are partnered with these big corporate sports books, they have divergent interests on most of the core issues beyond just simply making money. Once you get past the fact that they both want to make as much money as possible, they actually don’t have a lot of mutual interests.
The sports books are concerned with their money, not necessarily with the outcomes of these games. But the leagues very much have an incentive to avoid the image that they’re rigged. And when it comes to betting, it isn’t the league’s money on the line; they in theory don’t care if the sports books lose tons of money on a game.
So the sportsbooks could call up the league and ask them to do everything they can to prevent some team from covering the spread, but the league is more likely to tell them to pound sand, because the league is going to get paid regardless. The sportsbook has already signed the contract with the league and has to pay the league out each year no matter how much money the sportsbook loses. And no, the NFL is not worried about a big time sportsbook going bankrupt. That doesn’t happen.
But it’s also kind of a misconception that the sportsbooks are routinely dealing with heavily imbalanced action on these games. If you’re a competent sportsbook, you are not going to typically be in a situation where you are absolutely screwed if some team covers the spread in an NFL game. That’s not how these sportsbooks operate. They make great efforts to limit their downside risks all the time.
The sports books ideally are trying to balance the action and just collect the vig on the bets. By this I mean they want the money bet on a given game to be split 50-50 (i.e. for the Super Bowl, they want 50% of the money on the Chiefs and 50% of the money on the Eagles). The house still wins because every bet they offer is -110 odds, meaning you have to risk $11 to win $10. That’s what the juice, or the vig, means.
You win your $11 bet, they pay you $10. You lose, the house gets $11. It’s asymmetric between you and the house. If you win one bet and then lose another, you’re still down a buck because of the vig. You risked $11 and won $10, but then you lost $11. So even though you’re 1-1 on your bets, you are still down money overall. Because of the vig, a sports bettor has to win about 53% of his bets in order to just break even. There’s an inherent advantage for the house, and it’s because of the vig.
And so if the money on the game is split evenly between both teams, the house will always come out ahead because of the vig. Half the bettors win, they each get paid out $10, but then half the bettors also lose, and they have each lost $11 due to the vig.
So it’s like if I take a bet from you on the Super Bowl, let’s just say Eagles -3.5, $11 to win $10. Then I take a bet on Chiefs +3.5 from Joey Baggadonuts, also $11 to win $10, I’m making a buck no matter what. If the Eagles win and cover, I pay you out $10. But Joey Baggadonuts has also lost his bet with me, which was $11. So I made $11 off of him but only paid out $10 to you.
This is how sports books make money on the vig.
They would prefer to have the action balanced: they want just as much money on the favorite as on the underdog, because that way they minimize their liability and they’re pocketing a bunch of money on the juice.
And so in order to balance out the action, this is why books move the line based on how much money comes in on each side.
If they open a game with one team favored by 3, but then they see 85% of the money come in on that -3, they know they have to make that spread even bigger. They’ll move the line to -4 to encourage the next bettors to take the underdog. They don’t want all the action on one side. If people are still hammering the favorite at -4, they’ll move the line even further to -5. They will continue moving that line toward the favorite until people start putting money on the underdog. At a certain number, the underdog becomes a more attractive bet. If everyone is on the favorite at -4, perhaps they may start betting on the underdog once the line moves to like -5.5 or -6.
What really moves lines is when sports books see big bets come in on a certain side. A bunch of regular joes betting $25 on the Eagles -3.5 isn’t going to move the line. But if they see a VIP who has an account with them, and who they know is a sharp, come in and throw down $25,000 on the Eagles -3.5, they know they have to make that spread even bigger. It’s got to go up to Eagles -4 or even -4.5 depending on how heavy the sharps come in. When sharps start hammering the line, the books get scared and think they have the line wrong, which means they feel like the sharps are taking advantage of them.
It’s like if you are selling a car on Craigslist and have it listed for $14,000 and you get 100 offers within the first day for it. You then do some market research on Kelley Blue Book and find out the car you’re selling typically goes for $19,000, and when you were offering it at $14,000, you were pricing it way below the market and thus were liable to get taken advantage of by people who know what they’re doing.
This is the same reason sportsbooks move the line on games.
Think about it this way. If Alabama football is playing Furman University, and I ask you if you want to make a bet on who’s going to win the game, your pick, you’ll take that bet no matter what. You’ll bet on Alabama to win, because that’s free money. So we can’t just bet on the game straight up. We have to even the odds somehow, and that’s where the point spread comes into play. So I revise my offer: you can take Alabama to win, but they have to win by at least 10. If they win by 9, then I win the bet. Okay, you’ll still happily take that bet. In fact you’ll call up all your buddies and tell them to bet on Alabama -10 with me, because there’s a dummy giving away free money. So I move the spread up to Alabama -20 to make it even more fair. And people are still taking me up on that bet; I haven’t gotten a single person to bet on Furman with me. Nobody wants Furman, even +20. Eventually I get to a point where I’ve revised my offer several more times to make it less of a slam dunk, and now Bama has to win by 55. Now it’s not such a no brainer, is it? Now I’ve got people who are betting on Furman to lose by less than 55 points. We all know Furman is going to lose, but if they lose 52-0, anybody who bet on Furman wins.
Taking bets straight up on Alabama vs. Furman is going to result in 100% of the bets being on Alabama. It’s free money, they aren’t losing to Furman. But if it’s Alabama and they have to win by 55 or more, we’ll then we’re probably going to see a lot more bets coming in on Furman, meaning the action is going to be a lot more balanced. And that’s what the bookmaker—the person who takes bets and pays you out when you win—wants. Again, the book wants balanced action so they can just profit off of the vig.
Every betting line you see is set up to encourage balanced action. The book wants an equal amount of money bet on each side. They want 50% of the money on the favorite and 50% on the underdog; 50% on the under, 50% on the over.
They want to find that sweet spot where it’s not immediately obvious which side you should bet. They want to find a point spread number where the favorite and the underdog are equally attractive, and they let the market determine what that number is. If at -4 everyone is betting on the favorite but at -6 everyone is betting on the underdog, they know the sweet spot is somewhere in between 4 and 6.
And so this is a way of saying that books shouldn’t be finding themselves in situations where they are going to get crushed if a certain team wins, or a certain team covers, or if the over hits.
Any legitimate book is going to have the line dialed in and priced to perfection so that bets are coming in on both sides. If you are a Sportsbook and you don’t do this, you are not going to be in business for long. Sharps are going to exploit the mispricing of the lines you’re offering and eventually take all your money.
That said, there are some games here and there where Vegas really needs a particular outcome. Sometimes the public is just really strongly in favor of one team in a game no matter the line, and the books end up in a situation where 80% of the money is on one team, so they really need that team to not cover the spread. In this case, I believe sportsbooks actually will hedge, meaning place a bet on the same team that 80% of the money is on, but with another sportsbook, in order to minimize losses. But I am not sure how often this actually happens.
This is what I would characterize as my biggest concern when it comes to legalized gambling.
Again, these sportsbooks don’t get themselves into high risk/high reward situations very often because they’re smart about how they price the lines, but sometimes they do wind up in a situation with heavily imbalanced odds.
And with sports betting getting bigger and bigger with each year, the financial stakes get higher and higher as well.
When there’s a lot of money at stake, people get desperate, and you really can’t put anything past them.
There is a long and oftentimes ugly history of sports betting corrupting sports at all levels in this country. You go back to the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, where the White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series after being paid off by the mob. College basketball was plagued by point shaving scandals from the 1950s through the 1970s. The Tim Donaghy scandal broke as recently as 2007.
The more money that is at stake, the more incentive there is for corrupt and unscrupulous behavior.
The fact that the major pro sports leagues are whole-heartedly embracing sports gambling creates, at the very least, the appearance of corruption. What else are we supposed to think when we see the NFL and NBA proudly partnering up with major sportsbooks? They have to be in cahoots with one another to some capacity, no?
So that’s what I’m a little wary of–just the idea that the sportsbooks could have some degree of influence on the outcome of the games through their partnerships with the leagues.
I think the potential for institutionalized point shaving is likely overblown, but there’s a chance it isn’t.