I first came across the word “ombudsman” — which is an objectively hilarious word — while reading the best comic strip of all time, Bloom County. (Quick aside: If you’ve never read Bloom County, you’re not living your best life. Go buy all the books on eBay right now.)
I must’ve been in 7th or 8th grade at the time, and Opus (the talking penguin with mommy issues and a taste for herring) was serving as the ombudsman for the Bloom County Picayune, and I had no idea what an “ombudsman” was so I asked my dad, to which he replied something along the lines of, “I don’t know, gimme the sports section.”
April 19, 1982. I believe this was the first mention of the two words “penguin lust”, neither of which deserve to be next to each other in any normal universe. But Bloom County is hardly that, so voila! -bb pic.twitter.com/lyo4H3QU2R
— Bloom County (@bloomcounty) June 9, 2021
So I had to use context clues, and realized the job of an ombudsman was to handle complaints, questions, and concerns of newspaper readers.
Suffice it to say, things didn’t go well for Opus. In one memorable comic, a group of feminists that he referred to as “girls” ended up ramming his nose down his throat.
The lesson: Being an ombudsman is not easy.
“It was the most difficult and most stressful job I’ve had by far, but it was also the most interesting,” said Daniel Okrent, who served as the first ombudsman for The New York Times (the paper called the job “public editor”) and who, to the best of my knowledge, was never throat-nosed by Gloria Steinem.
Okrent, a longtime journalist, editor, and author is also — all hyperbole aside — the father of fantasy sports. He created the Rotisserie League back in 1980 — named after a French restaurant in New York — and he and a group of journalists popularized the game, mostly through the book Rotisserie League Baseball (may as well eBay that as well) written by a member of the league, Glen Waggoner. And yes, this is where “roto” comes from.
Without putting too fine a point on it, it’s entirely possible that without Okrent, the entire fantasy world might not exist, which means FanDuel and DraftKings might not exist, which means the American sportsbook industry might not exist. (I’m stretching, but still.)
So anyway, yes. Okrent — former ombudsman, fantasy sports deity — is a key cog here for my question of the day: Might it be high time sportsbooks (and for that matter, daily fantasy sports sites) created an ombudsman position to handle the constant bellyaching — some of it warranted — by the sports betting community?
An umboth of one
Jon Rahm gets booted for COVID, some sportsbooks pay out, some don’t. A Michigan gambler ends up in court trying to collect his winnings. A statistical error nearly costs a Pennsylvania bettor a huge win. These are some examples just off the top of my head in recent months.
And let’s not forget mispriced lines, injured players, sites going down, live-betting snafus, bonus money questions, silly limits … the list of issues sports bettors have with sportsbooks is never-ending.
Of course, there are help desks, but they generally just point bettors to the “terms and conditions,” and the terms and conditions basically say “we reserve the right to do whatever we want.”
There are state agencies nominally tasked with adjudicating disputes, but that’s a laborious, time-consuming process.
But an ombudsman — it’s Swedish for “representative,” and according to Merriam-Webster it “derives from the Old Norse words umboth (“commission”) and mathr (“man”),” so now you know — could handle all this, and more. A sportsbook and DFS ombudsman could be the one-mathr umboth that could quickly, fairly, and without unnecessary adverbs settle squabbles between the books and the patrons.
I’ve said “ombudsman” more times in the last hour than I’ve said it in my entire life… Fact: It is objectively a fun word word and we should use more often.
— Inez – #writing and such (@inezrodk) June 15, 2021
“It would have to be voluntary for the industry, and I think we know the industry isn’t going to do anything like this voluntarily,” Okrent said, dropping a bucket of water on my head in the process.
“But the one thing that occurs to me is maybe this would create a competitive advantage for one of the sportsbooks to say, ‘we’re the one that has an independent adjudicator,’” Okrent said. “Now how much that would end up costing them might far exceed the additional business they might get, but that’s logical to me.”
All righty then. We’re getting somewhere.
A ‘thankless’ job
“I did it for two-and-a-half years,” said Jim Brady, speaking about his time as the ombudsman for ESPN. “It’s thankless. You’re basically either seen as a shill for the organization, or you criticize someone in the organization and you’re a hatchet man. Most people are not happy with you most of the time. That’s fine, you know that going in.”
Brady — who puts both the “long” and the “suffering” in “long suffering Jets fan” — believes the position holds a ton of value, despite the fact that it’s been disappearing. (He was ESPN’s last ombudsman.)
“It’s significant,” he said. “The line people use is the ‘internet is our ombudsman now.’ I think that’s a crap line, because the internet doesn’t have access to executives, the internet doesn’t have the ability to call someone and get them on the phone and say, ‘What the hell happened?’”
So does Brady think an ombudsman — remember, this is not just a newspaper gig, many different industries employ something of the sort — is right for the sports betting space?
“The person would have to be pretty influential if they’re going to do it for the full industry,” he said. “But I think it would be a great marketing ploy for a sportsbook, and I would hope they would actually sustain it in practice. I think it would be good.”
One per operator?
“That’s logical to me,” Okrent said about a single operator taking on an ombudsman. “I don’t think the industry would do it as a whole because the industry is too fractionated. There would be some that wouldn’t want to do it. But for individual operations to do it, it’s an interesting idea.”
So there you have it. Three ombudsmen (I’m counting Opus) think sportsbooks hiring an ombudsman would be a good idea. Not only would they settle disputes, but they would also be able to give insight to patrons about what goes on behind the scenes.
Again: This is not a PR gig, as Brady points out.
“They’re paying you, so people think you’re just there to say nice things,” he said. “But most ombudsmen don’t just say nice things. I didn’t just say nice things. Most of us have contracts that are unbreakable just for that reason. I’m not going to be in a position where you can terminate me because you don’t like what I’m saying.”
All right, FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, Barstool, and the rest: All of you claim, in one way, shape, form or another, to be the “player’s sportsbook.” Hiring an ombudsman would go a long way toward actually proving it.
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