State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.
A highly respected gambling addiction expert who thought he’d seen it all texted me Monday afternoon with a screenshot of the now-infamous DraftKings parlay purportedly intended to commemorate the national horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The gimmick was a parlay called “NEVER FORGET” that provided a $651 payout on a $100 bet if the New York Jets, New York Mets and New York Yankees would all win their games on Monday, the 22nd anniversary of that searing day.
“How does this happen?” gambling addiction expert texted, baffled.
By the time he’d sent it along, it had been taken down and DraftKings had issued this statement chomping noisily on the requisite crow:
“We sincerely apologize for the featured parlay that was shared briefly in commemoration of 9/11. We respect the significance of this day for our country and especially for the families of those who were directly affected.”
The New York State Gaming Commission was appalled, as Legal Sports Report’s Mike Mazzeo reported its response: “This was reprehensible. We expect all licensees to exercise sensitivity.”
Yet it’s really not that hard to imagine how this happened, is it?
The time wasn’t right for this parlay
You’d have to be at least 25 years old to have even the vaguest memory of the day the Twin Towers collapsed, the Pentagon was pierced, and American heroes wrestled Flight 93 to the ground in Pennsylvania to avoid it from hurling itself at the U.S. Capitol.
So, sure, there’s some young, underpaid goofball at DK’s Boston office who noticed that Aaron Rodgers’ Jets would play this year’s first edition of Monday Night Football on 9/11 and made a sports betting connection. Given the huge number of these pre-packaged parlays, aka sucker bets, that are offered for fans of a certain team or player, there’s probably precious little buffering between a flunky’s bright idea for a theme and its appearance in an app near you.
The kid probably thought he or she was doing something clever, even patriotic. And he or she is probably no longer employed.
But while the sin to us in 2023 is that this was a tasteless exploitation of the deaths of some 3,000 people, it might have just been the timing.
That is, he or she was probably just way ahead of his or her time.
It’s the American way
As hard to believe as this seems right now, there is likely to be a day many years from now when it’s acceptable to use 9/11 to sell furniture, cars and even a really terrible sports bet. It’s as inevitable as apple pie, especially if Congress one day turns it into a holiday.
We know this because assassinated President Abraham Lincoln sells mattresses every year — and sometimes there’s even a little gag laced in there about how it’s a better deal than going to the theater. Memorial Day, which is supposed to be a remembrance of all the nation’s more than 1.3 million war dead, is somehow the unofficial start of summer and a major travel weekend. Veterans Day and Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, too, are supposed to be somber affairs but they’re as much about commerce and relaxation as they are about reverence for the military or those who fought for civil rights.
And it’s not like the gambling industry has shied away from using 9/11 as a draw. The first major 9/11 memorial in the nation was, in fact, at the corner of the Las Vegas Strip and Tropicana. That’s the intersection where the replica Statue of Liberty stands sentry in front of the New York-New York resort. In the months after 9/11, thousands of tourists left mementos and tributes to first-responders at the foot of Vegas version of the statue. Archivists at UNLV collected all of that, and by 2003 those items began rotating their appearances in display boxes at what became a memorial plaza.
But nothing’s forever in Vegas, so in 2013 the display was demolished when MGM Resorts remodeled the property’s façade.
It’s the American way, no?
There has been many tasteless 9/11 marketing campaigns
The news media and social media both had a field day with the NEVER FORGET parlay. Mediaite writer Michael Luciano went probably the furthest, referring to it as “one of the worst marketing decisions in recent memory.” (Evidently his memory doesn’t go back as far as April when anti-LGBTQ people lost their minds over Bud Light’s partnership with transgender TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney).
The screenshots of the DraftKings parlay will forever appear in listicles about tasteless 9/11 stunts. But it won’t be alone — or the worst of the lot. Here’s a sampling of others that occurred on or around Sept. 11 over the years:
- A Marriott offered free coffee and mini muffins between 8:45 and 9:15 a.m. “in remembrance of those we lost on 9/11.”
- Pretzel Crisps, which posted an American flag composed of red and blue bags of the snacks on its website with the message “United We Stand. One Nation. #Remember911.”
- The AT&T post that read “Never Forget” along with an image of someone is using a phone to shoot the light beams that represent the missing Twin Towers in the New York skyline.
- The Wisconsin golf course that offered nine holes for $9.11 on one 9/11.
- The Starkville Daily News in Mississippi, which once offered subscriptions for $9.11 per month “today only.”
- Miracle Mattress in San Antonio, Texas, which had a Twin Towers sale in which a woman appears in an ad between stacks of mattresses that are then toppled by two men.
- The Walmart in Panama City Beach that created twin towers of Coke Zero under a “we will never forget” banner.
A bad mistake when sportsbooks are being scrutinized
As you can see, there’s a strong instinct to try to find a way to market this seminal American moment. I mean, even with the DraftKings incident, the New York Post noted the real injustice was that it was a ripoff:
“To make things worse, the bet was paying out at +651, and that isn’t even a good bet. Fair value calculates these three bets at +682 on FanDuel, so DraftKings is putting this pre-made parlay together at substantially worse odds, which was giving the fair market odds.”
The parlay was a mistake that came at a moment when major online sportsbooks can’t afford bad publicity and regulatory scrutiny — but let’s not get carried away with these over-the-top denouncements. The company didn’t do this; some dumb kid likely did.
For as much embarrassment as it caused, it didn’t even prompt a short-term impact on DraftKings’ stock price or popularity.
These things happen. It’s the nature of the online iGaming beast, which is hungry all the time for new ways to part gamblers from their money, and the social media beast, which is always on guard to catch mistakes and shame people.
Far from becoming a lingering stain for DraftKings, it was a blip. By the time Sept. 11 was over, the site was again heroic — for canceling all prop bets and parlays involving quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who lasted four downs before being carted off with an injury.
Someone at DraftKings noticed some of the other sites refused to go this far. Suddenly, all was forgiven. That, too, is the American way.