Soccer’s turn to sports betting makes a bad situation worse

Shaquille O’Neal wants you to play. So does Peyton Manning, Terry Bradshaw, the NFL, NBA and MLB. Four years after a nationwide betting boom, addiction researchers are seeing signs that high-income young men are at increased risk of gambling problems.

And it is no accident that you see a lot of sports betting ads on your TV screen.

Triggered by a 2018 Supreme Court decision repealing the law that had made sports betting illegal outside of Nevada, gambling now covers esports in the US and is legal in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Five other states will soon join them, and two ballot initiatives await a vote Tuesday in California. Sportsbook is projected to grow to a $6 billion industry by 2023, featuring ads for Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel. Limited by the NFL to six per game, they now announce restroom breaks on football Sundays.

“It’s a hot topic, and we want to carefully assess what it means if there are suddenly a lot more people betting on sports,” said clinical psychologist Shane Kraus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a co-author of the new JAMA Die Network Open survey finds that daily betting on fantasy sports and e-sports video games puts bettors at risk of sports betting problems. “There is real potential for more problem gambling right now, but there is also the potential for moral panic, which we don’t want.”

The survey of 2,800 people paints a picture of sports betting as a sizeable but niche activity nationwide, with just 6.2 percent of the public saying they have wagered on sports in the past year. High-income young, religious men were more likely to bet on sports. Symptoms of gambling problems – measured by questions that indicate damage to your family or your own life – were seen most strongly among those who wager on fantasy sports and eSports on a daily basis.

It is estimated that around 1 in 50 Americans has a serious to moderate gambling problem. The new study bolsters recent National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) surveys, which found problem sports gambling was a particular risk among high-income, college-educated young men, said Keith Whyte, the group’s chief executive. These men are about twice as likely to bet on sports as high school seniors, Whyte said.

“Sports bettors are very different from other gamblers right now,” Whyte said. “I don’t think we’ve done a good job trying to reach this new high-risk sports betting population.”

Other forms of gambling, from casinos to lotteries, are more likely to attract less educated, lower-income bettors, he added. The average gambler might be betting with friends more often in these environments, as opposed to the new breed of sports gamblers who place bets on their phones. Horse racing is an exception to the sports betting rule, bets that rely on the more traditional gambler.

One hypothesis for why more educated men gamble more on games is that the data-driven focus of modern sports betting, fueled by fantasy football leagues’ fascination with statistics, appeals to those trained in college for an analytical mindset. The same young men are more likely to spend their lives on their phones where new gambling apps reside, with a bet always just a simple click away.

“Now they have the ability to go online and do everything electronically, they don’t have to travel, and they can get whatever data they want,” said addiction expert Ken Winters, principal investigator at the Oregon Research Institute, a Springfield-based psychological research institute , Oregon. “They combine their interest in the sport with their perceived knowledge and skill with numbers. It is a wonderful recipe for sports betting to expand and become more popular.”

Kraus is more cautious, noting that in his group’s survey, while more educated men were more likely to gamble on sports, risky gambling problems were more frequently identified among less educated men. More educated men may have more money to burn on bets, but they can also cut their losses more easily. “We really need to follow these men over the next two to three years to see what’s happening to them, to understand what’s going on here,” he said.

cultural change

NCPG surveys show an increase in sports betting since 2018, when states began to accept the legalization and tax collection of sports betting. While sports betting was taboo but widespread decades ago, about 4 in 5 people are now in favor of it, Whyte said: “It’s one of the biggest, but perhaps least researched or least understood, cultural shifts in America, and we’re right in the middle of it now up to date.”

The NFL (which had $17 billion in revenue last year) announced a $6.2 million initiative with the NCPG last year, urging fans to limit their bets. Ads for a problem gambling website, which operates the NCPG, appear once per NFL game in partnership with the league and generate about 30,000 calls a week, he added. According to the American Gaming Association, about 45 million people gamble on an NFL game each year, which is closer to the 17.2 percent lifetime rate for sports betting reported in the JAMA Network Open study and not the authors’ annual rate estimated by the study.

Professional sports leagues like the NFL once banned all mention of wagering from their broadcasts, blacklisted players and managers who gambled, and from time immemorial condemned wagering as a threat to the “integrity” of their sport. No longer.

“I was surprised when I first saw leagues making deals with gambling companies, and then I realized that every time we turned on a game, we were going to see ads for it,” Winters said. Not just ads, but sports sites like the Washington Post and cable channels like ESPN are now offering betting advice. This new gambling industrial complex is “in a frenzy of customer acquisition and [is] spend enormous sums on advertising and sponsorship,” says a current annual report.

“Leagues do it, arenas do it, teams do it. They just can’t resist the revenue streams when it became legal,” Winters said.

There’s a reason they’re running the ads

It’s complicated for researchers just to deal with the size of problem sports betting, added Jeffrey Derevensky, director of the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at Canada’s McGill University. Unlike alcoholism or opioid use disorders that leave marks like cirrhosis or overdose cases, gambling problems are seen in divorces, bankruptcies and survey results. That leaves researchers observing calls to gambling hotlines and years behind broader trends.

“From a public health perspective, we’re really concerned about all these gambling ads,” Derevensky said. That many ads feature sports stars living, partying and betting in luxury could also explain the demographics of the new sportsbook, he said: “There’s a reason [companies] Execute them.”

In response to questions from Grid about the gambling ads, Cait DeBaun of the American Gaming Association noted that the gaming industry has funded research into problem gambling. “A thriving casino gaming industry depends on building long-term, responsible relationships with customers and making sure those who need help get it,” said DeBaun. Ads direct gamblers to legal gambling rather than illegal, unregulated sports betting, she added, and account for just 1 percent of all advertising.

However, Derevensky expressed particular concern that online sports betting is moving toward “micro-bets” on in-game events — so-called parlays like a bet on a missed field goal — which could appeal to problem gamblers who are chasing their losses and digging deeper Hole. “Chasing losses is the signature of a problem gambler.”

He also criticized the imbalance during NFL games of the six ads promoting sports betting versus the one “Responsible Play” ad per game, which urges fans to limit their bets.

NCPG’s Whyte agrees: “I think that’s a fair criticism,” he said, adding that his group is working on producing its own ad, aimed specifically at problem gamblers rather than bettors in general , like the NFL Gambling Warning. “We have to work harder to reach people with real problems.”

If you feel you have a gambling problem, you can contact the National Council on Problem Gambling by phone or text at 1-800-522-4700 or by online chat

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for editing this article.


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