- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2024

Sports gambling is expected to reach a record high for Sunday’s Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. While sportsbooks and casinos celebrate the game in Las Vegas, some mental health experts worry about the dangers of widespread sports betting. 

The American Gaming Association said 68 million Americans, 26% of the country’s adults, will bet on Sunday’s game. Bettors will wager more than $23 billion on Super Bowl LVIII, a 44% increase from 2023’s NFL championship. 

In 2018, the Supreme Court removed a federal law that barred most states from legalizing sports betting. Six years later, gamblers can place wagers in 38 states and the District, and sports gambling has become a massive industry. Revenue reached $7.5 billion in 2022, according to Statista. 

As sports betting becomes more common, gambling problems follow. The National Council on Problem Gaming estimates that 5% of people who place bets develop a gambling problem. About 10% of online sports bettors will develop a problem in a year. 

Les Bernal is the national director of the Stop Predatory Gambling Foundation. His organization hopes to restrict commercialized gambling in the U.S. They believe casinos and sportsbooks should be treated like cigarette companies, which cannot advertise on TV. 

“The legalization of commercialized gambling in our country has failed,” Mr. Bernal told The Washington Times. “Every casino operator is now moving into the online gambling business. Sports gambling is just a way to normalize this activity.”

In recent years, gambling advertisements have become an unavoidable part of sports fandom. At any timeout, halftime or break in the action, viewers can see Peyton Manning or Jamie Foxx talk about the latest deals at DraftKings or BetMGM.

“The gambling industry is using their advertising to normalize a known dangerous product,” Mr. Bernal said. “The marketing creates the sense that you’re no longer a sports fan unless you’re gambling on the game.”

Mr. Bernal worked as a high school and college basketball coach. He says the proliferation of sports gambling has infiltrated the culture of sports, especially for young men. 

“The competition, the drama of sports, that’s what draws people in. Now, things are changing. The gambling industry, media companies and sports leagues are radically changing our relationship to sports,” he said. “So now, it’s all about the gambling and squeezing sports in around the gambling. It’s a profound change for the fan experience.” 

Before the legalization of sports betting, the NFL avoided Las Vegas, sportsbooks and gambling. But in recent years, the league has chosen to host key events in the city, including the NFL draft and this year’s Super Bowl. 

In 2012, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he would be reluctant to embrace betting. “If gambling is permitted freely on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust, and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing,” he said. 

The commissioner’s annual press conference on Monday was a sign of how much things have since changed.

“We have to adapt. We have to embrace it. We have been cautious. We have been very thoughtful, I think, in our approach,” Mr. Goodell said. “But we know the risk, and protecting the integrity is [priority] No. 1.”

“As the Super Bowl comes to Las Vegas for the first time, this year’s record interest in wagering marks a full circle moment for the U.S. gaming industry,” said Bill Miller, the president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. “Our priority remains getting this opportunity right by providing the consumer protections only a regulated market can guarantee and investing in responsible gambling tools, safeguards and education.”

Most sports betting ads provide information on addiction hotlines. The gambling association reported that 75% of bettors saw a “responsible gaming” message in the last year. Activists say that isn’t enough. 

“These messages give the appearance that they’re doing something, but they’re doing nothing,” Mr. Bernal said. He noted that companies have no incentive to help struggling gamblers. “It’s like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”

Keith Whyte, the executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling since 1998, said he would like to see gambling companies more thoroughly embrace responsible gambling messaging,

“Align your brand with responsible gambling rather than as a compliance afterthought in one-point font in a second at the end of your ad,” he said from Las Vegas. He’s in town for the Super Bowl.

The biggest gambling companies have responsible gambling features on their apps. Most users choose not to use them, according to Mr. Whyte. 

Tech makes betting easier than ever

It’s easier than ever to bet on sports. There’s no shortage of apps offering sign-up bonuses and “risk-free bets” for first-time users. Twentieth century bettors had to drive to Las Vegas or talk to their local bookie. It only takes a few taps for the modern gambler to wager their paycheck.

“Now, there’s a lot more accessibility and advertising and the types of sports betting has changed dramatically,” Mr. Whyte said. “Going from bets placed a week in advance for a few football games to now, there’s hundreds of propositions in a game. So you can bet a lot more money a lot more frequently and get yourself into trouble.”

The National Council on Problem Gambling reported a 30% increase in the number of people with gambling problems from 2018 to 2021. Mr. Whyte noted that the national gambling hotline saw a 200% increase in calls and messages. About 7 million people exhibit signs of problem gambling in the U.S.

“It’s something fun, everybody bets on the Super Bowl,” said Marc Lefkowitz, who has 30 years of experience as a gambling counselor and is the director of program management with Kindbridge Behavioral Health, a telehealth company. “Prior to this, somebody might have played squares at a party. But now that it’s legalized? There’s so many more opportunities to make a bet.”

Betting’s fun factor is part of what makes it so dangerous. Now that fans can make bets online, there’s less accountability. Friends and families don’t always know how often their loved ones are gambling. 

“You can bet on the coin toss, you can bet on how many field goals will be made. Everybody wants to try it,” said Mr. Lefkowitz, who battled a gambling addiction of his own in the early 1980s. 

With in-game betting, unique prop bets and extensive parlays, any gambler can find their preferred niche.

“The thrill of the game and the passion of the fans are what make sports so rewarding and fun. Legalized sports betting builds on this excitement,” former NFL player Mark Ingram II said. Mr. Ingram is attending the Super Bowl’s media week through a partnership with the American Gaming Association

The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey said bettors need to set firm limits and avoid chasing their losses. But the ease of in-game gambling makes it tough to stop.

“The capacity to wager throughout the game allows gamblers to take as many risks as there are plays, and with every setback comes the temptation to try to recoup one’s losses with yet another bet,” the council said. 

Targeting the youth market

Advocacy groups worry that young people are being particularly affected by the spread of sports gambling. 

“Sports gambling has metastasized across the U.S. The demographic that has been affected most is teenagers,” Mr. Bernal said. “It’s changed the experience of interacting with sports for young people. Kids are experiencing incredible harm: financial harm and harm to their mental health. That’s the reality of it.”

Sportsbooks are using social media, TV ads and sponsorships to bring in younger players. 

“The advertising has unleashed an epidemic of teen and child gambling across the United States,” Mr. Bernal said. “Half of the gamblers on these apps right now are guys under 35.” 

Mr. Lefkowitz has seen similar changes. 

“It used to be that we’d get calls from gamblers’ wives,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. “Now we’re getting calls from their parents.”

When gamblers develop problems, they can be reluctant to seek out help on their own. 

“Gamblers think they’re terminally unique,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. “They think they’re the only person with that problem. The shame is that they just can’t control their money. There’s a lot more stigma to that than other things.” 

The gamblers are also led to believe that they can win their money back. If they just make the right wager, if they find the right line, they’ll be out of the hole.

But the lines in sports gambling are set to keep things even. Mr. Lefkowitz notes that most bets are really a coin flip. He hopes that more people understand that help is out there.

“Social norms are changing,” Mr. Whyte said. “There’s a tremendous amount of shame and stigma toward people with gambling problems. We’re hoping that as social norms change about gambling, we can also change attitudes about addiction to make Americans see gambling problems like substance use disorders and depression. It’s OK to get help.”

Both Mr. Bernal and Mr. Lefkowitz noted that gambling is just as dangerous as other forms of addiction. 

“Most gamblers wager their last dollar until they’re broke,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. “It just means that they can keep gambling because there is no overdose. You can only do so much drugs or alcohol until you pass out or die. But gamblers can just keep gambling until the end.”

The experts hope that more families will foster open discussions about the dangers of gambling.

“Every parent and grandparent in this country needs to have a conversation with the young people in their life about commercialized gambling,” Mr. Bernal said. “Just like how they would talk to their kids about hardcore drugs. It’s gambling heroin. It’s gambling fentanyl. And it’s being pushed on huge audiences across the country during the Super Bowl.”

• Liam Griffin can be reached at lgriffin@washingtontimes.com.

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