The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sports betting will keep booming in 2022, but some see risks in growth

(Jovana Mugoša for The Washington Post)

When the federal ban on sports wagering was rescinded in 2018, there was a sprint to the marketplace, with states eager to leap headfirst into the gambling business. And since then, there has been a steady trickle of new states opening their doors to gambling operators such as Caesars and MGM. Some 112 million Americans — more than a third of the population — can now legally wager on sports without leaving their couch. Another 50 million need only hop in their car to place an in-person bet.

But these are still the early days of sports gambling in the United States, and industry stakeholders expect 2022 to be another boom year, with many of the most populous states moving toward legalization.

New York launched mobile betting last week. Bettors in three states, including Ohio, should be able to start placing wagers this year, joining 29 states where sports betting is already legal. While Florida continues to iron out legal wrinkles, efforts by lawmakers in Georgia, North Carolina and Massachusetts are expected to heat up. And the matter could finally go before California voters by the end of the year.

“There’s been a huge growth, but those states are major swings in how big the legal U.S. market will be,” said Christopher Halpin, the National Football League’s executive vice president and chief strategy and growth officer.

Leagues began preparing as soon as it became clear the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the 1992 law that made sports betting illegal everywhere but Nevada, was vulnerable. Unyieldingly resistant not long ago, U.S. sports leagues now embrace sports gambling as a commercial boon and a way to connect with fans, especially young ones. New business partnerships are announced weekly, and teams and leagues continue to explore ways to tailor game-day experiences both in-person and on television to would-be bettors.

More than $87 billion has been legally wagered on sports since the Supreme Court struck down the law, according to industry site LegalSportsReport.com, and some 40 million Americans were expected to place bets on the NFL regular season that ended last weekend. While many felt the federal law’s repeal would simply give existing gamblers a legal avenue to place bets, early returns suggest many new bettors have been enticed to make wagers and all gamblers are taking advantage of new, easily accessible betting options.

The NFL once viewed sports betting as a threat. Now the league wants the action.

Nearly every state continues to see year-to-year growth. New Jersey alone fielded $1.26 billion in sports wagers in November, up more than 25 percent from the previous year. In September, the National Council on Problem Gambling released a study that showed the number of Americans who bet on sports grew by 30 percent in an 18-month period, an increase of 15.3 million bettors.

But as operators race to set up shop in every new state that comes online, some fear the pace and patchwork nature of state-by-state laws are failing to create a proper safety net.

“We’re still the first inning of a lot of this stuff,” said Keith Whyte, the council’s executive director, making it too “early to tell the impact and severity of gambling addiction.” But his organization’s research suggests the risk of problem gambling has doubled since 2018 and is highly concentrated on young male sports fans online.

“The signs we’re seeing are very troubling,” he said.

All-out ad blitz

Even before the ban on sports betting fell, sports league executives say, they knew they would have to play an active role in shaping the legal marketplace. They would need to help craft legislation, partner with sportsbooks and encourage stakeholders to operate within certain guardrails.

“We always say, ‘If they break it, we still own it,’ ” said Halpin, “and we’re as exposed as the worst sportsbook in the worst market.”

The NFL studied international gambling markets and conducted extensive fan research. The league wanted to learn from any missteps in Europe and Australia, where sports betting has been legal for decades, and make sure it was able to reach potential gamblers without offending fans who have no interest in wagering.

By mid-2018, as the United States dipped its toes in the gambling waters, more mature markets were already scaling back. In Great Britain, government officials began to review regulations, and soccer leagues, anticipating a rollback, started preemptively curtailing some gambling activities. Sportsbooks there have limited advertising opportunities during matches, and many expect English soccer teams to soon face a ban on gambling logos on uniforms and limits on gambling signage in stadiums.

“They’ve had to react to some of the backlash and put some of those things in place,” said Casey Clark, senior vice president of the American Gaming Association, the gambling industry lobbying group. “We’re not ever going to be in that position because we’re kind of light-years ahead of where they were at this point of their maturity.”

As legal betting booms, journalists jump from sports page to sportsbook

In the United States, gambling commercials are now staples of sports programming, as much as ads for light beer, pickup trucks or running shoes. Viewers have taken notice: The Federal Communications Commission has fielded a steady stream of complaints related to sports gambling advertisements in recent months, its records show.

“I am sick and tired of seeing Sports Betting commercials while watching sporting events!” a TV viewer from Westminster, Colo., complained last year.

“This is a potentially dangerous situation,” someone from Waynesboro, Va., wrote.

“When are you going to ban the sports gambling ads as you did cigarettes? Addiction is real and these ads are fueling gambling addiction,” another viewer said. “The ads are worse than irresponsible.”

The major American sports leagues limit the number of commercials permitted during a game broadcast. The NFL allows only one ad per quarter, for example, in addition to one pregame and one at halftime. The proliferation of sports gambling advertising typically comes outside the three-hour game window, particularly in commercial blocks controlled by the local stations. Competitive gambling markets such as New Jersey, Michigan and Colorado can be inundated with ads from area sportsbooks vying for customers.

“It’s like a political season because they’ll just sell the ad to whoever has the highest and most demand,” said Halpin, who has led the NFL’s gambling efforts but is leaving the league this month to become chief financial officer of digital media holding company IAC. “Local sports betting operators can pay more than anybody else.”

Pairing up

Complaints aside, fans are by now accustomed to seeing gambling logos in arenas. In many cities, they can place wagers from their seat in the stadium, betting on the next pitch or first-down play-call. Talk radio is inundated with sportsbook commercials and promotional offers, and gambling content is ingrained in many highlight and pregame shows.

Sports media companies are neck-deep in the gambling business. Barstool Sports operates a sportsbook available in 11 states, and Fox Bet is available in four states; its pick-six promo has been a part of the Fox football broadcast each Sunday. And ESPN has been exploring licensing deals with gambling operators that could net the company $3 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Still, league officials see value in splintering their offerings — creating content that caters to a gambling audience but doesn’t detract or replace what fans are accustomed to.

The NFL’s research found that while 42 percent of its fan base comprised at least casual bettors, 1 in 5 actively objects to sports gambling. So the league encourages its television partners not to tailor game broadcasts to gamblers.

The National Basketball Association launched a gambling-focused simulcast of games called NBABet Stream, which airs select games for NBA TV and League Pass subscribers. It also has studio programming and social media initiatives aimed at gamblers.

“Sports betting should be an opt-in experience for those who are interested in sports betting,” said Scott Kaufman-Ross, the NBA’s senior vice president in charge of gaming initiatives. “We want to make that a part of their experience, but for those who aren’t interested in it, we don’t want to push it on them.”

A slim safety net

Whyte of the National Council on Problem Gambling said its call centers have never been busier and he is increasingly concerned about the influx of new bettors — and the lack of resources for problem gamblers.

Regulations and resources vary from state to state. Bettors must be 21 to register with an online sportsbook in Virginia. But just across the Potomac River, they need to be only 18 in D.C.

The money and resources devoted to problem gambling vary from state to state, too. Some earmarked significant money to hotlines, treatment programs and counseling, while others allocated nothing.

In a recent survey, the council found that the risk of problem gambling increased most among young gamblers and those who play daily fantasy sports. Whyte said he sees operators targeting young bettors and potentially grooming underage potential bettors. Teenagers can sign up for a free fantasy sports account, for example, effectively turning over personal information to a gambling operator, which can pounce as soon as the customer is old enough to place a bet.

“In the conversations we have with leagues, I think they’ve been unpleasantly surprised at all the gaps in the safety net,” Whyte said. “I think that a lot of leagues and a lot of their owners took the industry’s assertions at face value: ‘Oh, we’ve got this responsible gambling thing covered. Don’t worry. It’s all good.’ ”

The leagues have independently invested in data-monitoring services aimed at spotting statistical anomalies that might suggest integrity concerns. To date, there have been no major gambling-related scandals despite warnings the leagues had expressed publicly for years.

When it comes to problem gambling, though, no single stakeholder is responsible for ensuring adequate resources are available, so the individual leagues have had to shoulder part of the load. In October, the NFL partnered with the council and pledged $6.2 million to help study and treat problem gambling.

When the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was first struck down, there was chatter on Capitol Hill about a new federal law that would provide a nationwide framework to govern sports betting. But proposals failed to gain traction, and both federal lawmakers and industry stakeholders seem content to let states handle gambling as they choose.

Every year, more and more of them are choosing to embrace sports betting.

“For the most part, it really hasn’t been a question of if,” the NBA’s Kaufman-Ross said. “It’s been a question of how and when.”

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