As sports betting goes mainstream, addiction experts are on high alert

(Video: Yoshi Sodeoka for The Washington Post)

If boxing icon Floyd Mayweather fights again, maybe Jeff Umali will place a bet. And maybe when a huge sporting event, such as the Super Bowl, rolls around, the 39-year-old will wager a few bucks.

But that’s it.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” he said.

Umali’s lesson came a few years ago, when he started placing a daily bet on an online poker game. It seemed like a relatively harmless pastime — for a while.

“It was $50, $100, $150,” he said. “Then one night I sat at home and added it up. I lost 10 grand in three months.”

Looking back, Umali is still alarmed by how quickly he was hooked. He said he felt addicted within a week.

“You see it’s legal, you try it, and then boom, you’re addicted,” he said.

This is the outcome many addiction experts are fearing. In the wake of the landmark 2018 Supreme Court decision that made legal wagering on games a state-by-state decision, sports gambling has gone mainstream — with professional leagues and state legislatures embracing it as a revenue source and betting advertisements and discussion becoming a regular part of the fan experience. Combined with the boom of sports betting apps, which eliminate much of the friction that once slowed the gambling process, concerns are growing over the potential for new gamblers to become hooked.

“All these types of betting didn’t exist before,” said Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. “What are they going to do to the betting landscape?”

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We are about to find out. More than half of U.S. states now allow some form of online sports betting (some only allow in-person options), and others appear likely to follow in the next few years. The normalization of a practice that was considered taboo less than a decade ago — combined with addiction risks that are unique to gambling on sports — may have created a combustible climate.

Along with it has come a movement to fight the risk of problem gambling. That movement includes not only the organizations you would expect but some you may not. The NFL, for example, has poured $6 million into the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) — the group’s biggest donation ever. Some states have delegated funds as well — $3 million in Michigan’s 2023 budget, for example. And the operators themselves — DraftKings, FanDuel and the like — have devoted roles and resources to helping those in need.

Is it a useful countermeasure? Or merely a quiet alarm bell drowned out by the promotional clamor? Lives and livelihoods may depend on the answer. One report in the United Kingdom — where sports betting has been more liberalized for a while — found 55,000 “problem” gamblers between ages 11 and 16.

Responsible gambling advocate Brianne Doura-Schawohl said “the public crisis is already here” in the United States — it’s merely “bubbling under the surface.”

“We basically have poured kerosene on it by legalizing without giving it significant attention,” she said. “It’s only going to become more prominent and more severe in its presentation.”

‘Illusion of control’

While gambling has been part of American society from the start, the study of sports betting and the problems it causes is just beginning. A 2019 report in the Journal of Gambling Studies is, according to the authors, “first to our knowledge to examine risk factors for gambling problems specifically related to sports betting, rather than gambling in general.”

And what experts have found is that sports betting may create problems worse than the traditional casino and cards. People who bet on sports often believe they have an edge because they follow the teams. The random bounce of a football or a blown call doesn’t tend to factor into a bettor’s belief system.

“Psychologically, it’s a little different,” Fong said. “You’re not necessarily betting to make money; you’re betting to make yourself look smarter.”

This series will examine the impact of legalized gambling on sports, through news coverage, accountability journalism and advice for navigating this new landscape. Read more.

That can bring more problems when a bet goes awry. According to one study in the Addictive Behaviors journal, “Sports betting, relative to non-sports betting, has been more strongly linked to gambling problems and cognitive distortions related to illusion of control, probability control and interpretive control.”

The “illusion of control” may be enhanced by the rapidity of the technology in the bet-by-5G era. There’s no extra step of physically withdrawing cash from an ATM, driving to the casino or even waiting for a blackjack table dealer.

The rapid advance of this technology has allowed gambling operators to figure out a lot about customers — when they bet, how much they bet, whom they bet on — and addiction experts maintain that the companies have a responsibility to use that data to help keep bettors from becoming addicts.

“It’s our belief that, in the U.S., gambling operators have the enormous opportunity and obligation to spot markers of harm collecting on their players,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG. “We know they’re using that data on everything else.”

Chrissy Thurmond, who manages the responsible gambling division at DraftKings, said the company is developing a “significant and robust” program to educate and help customers. Her group is “just beginning to collect metrics on responsible gaming messaging,” Thurmond said, adding that the response rate on the site is showing a willingness by bettors to at least consider guidance.

Some states have taken steps to address betting addiction. Michigan offers a self-exclusion option that allows bettors to essentially ban themselves from being able to place bets online for a certain amount of time. Then, when the self-exclusion ends, counseling resources are offered.

It’s advantageous for the sports betting operators — and the states — to offer help. A gambler who can control his or her worst impulses is more likely to be a customer for a longer time. But by design, the odds are stacked against anyone who chooses to bet regularly — and there are limitations to what the sportsbooks can do to stop someone who has developed a problem.

“You can play as fast as you want, as quick as you want. The technology makes it so fast and so easy,” said Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling. “All of a sudden, how much money are we spending? Before you know it, you’re going down the rabbit hole.”

There is an argument to be made that legalization may lessen the stigma around sports betting and lead to healthier conversations about it. But there’s a flip side to that, too. Umali said he never had any kind of addiction before he started playing online poker and that he would never have begun playing had it not been legal.

‘It’s so hard to stop’

There are several obstacles to rehabilitation that could be unique to sports betting. While many Americans grow up hearing that a casino is a place of temptation, sporting events have a different reputation. Parents rarely worry about their children watching too much sports, and now there are gambling prompts wired into most broadcasts. There are even gambling shows on ESPN.

“Sports for Americans are like a religion,” Doura-Schawohl said. “We use it to define who we are. The allure is of much more significance. [Bettors] will not only underestimate how much they’re spending, they will minimize the harm that may be possible because it’s linked to sports.”

Some experts are concerned that even though there is funding put toward helping people, the resources either come too late or not at all.

“I’m worried,” Fong said. “The issues in our field go beyond too much gambling. We don’t have the research funding.”

The rollout of gambling options largely preceded the rollout of the risk-prevention resources. Some states have taken some important steps, but some have simply collected the enormous windfall of new tax revenue. Meanwhile, on the individual level, operators have enough funds to offer tempting cash bonuses for placing initial bets from new accounts. You certainly don’t see that kind of offer for, say, new smokers.

“Think about the ads,” Maney said. “Every one of these kids is seeing them — Facebook, Instagram, every game you watch. If you’re a 12-, 14-year-old — the backdrop is DraftKings. Why wouldn’t they gamble?”

Until recently, every generation has grown up with some form of delayed gratification as it pertains to placing legal bets. Now, depending on where you live, you can bet on a game quicker than you can cross the room to get a glass of water.

“We don’t know what it’s doing to a new generation under the age of 21,” Fong said. “Before, you couldn’t even talk about gambling without someone saying, ‘You can’t talk about gambling.’ This generation is growing up with gambling on their TVs. All we can say is that it is a critical issue: The earlier you start gambling — and gambling regularly — that’s the biggest risk factor for addiction.”

The gambling addiction rate in America is roughly 1 percent of adults, according to the International Center for Responsible Gaming. It has been fairly stable. But any uptick could affect millions — not just the gamblers but the people who depend on the gamblers as fathers, mothers, co-workers and friends.

“One of the teams in every game is going to win,” Maney said. “That’s why it’s intoxicating. It’s so hard to stop.”

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