Why Sportsbooks Can Attract Bettors At Risk For Gambling Problems

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Sports bettors show the highest rates of problem gambling out of any other type of gambler, and many gamblers don’t know how gambling works. Those were two of the startling findings of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) in a report released on March 31, 2021. These reports followed a major survey the NCPG conducted in November 2018–the NCPG’s largest research project to date. 

Its findings raise serious questions for sports bettors and proponents of sports betting legalization. At a glance, it seems like supporters of expanded sports betting are also supporting the most efficient way to increase problem gambling. However, the picture isn’t as bleak as the most eye-catching parts of the report appear. There are important caveats to the increased risk of problem gambling in sports bettors.

For starters, sports bettors are younger than other types of gamblers, so they’re less experienced with gambling. They’re also more likely to misunderstand how gambling works. They think that because sports betting has an element of skill that the more they play, the more they’ll win. However, that’s one of several myths that lead young people—and likely many other overzealous sports bettors—to develop troubling gambling behavior. That means states that legalize sports betting will have to focus on two key areas: gambling addiction services and public awareness about gambling myths. 

Problem Gamblers In Sports Betting 

Even though they’re most common among sports bettors, problem gamblers are still a small percentage of all the gamblers surveyed. 70% of the surveyed gamblers never showed any of the problematic gambling behaviors screened by the surveyors. In contrast, only 7% showed one of the four problematic gambling behaviors “very often” in the last 12 months. So, sports betting expansion—and gambling expansion—is safe for most bettors. 

How The NCPG Screened For Problem Gambling

The NCPG couldn’t diagnose gambling addiction with only four questions. However, they could get an idea of who was gambling in unhealthy ways. The four indications of problem gambling were how often bettors:

  • Had to gamble with larger amounts of money to get the same feeling of excitement 
  • Felt restless or irritable when they tried to cut back or stop gambling 
  • Relied on others to pay their gambling debts or bills when they had financial problems caused by their gambling 
  • Lied to hide their gambling 

Experiencing any one of these is a red flag. It doesn’t mean that a gambler has a gambling addiction. But it does mean their gambling has become unhealthy. Problem gamblers can ruin their finances, their families, and even their lives if their unhealthy gambling gets out of hand. So, it’s worth understanding who’s at risk for these behaviors. 

The Four Main Risk Factors For Sports Bettors 

The NCPG found four factors that gamblers with unhealthy gambling habits had in common: 

  • Sports betting
  • Online gambling
  • Youth
  • Poor understanding of gambling 

There are people with gambling problems who don’t fit these categories. But each of these factors maximized the chances of seeing a gambler developing red flag gambling habits. Understanding why will help bettors avoid unhealthy betting habits themselves and help policymakers write safer sports betting laws. 

Why Problem Gamblers Flock To Sportsbooks

While all types of gambling had bettors who had some bad gambling habits, sports betting had more problem gamblers than any other type of gambling. Compared to non-sports bettors, sports bettors were more likely to answer “many times” in the past 12 months to the problem gambling screening questions. Problem sports bettors were: 

  • 3x more likely to need to gamble with more money for the same thrill
  • Over 3x more likely to have felt restless or irritable when trying to cut back on gambling 
  • 5x more likely to need others to pay their bills 
  • 7x more likely to have lied about their gambling  

While most sports bettors wagered without developing bad habits, unhealthy bettors were more likely to emerge at sportsbooks than anywhere else. The lottery doesn’t have as many gamblers who have these issues. Even casino gamblers don’t have that rate of troubling gambling behaviors. 

However, the NCPG couldn’t determine whether sportsbooks caused these problems or whether bettors prone to these problems flocked to sportsbooks. Most likely, bettors who are prone to gambling issues flock to sportsbooks. Sports arouse passions that could lead die-hard sports fans to put their money where their mouths are—regardless of whether their bets are well-advised. The competition between sports teams and even other bettors creates an environment that’s ripe for over-stretching bettors. 

Sports betting is also available on online platforms, which report higher levels of problematic gambling behavior. Sports bettors are also younger on average than other gamblers. Inexperienced gamblers with easy access to gambling on their phones already paint a bleak picture. However, these bettors also misunderstand how gambling works. Those misunderstandings are likely critical to understanding why more problem gamblers are likely to abuse sportsbooks than other types of gambling. 

Gambling Myths 

The NCPG surveyors asked gamblers whether they agreed with three statements about gambling. These three statements made up the “Gambling Literacy” section of the survey. They revealed whether bettors understood that gambling odds were never in bettors’ favor or that gambling is supposed to be entertainment rather than a reliable way to make money. The three statements were: 

  • Gambling is not a good way to make money. 
  • My chances of winning get better after I have lost. 
  • If I gamble more often, it will help me to win more than I have lost. 

The correct answers were “strongly agree” with the first statement and “strongly disagree” with the second two. However, only about half the gamblers surveyed “strongly” endorsed the correct responses. That means about half of all gamblers could be open to embracing the most widespread myths about gambling. 

First, gambling is a poor way to make money. Sportsbooks and casinos have house advantages built in. That’s what the cliche, “the house always wins” means. All the games are set up so that over time, gamblers lose more money than they win. That ensures that sportsbooks and casinos are profitable in the long run and can continue to award large prizes to winners. Sometimes bettors win jackpots or win on surprising underdogs. But they’re exceptions to the long-term pattern designed by sportsbooks and casinos. 

So, gambling is a poor way to make money because gambling games are designed to make bettors lose more than they win over time. That means if gamblers bet more often, they’re more likely to lose more than they win. A bettor’s chances of winning don’t improve after losses. Bettors have about the same chance of winning or losing every time they place a bet. 

What About The Skill Part Of Sports Betting? 

Over the lifetime of a slot machine, casinos expect to make a certain amount of profit. There will be days when gamblers win jackpots. However, those jackpots will be balanced out by the vast majority of losses that gamblers incur. That’s why these games are based on chance rather than skill. 

Sports betting is a little different. Sports wagers still hinge on strokes of luck. However, sports bettors can tilt the odds slightly in their favor if they know how to predict winners. Statistics gurus with complex algorithms have been able to dominate fantasy sports contests. They have skills that are likely transferable to traditional sports betting, too. However, few bettors have the knowledge or skills to come out ahead at sportsbooks. But many bettors think they do, and that can lead them to make poor betting decisions. 

The skill aspect of sports betting isn’t enough to offset the vig that sportsbooks build into their betting lines, either. Over time, sports bettors as a group lose more money than they win. Individual sports bettors can profit with advanced statistical knowledge. But rabid sports fans don’t make intelligent bettors. Their “informed” choices are no better than chance. So, even though sports betting has a skill component: 

  • Sports betting is still a bad way to make money. 
  • Sports bettors’ chances of winning or losing are roughly equal to chance.
  • Bettors will likely lose more money than they win in the long run. 

How Sports Betting Proponents Can Still Support Sports Betting Legalization 

The prevalence of problem gambling behavior in sports betting compared to other forms of gambling is troubling. However, there are still great reasons to support sports betting legalization. First, problem gamblers remain a small minority of sports bettors. Most gamblers have a healthy relationship with gambling and don’t become destitute. 

But secondly, sports betting legalization also improves gaming commissions’ and sportsbooks’ abilities to detect problem gamblers. When the NCPG survey was conducted, Nevada and New Jersey were the only two states with legal sports betting. However, bettors in other states reported placing sports wagers online, anyway. That included bettors in states like Utah and Hawaii, where all gambling is illegal. So, prohibiting gambling doesn’t prevent gambling. That’s as true today in the NCPG report as it was during Prohibition. 

However, legalized sports betting will also increase the number of people who try sports betting. That will lead to more people who develop problematic gambling habits. This consequence must be dealt with to maximize the enjoyment that bettors get from sports betting and minimize negative externalities. There are two main ways states can do this. They can properly fund gambling addiction services, and they can fund public awareness campaigns dispelling gambling myths. 

Proper Funding

Properly funded gambling addiction services can be life-changing. Many people still believe that gambling addiction is caused by poor morality or weak will. However, when gambling addiction is treated as a disease, it can free addicted gamblers from the behaviors that are ruining their lives. Early intervention for problem gamblers can be even more powerful. It can help young bettors stop their overspending before it becomes too great to fix. 

However, not all states invest enough in problem gambling. Some states include gambling addiction funding in their sports betting bills as Colorado did. However, Colorado is struggling to fund its gambling addiction services because the bill only called for $100,000 to be allocated to gambling addiction treatment. Other states don’t include treatment funding in their gambling bills. Curiously, Delaware spends some of the most money per capita on gambling addiction services in the United States. But its sports betting bill included no additional problem gambling treatment funding. Gambling expansion laws should include gambling addiction funding that’s proportional to the growth of new gambling outlets. That means sports betting bills should include enough funding to treat the rise in problem gamblers that would result from sports betting expansion. 

Public Awareness

Education about how gambling works is important, too. Many bettors embrace widespread misconceptions about gambling’s ability to make them money. Public awareness campaigns could go a long way toward discrediting these myths. Informed gamblers would be less likely to engage in problem gambling behavior. They’d know how to catch themselves engaging in troubling gambling behaviors, and they’d know that betting more wouldn’t win them any more money. That could help curtail the rise in gambling addiction that accompanies gambling expansion bills. 

So, sports betting proponents should lobby for these measures to be included in their sports betting bills. But if their states have already legalized sports betting, then bettors should push for additional funding in gambling addiction services and public awareness. 

Supporting Ethical Sports Betting 

A lot of sports betting commentary has praised states for legalizing sports betting and squeezing the life out of the black and gray markets. Icing out illegal businesses and generating new taxable revenue is a win-win. However, that increased funding comes at a cost. While most bettors will use sportsbooks safely, some bettors will develop gambling problems that could lead to gambling addictions. These conditions can wreck lives, but they’re treatable if problem gamblers have access to sufficient resources.  

Proactive education can go a long way, too. If bettors understand that sportsbooks are gambling platforms instead of investment platforms, then they’ll be better prepared to avoid the pitfalls of dangerous gambling habits. A public awareness campaign sponsored by state gaming commissions could be invaluable in achieving this goal. 

Sportsbooks are on board with safe and responsible sports betting, too. They allow bettors to set time and betting limits. Bettors can also lock themselves out of their accounts for set periods. Legal sportsbooks know that negative perceptions of them hurt their abilities to expand to new markets. PointsBet even hired a Responsible Service of Gambling and Corporate Social Responsibility Manager to ensure PointsBet isn’t enabling problem gambling across the world. 

For most bettors, sports betting is a fun way to engage with their favorite sports. However, sports betting can become a dangerous drain on their finances. But a dedicated coalition of lawmakers, industry leaders, and informed voters can build an environment where problem gamblers can get the help they need and healthy gambling habits can proliferate throughout the market. As long as sports betting proponents push for a safe sports betting industry, they have nothing to feel guilty about.

About the Author

Christopher Gerlacher

Christopher Gerlacher is a senior author and contributor for Gaming Today. He's a devout Broncos fan, for better or for worse, living in the foothills of Arvada, Colorado.

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