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The Spread of Sports Betting and Its Risks

If you watch ESPN, the NFL or pretty much any sports-related media these days, you’ve seen them – commercials, promotional offers and full-on TV segments on sports betting, and lots of them.

Just a few years ago, gambling on sports was something most Americans could only do in person. Now, millions of people bet daily on their phones using apps like DraftKings and FanDuel. The NFL, NBA, MLB and other sports leagues have official partnerships with gambling companies and betting lines are now discussed on sports broadcasts. How did we get here?

A 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court paved the way by ending a federal ban on expansion in the industry and led dozens of states to legalize sports betting. Combine plenty of advertising with digital apps that allow people to bet on their phones wherever they are and you have a recipe for people to bet, and bet a lot.

Sports Betting by the Numbers

  • A growth industry: In June 2018, gamblers bet $310 million for the month on sports. In October 2021, they bet $7 billion for the month – more than 20 times as much.
  • Increasingly common: About 20 percent of adults have bet money on sports in the last year. Males and people under age 50 were even more likely to participate.
  • Not just Vegas anymore: New Jersey now tops Nevada for money wagered on sports. Two of the biggest markets in the U.S., California and New York, are considering legalizing sports betting too.

Sports Betting Linked to Problem Gambling

LHSFNA Management
Noel C. Borck

The last several years have been the largest and fastest expansion of gambling in U.S. history. And while the majority of people who gamble don’t develop an addiction, evidence shows sports bettors tend to show much higher levels of problematic gambling than other types of gamblers. That’s because sports gamblers are also sports fans, and that knowledge leads gamblers to believe they can predict the outcome. That illusion of control can lead people to gamble more than they can afford to lose and to chase their losses with more betting.

“In many ways, problem gambling can be easier to hide from family and friends than a dependence on alcohol or drugs because there aren’t obvious physical symptoms,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Parents can help by talking to teens and young adults to educate them about the very real risks for addiction.”

Today’s apps also offer many different types of bets – gamblers can bet on how many points their favorite player will score, whether a quarterback will throw an interception or any number of other events in a game.

The online nature of gambling today is also a factor. Gamblers don’t need to have cash or be in person at a casino to play. “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.

While gambling has exploded, resources for those with a gambling problem have yet to catch up. That’s particularly concerning for parents and responsible gambling advocates, who worry that an entire generation of teens isn’t being warned about the risks.

Teen Gambling by the Numbers

  • Depending on the state, the legal age for gambling ranges from 18-21. Despite that, 60-80 percent of high school students said they gambled for money in the past year.
  • The number of 11th and 12th grade males experiencing gambling problems doubled between 2018 and 2022.

With gambling content built into so many sports broadcasts, kids are getting sent a message that gambling is normal. “Every one of these kids is seeing [these ads] – Facebook, Instagram, every game you watch,” said Maney. “If you’re a 12, 14-year-old, the backdrop is DraftKings. Why wouldn’t they gamble?”

Apps like DraftKings also resemble video games that teens and young adults are very familiar with. Activities such as slot machines and roulette wheels are common in video games as a way to offer in-game rewards. As teens and young adults come of legal gambling age, the line between gaming and gambling can look very blurry.

“And nobody talks about it – not their doctor, not their school – they’ve never heard messages in those settings,” said Heather Eshleman, Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling at the University of Maryland. “But teens do receive a barrage of gambling ads on their phones, on TV and on the radio.”

If You Play, Play Responsibly

A record 31 million Americans bet a combined $7.6 billion on the 2022 Super Bowl and it’s likely that record will be broken again this year. If you choose to bet on this year’s game or any other time during the year, do so responsibly by following these tips:

  • Set your gambling budget before you start playing.
  • Treat gambling as entertainment, not as a path to winning money. Never gamble with money you can’t afford to lose.
  • Limit your time spent playing. If you’re not having fun, stop playing.
  • Limit alcohol use or other substances that can impair your decisions while you play.

You can find more safe gambling tips at If you or a loved one need help for problem gambling, contact the National Council on Problem Gambling helpline at 1-800-522-4700.

[Nick Fox]

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