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Gambling is becoming as American as apple pie and pro football. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand: US sports bettors love to wager on the latter and do so twice as often as on any other sport. While Americans enjoy their indulgences, however, they can sometimes take them too far.
A study released yesterday found 73% of Americans gambled during the previous year. About 7% of those US bettors exhibited problem behavior, says the the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Sports bettors, who tend to be young men, are the most vulnerable to problematic behavior, according to the NCPG’s National Survey on Gambling Attitudes and Gambling Experiences. The survey reveals that sports bettors are three times more likely to exhibit problem gambling behavior than other types of gamblers.
This suggests that public opinion on the relative risks of various forms of gambling may be out of line with reality. Americans who are conservative on gambling tend to find sports betting more palatable than other forms. Even so, according to the research, sports betting is in more dire need of problem gambling education than most, “if not all,” of the other gambling types.
NCPG Communications Manager John Norton concurred, telling Online Poker Report:
“Legal, regulated sports betting must include extensive and effective responsible play and addiction prevention measures.”
NCPG representatives wanted to take a look at national attitudes toward gambling after the US Supreme Court repealed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. That made it possible for states to legalize sports betting, and the NCPG correctly predicted that it would take off rapidly.
The surveys began six months after that fateful May 2018 decision in the case of Murphy vs. National Collegiate Athletic Association. Though commissioned by the NCPG, they were carried out by Ipsos, and supported by Entain, or GVC as it was known at the time.
Prior to PASPA’s repeal, only Nevada had legal sports betting, having been grandfathered in. By the time of the survey, however, New Jersey had launched its market as well.
As NCPG foresaw, New Jersey was only the tip of the iceberg. By the time of the study’s release, sports betting was up and running in 20 states plus Washington D.C., while several more states had legalized it but were awaiting launch. Sports betting revenue has nearly doubled in the past year, reaching $135.8 million in January 2021, up more than 83% vs. January 2020.
NCPG also predicted that many states wouldn’t provide much in the way of sports betting education before the rollout. Unfortunately, they were right on that front too.
The study, which is the first of its kind since 1999, found widespread errors in public beliefs about gambling and problem gamblers. Of the more than 28,000 US consumers it surveyed, very few were aware of treament options available to them. It also exposed a dearth of public education about problem gambling, a lack of prevention efforts and an absence of monitoring.
All of this runs counter to lawmakers’ apparent assumption that sports betting is less problematic than other forms of gambling.
Most states interested in gambling expansion have pushed sports betting ahead of other types of gambling. That trend is so widespread that we can’t know if they may have done better to start with iGaming instead.
Delaware and New Jersey are the exceptions, in that they had online casino games for five years before sports betting became an option. Had they been able to do so, however, they would no doubt have launched all the verticals in rapid succession, as Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia have since done.
Of the other states which have legalized sports betting, only a few are even considering a further expansion into iGaming at this time.
The survey asked respondents to answer questions from screenings for pathological gamblers and those who have gambling disorders, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association.
The portion of the survey dedicated to problem gambling consisted of four questions:
About 3% of US gamblers reported feeling that need “many times.” Only about 2% of non-sports bettors answered that way, however. Conversely, 6% – or three times more – Americans placing sports bets noted the same urge.
The results were very similar for this question. Once again, 3% of American gamblers felt this way “many times,” while the split was 7% for sports bettors and 2% for everyone else.
Non-sports bettors recorded a surprising zero percent here, while 5% of sports bettors declared they’d relied on others for money during the past year due to gambling issues. The overall prevalence here was a bit lower, at 2%.
The study saved perhaps the most revealing question for last. 7% of sports bettors admitted to having done so often, compared to only 1% of gamblers who do not engage in that vertical.
At the time of this study, Norton highlights that sports betting was still illegal almost everywhere in the US. Even so, 20% of the gamblers surveyed said they’d wagered on a sports event or outcome in the past year. This implies that most of the sports betting activity in question was done illegally, even though the respondents weren’t asked this directly.
Other numbers corroborate this. Hawaii and Utah had no forms of legal gambling, yet more than half of the adults there admitted they’d gambled during the past year. Other studies have found links between problem gambling and the use of offshore sites, so lumping illegal sports bettors in with e.g. legal lottery players may be skewing the results.
Another factor may have been the shutdown of sports leagues due to COVID-19. In April 2020, legal sportsbooks still managed to generate $6 million in revenue, despite the absence of any US pro sports. Those who were betting, were doing so on sports they probably wouldn’t watch ordinarily, like darts and eastern European table tennis. This can itself be an indicator of a problem.
“Those reporting sports betting, even during a period with decreased sports betting occasions, proved to have markedly higher gambling problems.”
In other words, the idea that sports bettors are at unusually high risk may be an artifact of the study’s design. It is concerning all the same, given how quickly sports betting is sweeping the country.
There is another confounding factor not related to world events or geography. This is the age of the players. About 46% of sports bettors are younger than 35. They are also predominantly male, more so than gamblers as a whole.
Norton noted it was difficult to discern if sports betting is inherently risky. It may instead be, as he said, that “individuals at risk (notably young males) are drawn to sports betting.”
The NCPG research said:
“Young adults appear to be at higher risk for gambling problems. Half of those under 35 responded ‘yes’ to at least one indicator of risky behavior. By contrast, only 10% of gamblers over the age of 65 responded ‘yes’ to at least one indicator.”
Another survey, conducted online and released in Massachusetts this January, found lower rates of overall gambling literacy among bettors aged 44 and younger. They were less likely to set limits, both before and while they were gambling. They also had much worse comprehension of the rules and odds of the games they played.
This echoes the NCPG research, which also found that positive gambling literacy metrics increased with age. Here too, sports bettors performed poorly as a category:
Other types of gamblers disagreed with such statements far more often. This poor level of literacy among sports bettors occurred despite half of them holding bachelor’s or graduate-level degrees. It seems that gambling literacy comes only with gambling experience or education. It doesn’t necessarily correlate much with other forms of knowledge.
The good news is that the public seems to realize this. 69% of consumers NCPG surveyed said they disagreed with the statement that “people with a gambling problem are below average in intelligence.”