Sports betting has risen tenfold in three years. Addiction experts fear the next opioid crisis

The sports betting market has multiplied tenfold in three years and may have reached $7 billion in 2022. More than half of the nation can now legally gamble on sports. Fifty million Americans are expected to bet on the upcoming Super Bowl.  

Five years ago, betting on live games was illegal in most of the United States. A Supreme Court ruling in 2018 removed the ban and transformed the industry. Now, 33 states and the District of Columbia allow wagers on games.  

Addiction experts fear a coming national epidemic to rival the opioid crisis. 

“Gambling is a very different addiction from drugs or alcohol,” said Lia Nower, a professor and director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University. “If I’m drunk or high, at some point my family is going to figure it out. With gambling, I can be sitting with my kids, watching cartoons, and gambling away my house, my car, everything I own, on my mobile phone. How would you know?” 

The Supreme Court ruling struck down a federal law that had banned most commercial sport wagering outside Las Vegas. The subsequent spread of legal gambling was stunningly swift.  

Lobbyists pampered state lawmakers with parties and promises, predicting millions in new tax dollars. Much of the promised revenue hasn’t reached the states, according to a New York Times investigation

But gambling dollars have reached the betting operators. The industry reaped $4.3 billion in revenue on $57 billion in wagers in 2021. In the first 11 months of 2022, Americans bet $83 billion on sports and delivered $6.6 billion to betting firms. That figure is 15 times what the sports gambling industry reaped in 2018.

A Flourish chart

“We have a movement toward expanding what was once considered a sin, what was once considered a vice, and embedding it at every level of American culture, down to kindergarten,” said Timothy Fong, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Sports gambling market. Ten years ago, those words didn’t exist,” Fong said. “What you have is this massive, exponential expansion of gambling into homes, faster than we can study or monitor it.”

A record 50 million Americans, one adult in five, will bet on Super Bowl LVII, according to an American Gaming Association survey. They will wager $16 billion, twice as much as last year. 

Celebrity athletes shill for betting firms on television. Betting firms promote gambling on college campuses. Professional teams court “official mobile sports betting partners.”  

The Washington Post offers a sports betting page for readers. Gannett, publisher of more than 200 sports pages, recently announced a “strategic partnership” with an online gambling marketer. Nexstar Media, owner of The Hill, has forayed into sports betting

Pete Rose was banned from baseball and blocked from the Hall of Fame because he gambled,” said Nower, of Rutgers. “Now, we’ve got professional ballplayers who are partnering with gambling companies. Now, kids are seeing these things inextricably linked.” 

Teams and league owners love sports betting because they “have found that engagement is off the charts among people who are placing bets on games,” said Daniel Barbarisi, author of “Dueling with Kings: High Stakes, Killer Sharks, and the Get-Rich Promise of Daily Fantasy Sports.”

People who bet on games “are not just tuning out if it’s a blowout,” Barbarisi said, because they bet on more than the final score. Fans can place wagers on the margin of victory, the combined point total from both teams and other metrics — such as whether Aaron Judge will hit a home run or Max Scherzer will ring up double-digit strikeouts.  

Sports bettors are predominantly male, surveys show. They are mostly under 45. Some are wealthy, but a Rutgers study found that half of sports gamblers earn less than $50,000 a year. Some hail from a distinct subpopulation of Americans who get a thrill from risking money on the Next Big Thing.  

“You can kind of draw a through line from the people who were involved in the poker boom in the early 2000s to the daily fantasy thing in the 2010s and then to the crypto thing,” Barbarisi said.  

“I don’t know if you can say it’s a small group of guys anymore. It’s a big group of guys.” 

Gambling is unquestionably addictive, and arguably immoral: Not for nothing did Las Vegas earn the Sin City sobriquet. Now that betting on sports is broadly legal, however, Americans are warming to the idea. 

A poll by The Washington Post and University of Maryland found that 66 percent of Americans approved of legal sports betting in 2022, up from 55 percent in 2017, a year before the Supreme Court decision.  

Nower suspects most Americans remain naive about gambling’s ills, much as society once cheerily embraced smoking and drinking. “We are where cigarettes were in the 1940s and alcohol was in the 1950s,” she said.  

Most Americans ignored the opioid crisis, a staggering increase in overdose deaths in the 1990s and 2000s, until the government and news media processed the data and tendered a response.

With sports betting, “you have the exact same players you had with opioids,” Fong said. “You have government. You have industry. You have civilians, a lot of whom will benefit from this. And then you have a population who will develop an addiction, let’s say 1, 1.5 percent of the population.” 

With legal sports gambling, “It’s a hidden addiction,” Fong said. “You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it.” 

Fong points to one of his patients, a man in his 20s who earns $160,000 a year and owes $40,000 in gambling debts.  

“On face value, he can pay his rent, he’s not gonna die,” Fong said. “But he’s miserable. He’s just not happy.” 

Over time, researchers say, sports-betting addiction will take a toll in rising rates of bankruptcy, domestic violence, depression, anxiety and suicide.  

The federal government takes a keen interest in regulating alcohol, tobacco and drugs. In sports gambling, by contrast, “there is no federal presence at all,” Nower said. “And that is the biggest problem.” 

Oversight of the booming sports-betting industry has been mostly left to states.  

States that allow legal sports gambling “are not disinterested parties,” the Times wrote in its 2022 investigation. “They collect taxes on gambling, and the more people bet, the more governments get. One result is that states have, in many ways, given gambling companies free rein.” 

New Jersey, the state at the heart of the 2018 Supreme Court ruling, offers a rare exception, Nower said.  

Gambling regulators in New Jersey studied “the relationship between gambling and problem gambling” before they allowed legal gambling on sports, Nower said. She knows of no other state that took that step. 

New Jersey uses gambling data to identify “people who may be exhibiting problem symptoms,” Nower said: Shuffling several payment methods, overdrawing their cards, doubling down on bets, gambling more frequently.  

Most other states “are just legalizing this stuff without any idea of the effects,” she said.  

The sports betting landscape will remain untamed, researchers say, until governments recognize gambling as a matter of public health. 

“I do think there are watershed moments in all public health crises,” Nower said. “Unfortunately, it usually takes some kind of crisis or tragedy to turn the tide.” 


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