O’Brien: Will sports gambling foster addiction? You can bet on it
Ben Affleck, the movie star and avid gambler who has struggled with alcohol addiction, is one of sports gambling’s most visible pitchmen. He’s center stage in a TV ad for the mobile wagering app WynnBET. “We all want to win,” Affleck exclaims. “Let’s win together!”
Aaron Paul, the actor who only played an addict in “Breaking Bad” and waved off hard drug use himself after seeing his girlfriend consumed by addiction, is a spokesman for Bet365, a sports wagering app. It has more than 63 million global users and offers newcomers a $500 credit to join. “You need to ask yourself, why am I not a member of the world’s favorite sportsbook?” Paul asks in one ad.
Those who scroll through both these apps are offered sports betting mainstays — wagers on money lines, touchdowns, parlays, fight outcomes, total hits and other outcomes. At the bottom of the screen is this bit of advice: “If you or someone you know has a gambling problem and wants help, call 1-800 GAMBLER.”
Call me old-fashioned, but as sports betting enjoys a pandemic-fueled expansion, shouldn’t we worry more about the possibility of a spike in gambling disorders? And isn’t it jarring that people who should know better are enthusiastically pushing this?
A reminder: For most gamblers, betting is recreation. Based on historical data, only about 1% of adults in the U.S. have a severe problem such as compulsive gambling. Some 2% to 3% of adults have less severe problems; they’re not addicts, but gambling causes them financial and social miseries. Most people wager for fun.
The trouble is, those small percentages represent 6 million to 8 million people. And most academic and clinical studies of gambling disorders in the U.S. were undertaken when legal sports gambling was confined to Nevada, and backroom wagering with bookies wasn’t digital. The sports gambling boom that began three years ago after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Nevada’s monopoly, together with the accessibility provided by mobile devices and apps, mean that a significantly larger, and younger, share of Americans is now at risk. It will take time for researchers to catch up with the current sports betting world and the troubles that may be visited on individuals and communities.
“We’ve been engaged in a massive cultural experiment with gambling, and we’re delivering gambling to America in ways that are unprecedented worldwide,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, a research and advocacy group. “No one, at least from an addiction standpoint, has been able to look at what the impact will be on problem gambling.”
“Groups like ours are being asked to examine possibly negative impacts of new tools and technologies without being given any access to private companies’ internal data and product information,” he added, while also flagging regulatory lapses. “State gambling commissions are close to being captives of the industry. They defer to the industry and don’t understand some of the new technologies.”
When mainstream corporations took over the gambling business decades ago, they were more disciplined than their organized-crime predecessors about analyzing which forms of betting were most profitable and most magnetic. Slot machines quickly displaced table games at the center of casino floors. The wealth of data that such machines could gather about what gamblers liked helped casinos make their games more lucrative and potentially more addictive. Apps and other digital gambling offerings are even more data-centric than slots and can be fine-tuned to capitalize on features that make gambling compulsive, such as a faster pace of play, stimulating sensory feedback and frequent near-misses.
The Irish gambling company Flutter Entertainment doubled its revenue last year, thanks to many of its brands, but especially FanDuel, one of the most popular sports betting apps in the U.S. Flutter also purchased Sky Bet from Rupert Murdoch’s media company last year, and that is now the most popular gambling app in the U.K.
The New York Times recently reported that Sky Bet used its app’s data-profiling software to scrutinize one compulsive gambler’s betting history and favorite sports with such precision that it could essentially stalk and hook him — even when he was trying to quit. “They had taken his addiction and turned it into code,” a lawyer representing the gambler told the Times. Sky Bet told the Times that it didn’t target vulnerable gamblers and took “safer gambling responsibilities incredibly seriously.”