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Bad Bets

Our Entire Society Is Becoming Addicted to Sports Gambling

Athletes are being caught in scandals, yes, but the bigger scandal is that the ease and prevalence of betting is driving a huge rise in addiction—and neither the leagues nor our politicians care.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Shohei Ohtani on Monday

As the MLB season ramps up and NBA season winds down, both leagues are making headlines with rather bizarre gambling scandals. ESPN revealed last month that at least $4.5 million was sent to an illegal bookmaker from the bank account of baseball’s best player, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shohei Ohtani; his interpreter and longtime friend took responsibility for the bets and was promptly fired. In the NBA, meanwhile, Toronto Raptors benchwarmer Jontay Porter is being investigated after there was an unusual surge in prop bets on his performance (points, rebounds, etc.) for two games earlier this year in which he exited early due to injury or illness.

The Ohtani and Porter scandals are being treated as wake-up calls about the wildfire spread of gambling in recent years: that it might pose an existential risk to the integrity of sports themselves. But that should be the least of our worries. Only six years since the Supreme Court opened the floodgates, it’s become abundantly clear that sports gambling is having a ruinous effect on American society—and that the leagues, team owners, and state and national politicians are now too deeply enmeshed with the industry to do anything about it.

Thirty eight states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have legalized sports gambling since 2018, when the court opened the door to legalization. Most of these states have also legalized mobile betting, typically done on apps like DraftKings and FanDuel, or via online casinos. In New York, where I live, you don’t have to travel anywhere or even call anyone to place a bet; all you have to do is download an app. In some cases, the opportunity to bet is almost unavoidable for sports fans: In D.C., in a nationwide first, a Caesar’s sportsbook operates within the very arena where the Wizards and Capitals play.

In the last seven years, and particularly since the pandemic, sports have become suffused with gambling. There are advertisements for bookmakers everywhere; many programs and games are sponsored by them in some way. One is bombarded with information—much of it silly, like baseball’s preposterous “win probability”—that either directly or indirectly nudges one to place a bet. To watch sports in 2024 is to be told to gamble, or at least to be reminded that you could also be gambling (and that it’s apparently more fun that way).

The result is a growing epidemic of addiction. The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling saw a 91 percent spike in calls in 2022, the first year the state had legalized gambling. Diana Goode, the organization’s director, attributes much of that rise to the ease of mobile sports betting. “In order to gamble you had to put clothes on,” Goode told Marketplace in January. “You had to get up, you had to go out, and now you don’t.” New Jersey’s Council on Compulsive Gambling found similarly disturbing results: Calls to its hotlines have tripled since gambling was legalized in 2019. (Calls to college athletes have likewise increased, as gamblers harass them after losing bets.)

And gambling may exacerbate other societal woes. In a paper released on Monday, the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcohol, Substance Use and Addictions found a high level of correlation between binge drinking and sports gambling. “A lot of people are worried about what sports wagering is going to do to people’s finances and their money in gambling problems. To be clear, those potential harms are a real concern,” Joshua Grubbs, a professor at UNM said. “But with sports gambling there may be even greater overall risks because sports gambling, even more than other types of gambling, is linked to problematic alcohol use.”

The gambling industry, meanwhile, is reaping the windfall. Last year was the third straight record year for sportsbooks, with revenue up 45 percent to nearly $11 billion, according to the American Gaming Institution. And the industry wants to ensure it stays that way: AGI has spent nearly $9 million in lobbying since 2019, while DraftKings has spent more than $2 million over the same period (FanDuel and gaming software companies have also ramped up lobbying in recent years).

Those lobbying expenses pale in comparison to profits, yes, but perhaps that’s because politicians don’t require much convincing on the subject. Sports gambling has spread rapidly in part because it promises tax revenue for cash-strapped states; once that money starts rolling in and becomes a reliable funding stream for annual budgets, it becomes hard to give up. (You might say they’re addicted to it.)

Gambling revenue has provided a lifeline to the leagues and team owners as well. The increase in cord-cutting is depriving them of lucrative TV revenue, and younger generations are showing less interest in watching full games. Gambling helps to generate interest in games, perhaps even entire leagues, that one might not consider watching otherwise. Last October, The Washington Post reported that the NFL makes $132 million per year from gambling-related sponsorships, up from $35 million in 2018. Ditto the NBA, MLB, NHL, and so on.

Meanwhile, the very lobbying organization that brags about how much the leagues stand to gain from legal sports betting also waves away any suggestion that it’s creating more misery in America. “I don’t believe that there is an addiction to mobile betting any more than there is an addiction to utilization of your phone for any other reason,” American Gaming Association president Bill Miller told 60 Minutes in February. He was skeptical that gambling addiction had risen since 2018, and said that if indeed there’s an apparent increase, then it could be due to the industry more aggressively flagging at-risk bettors.

There will continue to be sports betting scandals that generate headlines like the ones we’ve seen in recent weeks. Athletes—young, rich, usually male—are, like their cohort, susceptible to problem gambling. There may not be a scandal on par with, say, the 1919 Black Sox, but Porter-esque mini-scandals are likely to recur. And yet, the big scandal is receiving significantly less attention. The embrace of sports gambling is causing addiction, bankruptcy, and societal breakdown. Politicians and sports leagues are responsible—and they won’t even admit it, let alone do anything about it.