Sports betting is a market that seems to have exploded in popularity over the past decade. If you tune into a sports match on TV or hop online to place check your fantasy sports teams, there are great odds that you’ll encounter an ad for online betting sites or their accompanying betting apps. With a wide range of betting options and different sports available, the sports betting markets are booming—and with the promise of the best odds, free picks to speed things up and a unique betting experience, they aim to convince sports bettors that they have nothing to lose by participating. But while sports betting may seem to be a harmless way to unwind, the relationship between winning and losing is not in the player’s favour. Moreover, the road from entertainment to addiction can prove to be a short one, while the recovery process is arduous and long.
Although sports betting is part of the broad category of gambling, some think of them as a pleasant way of spending one’s free time. Others regard them as a profit-generating activity that depends to a lesser extent on luck, based mainly on experience, statistics related to sporting events, knowledge of mathematics, good money management, and the ability to build solid betting strategies. One of the most frequent arguments in favour of distinguishing sports betting from gambling is the existence of professional players, who gain consistent rewards from betting. The illusion of a fabulous, overnight win remains an excellent hook to attract new bettors, even if the number of those who manage to snatch winnings from the bookies is insignificant compared to that of the losers.
Sports betting, or sports gambling?
Stories about the wins of those who bet according to a carefully developed strategy—or sheer luck—never lose their allure for bet lovers. The rapper Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent, won 500,000 dollars in prize money after betting that the American football team, the New York Giants would make it to the Super Bowl in 2012. Adrian Hayward bet 200 pounds, at a rate of 125-1, after dreaming that Liverpool’s midfield maestro, Xabi Alonso, would score a goal from his half of the field during the sports season. He ended up winning 25,000 pounds.
There are many stories like this of course, but there are many others that are far less talked about. For instance, the stories of those who regularly lose dizzying amounts of very real money, or the stories of those who fail to enjoy a sporting event if they do not have the adrenaline rush that betting brings. According to the studies, many casinos in the US get 90% of their income from 10% of their clients. In a constantly growing market like that of the sports betting community, the number of losers is undoubtedly growing, and we’re not even talking about financial losses here. An increasing number of sports betting experts are asking for the practice to be recognized as an addiction requiring treatment, as it has quickly become the main form of gambling, with negative consequences.
There is, however, also an unknown truth behind stories of winning betters, whose examples are brought into the light by those who want to pull sports betting out from under the broad umbrella of gambling. Betting agencies sometimes limit (or even exclude) betters who frequently win. It’s not even necessary for them to win huge amounts to become the target of such treatment.
Betting agencies say they only limit betters who break the rules or exhibit strange behaviour, but things are not always like that. James Poppleton worked for 18 months as a supervisor of client accounts at bet365, one of the largest betting companies in the world — they even had an ad featuring Samuel L Jackson for a time. According to Poppleton betting agencies do not play transparently or ethically. The former employee at bet365 revealed information about algorithms, restrictions, and delay strategies used by his former company to limit winning clients. These algorithms are not used in the case of losing clients. Data about each client (placed bets, the games and events the bets are placed on, the winning-losing ratio) influence how the client is rewarded by a betting company.
Although the company released a statement saying that its services are provided in accordance with applicable laws and regulations (which allow an account to be closed or suspended at any time, for any reason), Poppleton claims that the company’s practices have nothing to do with the principle of responsibility towards players. Losing clients are encouraged through different bonuses and promotions to bet larger and larger amounts, while regular sports bettors who find themselves frequently winning (which the company considers “problematic clients”) are given betting restrictions. Poppleton says he decided to go public with the information he had because it had become a burden on his conscience.
The fact that betting agencies drastically restrict or close down the accounts of those whose wins become a problem for bookies is no longer a secret, says Steve Donoughue, a gambling consultant. The way in which sports betting companies act is “immoral and abusive.” They are using real-time data about those who are winning to block unprofitable clients, says Tim Costello, spokesman of the Alliance for Gambling Reform. This practice is, however, not illegal and is considered natural by profit-oriented corporations that see no reason why they should work with customers considered to be “uneconomical.“
Here is another perspective, sharply expressed in a debate hosted by a parliamentary group in Great Britain, by Richard Flint, the director of Sky Betting & Gaming: “We are… a mass-market leisure and entertainment business… We run a business, not a public service. And we run it to be a commercial success. I’m not embarrassed about that.”
Drawing in new clients using commercials and irresistible offers are part of the marketing strategy of these companies that hope to build a base of losing clients, says journalist Brett Haensel, noting that these are veritable traps for an audience exhausted by the pandemic. Addiction problems and gambling harm have worsened during the pandemic, says Eric Fields, a psychologist who specializes in addiction. He explains that people battling a mental health disorder or an addiction can be very vulnerable, but also that people who have no addiction in their track record may develop one when faced with instant rewards, as is the case, for example, with live betting.
Is sports betting harmless? The road from entertainment to addiction
Betting’s most enticing bait, especially for online betting, is in the fact that it has migrated towards forms of gambling where accessibility is continuous and instantaneous, a factor which can increase the risk of a gambling addiction, studies show.
Just like slot machines, sports betting becomes more and more captivating for the player because it offers instant results, says Anja Bischof, researcher at the University of Lübek. In the case of the lottery, it’s difficult to keep your excitement high over the course of the two or three days between buying the ticket and the announcement of the winning numbers. The situation with live sports betting is different. The opportunity to bet during a sporting event increases suspense, but also amplifies the risk that addiction will settle in, due to the frequency and availability of these kinds of events, Bischof says.
Americans bet a collective $13 billion on sports in 2019, according to the American Gaming Association. In 2018, a Supreme Court decision had overturned the gambling ban, with sports betting also becoming legal. In the meantime, almost half the states in the country legalized some form of betting on sporting events. Commenting on the growing numbers that this industry is swallowing, psychiatry Professor Timothy Fong talks about the increased appetite for sports betting, warning that this form of entertainment, accepted by society, hides its potential for addiction.
According to a report drafted by the National Centre for Behavioural Addictions in London, the most popular types of gambling among gambling addicts are online slots (26%), online sports betting (25%), and fixed odds betting terminals (20%).
The sports betting market is growing rapidly in many countries, including Australia, where a nationwide survey showed that the percentage of adults who are betting has increased from 6% to 13% (1999 to 2014).
A survey ordered by the National Council on Problem Gambling shows that sports betters exhibit more problematic or compulsive game behaviour than other categories of players, and the risk for addiction is higher for young people (especially sports betters) than in other age categories.
Experts say that, as sports betting has become more widely known and accessible since its legalization, existing recovery programs are failing to meet the demands. The number of young people who sought help for problematic gambling behaviour has doubled in the past two years, says Rick Benson, founder of the Algamus Gambling Recovery Center in Arizona.
The hideous faces of gambling addiction
Sports betting has not been considered a risky form of gambling for a long time. Nowadays, however, experts regard it as having one of the most harmful effects on players. Online sports betting represents 30-50% of all online gambling, a number that will continue to grow according to researchers’ estimates. Studies from 2018 have found that online sports betters who have severe gambling problems tend to place their bets via betting apps on their mobile phones. According to Australian researchers, one-third to one-half of online betting is impulsive rather than the result of careful analysis, given that impulsive betting is known to be a predictor of future gambling problems.
Live betting, the possibility of betting on micro-events, the reduced waiting period for the result (instead of betting on the final result of a basketball game, for instance, the player can bet on the winner of a certain quarter of the game) and the possibility of replenishing a depleted account through instant cash deposit mechanisms are major factors that increase engagement in problematic behavioural patterns.
Steps towards normality
In February 2021, a group of former gambling addicts sent a letter, with Parliament’s support, to 11 teams in the Premier League, English Football League, and Scottish Premiership, asking them to stop advertising for sports betting sites, to prevent the negative influence on children who use social media and recovering or current gambling addicts. The answer to this request can be easily deduced, considering the “mutually advantageous” relationship between the two industries, as long as the law allows companies active in the gambling industry to sponsor sports teams.
For years now, gambling and betting advertisements have urged us to “play responsibly,” but it is very hard to do that when you’re just one click away from countless forms of gambling, psychologist Anastasia Hornis says. Statistics speak for themselves when it comes to the difficulty of resisting temptation, especially for young people, Hornis says. In Australia, 1 out of 25 young people has a gambling problem, 1 out of 5 places bets on football matches and 1 out of 10 bets online. Also, 3 out of 4 children from the ages of 8 to 16 years old who watch sports events can name at least one betting company.
The public health campaign “Love the game not the odds,” initiated by Problem Gambling Ireland is one of the initiatives taken to deconstruct the idea that gambling is a natural part of sports, advocating for reducing young people’s exposure to sports betting.
Loving sports and exposing yourself to the risk of bets are two distinct things, says Jeff Bell, director of LegalShield. Although he declares himself to be a big sports fan, Bell believes that online sporting bets are a veritable threat that develops in the background of sports-related enthusiasm that must be countered through well thought-out strategies.
Education is the first instrument we can use, especially since many sports fans have no idea about the hidden danger behind sports betting. More studies are necessary to investigate the financial risks, but also the risks related to mental health and addiction that are associated with gambling. Bell has joined the call for research funding (as well as prevention and treatment programs) to come from the taxation of gambling companies.
Banning TV publicity for sports betting companies (or at least forcing operators to describe the risks and real chances of winning) should be another strategy to protect children who get so little supervision from their parents while watching sports programs; they are understandably deemed harmless. A study conducted by Australian researchers also showed that advertising for sports betting influences players with problems more than those without existing problems.
In the end, Bell believes that clear laws are needed to hold online sports betting operators accountable because there is much more at stake than financial losses and gains.
More than a bad habit that you can change with a bit of willpower, problematic gambling behaviour is an illness, exactly like alcohol or drug addiction, warns Sheila Moran, communication and marketing director of First Choice Services, specialized in treating mental health disorders.
As is the case with all addictions, the brain releases dopamine, the substance that stimulates the brain’s reward system. When the addict can no longer function with a reduced level of dopamine, the problematic behaviour becomes not only psychological but also physiological, says Daniel Lettenberger-Klein, the director of a recovery centre in Cleveland. The treatment for gambling addiction is a complex one that spreads across several fronts, and a sports betting addiction is also not easy to conquer, says Lettenberger-Klein. It’s almost like the case of an alcoholic, where the major challenge is that of being exposed to temptations at every turn. In the same way, a sports betting addict will encounter triggers everywhere, from his phone screen to the TV that broadcasts a football game or his favourite coffee shop.
The comparison, sadly, goes even further: just like an alcoholic cannot free themselves from addiction if they do not become abstinent, the safest way to recover from gambling addiction is to stop gambling altogether. In the end, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, says Lettenberger-Klein. Our strongest asset might be to acknowledge our weaknesses, to avoid falling easy prey to them.