More people are set to gamble on Super Bowl LVI than on any of the previous 55 Super Bowls. It is estimated 31.5 million Americans will lay down over $7.6 billion on Sunday’s big game, up 35 percent and 78 percent, respectively, from last year, according to the American Gaming Association.
Fueling that radical increase in activity is a new avenue in legal gambling in the U.S. — sports betting. Since the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down as unconstitutional a 1992 federal law that prohibited states from authorizing sports betting, states have been rushing to legalize wagering on sports. As of January, 30 states and the District of Columbia permit sports gambling of some sort, and the count of those permitting online betting is pushing 20.
This hot new sector of American business has been rolling sevens ever since. One analyst predicts U.S. sports betting revenues will grow from $2.1 billion in 2021 to $10.1 billion in 2028. Morgan Stanley says it could hit $15 billion annually by 2025, while Macquarie forecasts $30 billion by 2030.
In addition to the threat it poses to the integrity of sports, it is another instance of society, and even government, encouraging erstwhile vices and discouraging erstwhile virtues.
Ads for online betting sites are saturating commercial television. If you watch any sports on TV, you can bear witness. Ben Affleck, Shaquille O’Neal, and Melvin Gregg plumping for WynnBet; Terry Bradshaw giving “his” money away to patrons who download the Fox Bet app and answer six questions correctly; the royal family of football, the Mannings — Archie, Peyton, Eli, Cooper — sitting with comic JB Smoove, decked out as Caesar, with his “wife,” Halle Berry, at his side, pushing people to place their bets with Caesars Entertainment. Between September 9 and October 17, 2021, at the start of the football season, Caesars Entertainment, FanDuel, and DraftKings — three of the biggest sports betting companies — doled out over $15 million apiece on national ads.
The gambling industry is moving into some sectors with brick-and-mortar books — at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., for example, and possibly at five Chicago venues — but the action (and the big money) is online these days. It is estimated that between 80 and 96percent of sports gambling is now conducted on computers or phones. Bettors download an app at one of the myriad betting sites, give their credit or debit card number, and away they go.
In addition to all the traditional bets — betting the spread, the over/under, the moneyline — and the quirky prop bets, players can access live sports betting, aka in-game betting. If you aren’t able to place your bet before the game begins, no problem: you can bet on events while the game is going on. Do you think the next basket in a game will be a three-pointer? You can bet on that. Do you think a football team will make a massive second-half comeback? Push a few buttons on your phone, and you’ve locked in a bet. You can bet on who will the score the next hoop or TD. You can sit in your seat at an arena and bet on the players you’re watching a few feet in front of you, while they’re playing.
This Is Not a Good Thing
The country is awash in gambling opportunities. Indian casinos came in initially in Florida in 1979; now there are over 500 of them in the country. The first riverboat casino docked on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River in 1989; the country now boasts 63 of them operating in six states. State lotteries have been with us for 55 years and are now conducted in all but five states. Nevada had a stranglehold on land-based casino gambling for decades; now commercial casinos founded and operated on non-Indian land exist in 23 states. And sports betting, once confined to the big houses in Las Vegas and Reno — you had to physically travel to the Silver State to legally engage in it — is now as close as the phone in the pocket of many millions of Americans.
Indeed, so ubiquitous has gambling become in the rest of the country that Las Vegas has shed its role as a unique gambling retreat and reinvented itself as a general vacation spot; the last time I was in Vegas, the lobby of the Luxor was filled with youth sports teams. Parts of the Strip look like a high-end women’s fashion mall.
As these many iterations of gambling have been approved by the populace, the arguments against gambling have gradually lost purchase. Gambling has been legal outside of Nevada for so many years that public resistance to what was once considered a vice has been worn down to its nubbins. In addition to the gung-ho push by sports fans intent on gambling, also prodding sports betting into legitimacy are states that promise to direct the government rake-off from gambling toward education or retirement programs — thus does gambling become a good thing. Even major sports leagues are jumping on the gravy train: the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the WNBA, and the NHL all have signed big-money arrangements with the big sports-betting concerns, and the more people bet, the more money these leagues will make.
One historic argument against sports betting doesn’t gain much traction these days — the fear of the fix. Sports history is replete with fixing scandals, from the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series fix down to a 2006 NBA case in which a referee was paid by the mob for game information. On its face, it seems unlikely that widespread gambling on games will not in some way corrupt those games. If nothing else, the gambling will create doubt in every sports fan’s mind that games are fairly determined, which is a chief reason we love sports in the first place: they’re completely honest competitive events. In-game betting only ratchets up this danger, as Will Leitch puts it in the Atlantic: “The possibilities for malfeasance — the near impossibility of ever knowing for sure what’s legit and what isn’t, whether that player tried to miss his shot or just missed it — are limitless.”
Advocates of legalized sports betting, however, say bringing the activity into the open will kill the under-the-table black market and prop up the integrity of sports. Also, they contend that professional athletes today who are good enough to throw a game, or jigger with a point spread, make so much money as to be largely invulnerable to a fixer’s entreaties.
All ethical warnings against the evils of gambling — as a vice, as the gateway to greater moral evils, as sin — have been discounted as the obsession of bluenoses, puritans, and those cheek-sucking, knuckle-rapping prudes who want to take the fun out of everything.
Only the dangers instant accessibility to the sports book pose for addictive behavior still carry prohibitive teeth. States that have legalized sports betting following the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision are experiencing a huge spike in calls at their problem gambling hotlines. In Connecticut, for example, calls have quadrupled since the state legalized sports betting last October.
In-game betting presents a seductive gateway to problem, even addictive, gambling. The director of the Connecticut Council of Problem Gambling, Diana Goode, said because the transactions are so fast and plentiful, sports gamblers often lose track of how much money they’ve actually lost: “It used to be when we thought about a problem gambler, we thought about the little old lady at the slot machine. Now, the problem gambler is the 20-something male who’s gambling at home.”
Harry Levant, a public health advocate from Philadelphia and a recovering gambling addict and gambling opponent, says in-game wagering plays on the compulsive gambler’s quest for more and faster chances to bet: “No longer is gambling limited to who’s going to win the game,” he said. “Now gambling is on every play. Keep them gambling, keep chasing action.”
Gambling interests are quick to underline their support for problem gambling hotlines and for the notices posted on gambling sites. Whether these are effective is up for debate.
One doesn’t have to be against fun to see a problem with the enormous spread of legal online betting in this country. In addition to the threat it poses to the integrity of sports, it is another instance of society, and even government, encouraging erstwhile vices and discouraging erstwhile virtues, in this case, saving money and delaying gratification and practicing good financial stewardship. Frugality used to be something commendable, and saving money for the future a wise practice. We live in a culture where spending money one doesn’t have is supported, and our government provides the worst example possible for such financial irresponsibility.
Society — and government — should be interested in curtailing gambling, not promoting it. Outlets for legal gambling should be reduced, not expanded.