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Will online sports gambling kill America?

A person gambles as betting odds for NFL football's Super Bowl are displayed on monitors at the Circa resort and casino sports book Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Las Vegas.
The Associated Press/John Locher
A person gambles as betting odds for NFL football’s Super Bowl are displayed on monitors at the Circa resort and casino sports book Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Las Vegas.

In the 1989 science fiction movie, “Back to the Future II,” the character Biff uses a 50-year sports almanac of future results to gamble his way to wealth and power. In doing so, he created a world that appeared lawless, sordid and materialistic. 

Is sports gambling, particularly online, taking our nation down a similar path? 

It is nearly impossible to follow any professional sport, or even college sport, online without being blazoned with opportunities to place a bet.

ESPN, the premier sports media company, offers odds for every professional and college game on its website. It also provides support for fantasy sports, giving information and tips to fantasy sports players. The CBS Sports and Fox Sports websites offer similar information and opportunities. 

Sports betting companies entice people with offers of free bets to gain their business. Yet, with any type of gambling, there are no “free lunches,” and anything that is offered as “free” will provide a net positive return for the companies, or they would not be offering it. 

Sports gambling companies are profitable not by picking teams that win games, but by balancing the wagers on each team. If $100,000 of wagers are placed on each team in a game, their profit is earned by the spread taken from the winners. If they balance the bets in every game, they come out the winner. This demands that they manipulate the points given to the underdog to maintain this balance and grow their profits. 

For the majority of the population, gambling is given little attention or provides occasional entertainment. Yet, such people cannot churn the volume of wagers to keep online sports gambling companies in business and profitable. What are needed are gambling addicts, who wager frequently. 

The mission of the National Council on Problem Gambling is to mitigate harm caused by gambling. There are on the order of 10 million Americans with a gambling addiction in the United States, or around 4 percent of the adult population. Online sports gambling companies have a vested interest to grow this number, by enticing young people, particularly young men in college, to gamble. By creating a culture that normalizes sports gambling, an entire generation of potential gambling addicts is being cultivated. 

Gambling companies publicly support responsible gambling. Yet, such support rings hollow when broadcast to those with a gambling addiction. 

Colleges that partner with online sports gambling companies are part of the problem.

In 2020, PointsBet partnered with the University of Colorado. Their five-year deal creates bridges between the two entities, giving the company visibility on campus in recruiting potential employees. This is something that other companies seek. The problem is that PointsBet’s business is gambling, making their presence on campus an easy segue to be the sportsbook of choice at the university and even in the state.

In December 2021, SportsBet initiated a marketing agreement with the University of Maryland, although state legislators are working to end such an arrangement.

In contrast, FanDuel is taking a different approach by not partnering with college campuses. They are also protecting themselves against legal liability in the event of future lawsuits. 

Online sports gambling has become ubiquitous. The ease at which bets can be placed with smartphones makes it accessible 24/7 by anyone so interested. This means that for those with a gambling addiction, their “drug of choice,” namely bets, is available around the clock. 

Is there a solution? 

Legislation will not work. Some states have attempted to place limitations on what can be gambled online. Unfortunately, such efforts are like using an umbrella in a hurricane. 

Any solution must come from the online sports gambling companies themselves. Expecting people with a gambling addiction to exhibit any personal restraint is not only unrealistic, it is naive. 

It is unlikely that online sports gambling companies will take such actions on a wide scale given the tremendous potential for profits available to them. The position that FanDuel has taken is a step in the right direction.

What is needed is a consortium for such companies whereby they can act in a unified manner. Although Americans with gambling addictions may find other avenues to feed their addiction, online sports gambling companies can at least create headwinds for such behavior.

Without such efforts, the world that Biff created may become the future that does not serve anyone’s best interests.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. He is also the founder of the Bracketodds website, a STEM Learning Lab at the university. 

Tags college sports Gambling Sheldon H. Jacobson Sports Sports betting

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