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For football season, all bets are on

Millions of Americans are expected to make wagers on games, raising questions about the potential for problem gambling

A customer places a bet inside FanDuel Sportsbook at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Sept. 9. Associated Press/Photo by Matt York

For football season, all bets are on

Hours before the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked off the 2021 NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 9, the state of Arizona had a debut of its own. It became the 26th state to open up for legal sports betting.

Arizona fans were all too eager to sign up.

Within four days, ESPN reported Arizonans had created 271,000 sportsbook accounts and made 6.1 million transactions. The network cited statistics from GeoComply, a company providing geolocation data for sports betting enterprises.

Arizona may have hit the ground running, but compared with half the country, it was late to the game. Since 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports gambling, half of states have legalized the practice, which they tax generously, and six more states are in the process of doing so. Many observers expect that by 2023 sports betting will be available nationwide with just two holdouts, Utah and Hawaii.

A combination of pent-up demand and state legislatures wanting to recoup 2020 pandemic-related budget shortfalls is likely fueling the rush to legalize. New Jersey, the first state to greenlight sports betting outside of Nevada, has made more tax revenue from sports bets than Las Vegas, with $159 million compared with Nevada’s $69 million over the past three years. On the other end, Virginia, one of the newest states to the game, has picked up $9.7 million in just seven months. Altogether, Americans have spent nearly $68 billion on sports wagering since 2018.

No one knows how much more money fans will throw at sportsbooks, but here’s one sure bet: Americans will keep rushing in. The American Gaming Association estimates 45.2 million Americans plan to place bets on this year’s NFL season, a 36 percent rise from last year.

But what’s good news for casinos and sportsbooks is worrisome for gambling addiction watchdogs. States like Arizona may have had the profitable NFL season in mind when they swiftly opened up sports betting operations, but the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) says most localities have been slower to deal with social ills connected to gambling.

Those who fall into a gambling addiction may lose their savings and relationships, turn to crime to cover losses, wind up in jail, or commit suicide. Add another addiction such as drugs or alcohol, and things head downhill fast. NCPG has estimated the social cost of problem gambling to be $7 billion a year due to job loss, bankruptcy, crime, and healthcare treatments.

NCPG director Keith Whyte said calls to the organization’s 24-hour gambling addiction hotline have been at their highest levels in their 35-year history. A recent NCPG survey revealed that 6 percent of Americans say they’ve lied to hide their gambling habit, a rate that has doubled since 2018.

Whyte also said many states new to sports betting do not have a game plan for what is likely to be a nationwide increase in problem gambling. According to an analysis of 23 states by the National Conference of State Legislatures in March, several states have not earmarked a portion of gambling revenues toward problem gambling treatment.

And states that do set aside money to treat gambling addiction may already be behind the curve. Virginia, for example, set up a fund to support problem gambling treatment last year, but eight months after legal sports betting went live, Whyte said the state still hasn’t solidified plans on how to spend the money. Calls to Virginia’s gambling hotline are already on track to double this year.

“We believe the social costs of gambling are as great as the financial gains,” Whyte said. “It’s foolish to think this activity only generates benefits.”

But judging from the incessant blitz of gambling ads enticing first-timers with free bets, it may be hard for some to see anything but benefits.

The ads themselves can be a trigger for those already struggling with gambling addiction, said Marc Lefkowitz, who heads NCPG’s Recovery Committee and works for Kindbridge, a teletherapy service for gambling addicts. He would know—he’s a former sports gambling addict himself.

“Telling someone struggling with a gambling problem they have free bets is like giving a drug addict free heroin,” he said.

Although he made his last bet 38 years ago, Lefkowitz said he’s not sure how he could have curbed his problem if he’d started today, with sport betting apps offering new bets every 30 seconds and hundreds of cable channels with live sports coverage. Even now, Lefkowitz continues to meet with his 12-step recovery group.

Both Whyte and Lefkowitz say they’re neutral on gambling and only concerned the public hasn’t been properly informed about its potential hazards.

“This country has done a good job with smoking and people now understand we don’t drink and drive,” says Lefkowitz. “But with gambling, informed choice is lagging.”

Juliana Chan Erikson Juliana is a correspondent and a member of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area with her husband and 3 children.


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