Expanded sports betting fuels fears about gambling addiction

For sports leagues and gambling industries, the imminent expansion of legalized sports betting promises a bonanza. For the experts and organizations already concerned about pervasive problem gambling, it promises a whole new roster of worries.

Much of the apprehension relates to the prospect of myriad forms of online sports betting — accessible to gamblers at any time and location via their mobile phones. There's particular alarm over the anticipated explosion of so-called "in-game wagering" in which gamblers bet, often at a rapid pace, on play-by-play developments — for example, will the next football play be a run or a pass.

"You lose track of time," said Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling . "The goal of the operators is to get you into a zone where you lose your financial reasoning and think of nothing except betting."

Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week, only four states were allowed to offer sports betting and only Nevada offered betting on single games. Now that the court has lifted those bans, there are expectations that most states will offer sports betting within a few years in a play to raise tax revenue.

"We think this is the biggest expansion of gambling in our nation's history, in one fell swoop," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling . "Absolutely, categorically, there will be more risk factors for addiction — we've never had that much high-speed, high-stakes interactive access to any sort of betting."

The council wants any company, sports league or government that benefits from sports betting to devote at least 1 percent of the revenue to fund programs preventing and treating compulsive gambling. It also wants betting operators to train staff about problem gambling, set and enforce a minimum age limit, and enable gamblers to set limits on how much time and money they spend betting.

Whyte is skeptical that state lawmakers and the gambling industry — even if they pay lip service to problem gambling — will take sufficiently tough action.

"The ball's in their court," he said. "They can rush to grab the money and then deal with a wave of increased addiction, or they can work with us to try to mitigate the harm."

Nationwide, the generally accepted figure for gambling addiction is 2 to 3 percent of the U.S. population, according to Neva Pryor, who runs New Jersey's Council on Compulsive Gambling. But in New Jersey, which until recently had the nation's second-largest casino market, that figure is over 6 percent.

And that's without legal sports betting just a click or call away.

"We're going to be adding fuel to the fire of an already serious problem," Pryor said.

Calls from people who have gotten in over their heads betting on sports currently account for 5 percent of all calls to the council's 800-GAMBLER hotline, a figure Pryor expects to increase.

Arnie Wexler, who once held Pryor's current job, knows personally how addictive sports betting can be.

His problem was once so bad, he says, that on the rare occasion he and his wife had sex, she would swear she heard a baseball game somewhere.

"I told her, 'You're crazy,' but I had a transistor radio hidden under the pillow so I could follow the score," he said.

Now living in Florida, Wexler says problem-gambling treatment programs should be bracing for a surge of business.

"This is going to be a volcano two years from now, because two years is typically how long many gamblers take before they start seeking help," he said.

Another recovered problem gambler, Marc Lefkowitz, has similar concerns.

"I'm lucky I quit in 1983," said Lefkowitz, who recently started a gambling treatment program in Long Beach, Washington. "Back then, maybe you could bet by the quarter (of a game). Now you're betting every minute, and that frequency makes it more addictive."

Chuck Bovis of Indianapolis, on learning of the court decision, thought back to when he gambled heavily on sports in his 20s and 30s. He has quit for the past 18 years with the steady help of Gamblers Anonymous and has done extensive work helping others with gambling problems.

"I would have gone crazy with this," he said of the online betting possibilities. "I probably would have been suicidal."

Natasha Schull, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, has written about addictive slot-machine technology and expects online sports betting to adopt some of the same features to maximize its profitability.

With in-game wagering, she said, a sports contest "ceases to have boundaries as a single event."

"It becomes this constant, continuous thing that's so fragmented with all these things you are predicting and anticipating," she said. "People end up spending more time and money than they wanted to."

Another expert alarmed by the court decision is Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pennsylvania.

She expects that new forms of sports betting will expand and intensify the allure that fantasy sports leagues already have for vast numbers of Americans, especially young men.

"You watch obsessively," she said. "You're ignoring your family, instead of making sports a nice activity for the whole family."

Yet Young sees little likelihood that an upsurge of compulsive betting can be prevented.

"If anything, it will just keep going further," she said.

Les Bernal, of Stop Predatory Gambling, worries about the impact of the changes on children — whether or not they're placing bets themselves.

He cites research from Australia, where sports betting is legal, showing that many children view sports and gambling as a unified institution, and consider it normal that gambling ads are shown on sports telecasts.

"This is going to be sanctioned and promoted by state governments who are supposed to be in the business of improving people's lives," Bernal said. "Instead they're going to get an entire generation of young people hooked on gambling and in the process fleece them."


Crary reported from New York City. Follow him at http://twitter.com/CraryAP and follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC