Sports Betting – Opportunity or Potential Problem?

A day after his 21st birthday, one of my best friends won $6,000. He’d wagered $1,000 on Minnesota Twins’ catcher Gary Sánchez to hit a home run against the Oakland A’s. Beginner’s luck. 

Except it wasn’t. Hitting that bet may have been lucky, but he is no beginner. Nearly all my friends, and what seems at times the entire U.S. college-aged male population, have been sports betting for years now. Some of my friends have even worked as bookies. A recent article notes “between 60% and 80% of high school students report having gambled for money in the past year, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.” Underage gambling is as mainstream as underage drinking. States need to do more to address this rise before gambling addiction goes mainstream, too.

State of Play 

Betting is fun for a lot of people. And unproblematic, for the vast majority. Sports bettors can even set deposit limits – “daily, weekly or monthly limits on the amount you deposit into your account” – to stay on top of their financials. My college roommate, for example, one might deem “King of Parlays”: Our Freshman year, he consistently put small sums of money (I’m talking, like, $1.50) on 12-selection bets. They never hit. In his case, though, the thrill of a potential payout came at a paltry price. 

Others put serious money on the line on a nightly basis; according to the American Gaming Association, “sports betting’s growth accelerated in 2021, generating $57.22 billion in handle and $4.29 billion in revenue—jumps of 165 percent and 177 percent over 2020 respectively.” While that’s a positive for the economy, in order for the gambling industry to make money, its customers must reside in the negative. Research shows “professional sports bettors rarely sustain a long-term winning percentage higher than 55 percent, and it’s often as low as 53 or 54 percent.” Some studies suggest a measly 3-5 percent of bettors profit in the long run. The majority of recreational gamblers are not in the black, and if they are, not by much and not for long.

Cause for Concern

For people with a gambling addiction, the ease with which one can place a bet on a smartphone can prove emotionally and financially debilitating. Recently, golf legend Phil Mickelson addressed his struggles with gambling addiction after a May biography revealed he sunk roughly $40 million between 2010 and 2014. It’s one thing to live a little, but it’s another thing to live so precariously you’re forced to LIV; that’s a cheap shot…Mickelson joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour because it will “do a lot of good for the game.” According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, “approximately two to three percent of Americans meet the criteria for problem gambling. That’s around 6 million adults and about a half million teens.” 

The overwhelming presence of underage gambling should serve as an unwelcome alarm for problem gambling. When youth aged 15, 16, and 17 gamble on an illegal book, not only are they predisposed to the practice of gambling and at higher risk of developing an addiction, their losses and wins are often unaccounted for. I know guys who have been down a couple thousand dollars on a single book – much more money than they are capable of losing. But this isn’t an Italian mob drama – a Rocky look-alike won’t come to their home and break their thumbs because they haven’t paid their debt. Look man, I’m sorry alright! I’ll have the money before my next geometry test, promise. 

Most of my friends simply won’t pay or will place exorbitant bets until, eventually, a big one hits and they’re back even. The same goes for winning. If you go up big, chances are you won’t see that money. This has the potential to create a narrative that money is disposable. It’s not, and a similar strategy on a legal betting site will yield legally binding, expensive consequences. 

Industry Action

I’m not suggesting the gambling industry has turned a blind eye to the threat of addiction. In remarks to the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States, Vice President of Issues Management for Caesars Entertainment Dean Hestermann emphasized Caesars’ desire for “everyone who gambles to do so for the right reasons – to simply have fun.  We do not want people who don’t gamble responsibly to play with us, or with any operator. Those goals drive all of the programs we have developed to promote RG over the past 35 years.”

Illegal sports betting poses a much greater threat to responsible gambling than major sportsbooks. And legislation prevents companies from advertising on platforms with a youth presence greater than 25 percent of its consumer population. Not to mention the fact the automobile and alcohol industries occupy more commercial airtime than sportsbooks do. Sports betting services contend if not for their presence, consumers would just gamble on illegal sites. 

That said, sportsbooks are a growing and lucrative business. Since the Supreme Court overturned the federal ban on state authorization of sports betting in 2018, 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of sports betting (as for the possibility of more states following suit in the coming years, if I were a betting man, I’d slam the over). 

Looking Ahead

Four years later, while sports betting is here to stay, should sportsbooks be allowed to broadcast betting lines alongside graphics of starting lineups on game day? I would argue no. Kids watching Monday Night Football don’t need to be informed of the odds. 

And that bet my friend made? It was part of a promotion from FanDuel to reel in new customers: a $1000 free bet, exchanged for $1000 in site credit in the event of a loss. Last I checked, that friend decided to stop sports betting after writing a paper on its consequences for an English class, but what’s to keep another young person from winning a bet and believing he can keep it going, even though the odds are stacked against him? 

According to Keith Whyte, the Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), addiction will most certainly spike if necessary precautions are not adopted: “expanded gambling will result in increases in the rate and severity of gambling problems unless comprehensive and well-funded measures are put in place to mitigate the harm.” 

What’s Next?

I’d like to make clear I don’t believe any of my friends have a problem. And I’m not trying to assume the role of goody two shoes gambling police. I’ve considered sports betting before, but decided against it because, for one, I would much rather play a sport than watch it on TV. Much more, though, the uncertainty and idleness in relying on the performance of athletes I’ve never met makes me uneasy. I’d rather bet on myself – throw a few bucks on a game of pickup basketball or a round of golf. 

Yet, while I harbor no judgment towards anyone who participates in sports betting, I’m hard pressed to identify its tangible benefits. It’s one thing to vacation at a casino with family and friends, but sports betting is a largely individual endeavor, and given its likelihood of success, an unprofitable one at the very least. There are plenty of other, natural ways to get a dopamine hit. 

The reality is sports betting is legal and more states are getting in the game. Similar to social media and technology regulation, questions about the role of government in oversight of sportsbooks will garner more and more attention in the near future. Collaboration between the gaming industry and groups such as NCPG will, and must, continue; to what extent their efforts will provide ample support for the millions of Americans suffering from and at risk of developing a gambling addiction is yet to be seen. 

Meanwhile, states do not have the luxury, in the words of Meryl Streep in Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up,” to “sit tight and assess.” Despite the fact “drug and alcohol addiction are seven times more prevalent than gambling addiction…states allocate 318 times more for drug and alcohol services than for gambling services,” according to Linda Graves, Executive Director of the National Association of Administrators for Disordered Gambling Services. Providing resources for gambling addiction and educating youth on its risks should be job number one.  


DraftKings Inc. (n.d.). Responsible Gaming and Patron Protection. sportsbook.draftkings.com. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://sportsbook.draftkings.com/help/responsible-gaming?wpsrc=Organic+Search&wpaffn=Google&wpkw=https%3A%2F%2Fsportsbook.draftkings.com%2Fhelp%2Fresponsible-gaming&wpcn=help&wpscn=responsible-gaming 

Brown, C. (2022, February 15). 2021 commercial gaming revenue shatters industry record, reaches $53B. American Gaming Association. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.americangaming.org/new/2021-commercial-gaming-revenue-shatters-industry-record-reaches-53b/ 

Miller, J. V., & Miller , J. R. (n.d.). Winning Percentages of Professional Sports Bettors. JV Miller’s Professional Gambler Newsletter. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://professionalgambler.org/winning-percentages#:~:text=%E2%80%8BWinning%20Percentages&text=Professional%20sports%20bettors%20rarely%20sustain,as%2053%20or%2054%20percent

Miller, J. V., & Miller , J. R. (n.d.). Winning Percentages of Professional Sports Bettors. JV Miller’s Professional Gambler Newsletter. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://professionalgambler.org/winning-percentages#:~:text=%E2%80%8BWinning%20Percentages&text=Professional%20sports%20bettors%20rarely%20sustain,as%2053%20or%2054%20percent

Porter Jun 8, K. (2022, June 8). Phil Mickelson breaks down Liv Golf move, believes rival league will ‘do a lot of good for the game’. CBSSports.com. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.cbssports.com/golf/news/phil-mickelson-breaks-down-liv-golf-move-believes-rival-league-will-do-a-lot-of-good-for-the-game/#:~:text=I%27ve%20also%20seen%20the,who%20showed%20up%20to%20London

As sports betting grows, states tackle teenage problem gambling. The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2022, July 12). Retrieved July 14, 2022, from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2022/07/12/as-sports-betting-grows-states-tackle-teenage-problem-gambling