In March 2009, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a strongly worded letter of protest to then-Delaware governor Jack Markell condemning the state’s efforts to revive its football betting lottery. “By legalizing sports betting, it will be in Delaware’s interest to create ever-larger numbers of new gamblers as the state attempts to maximize any revenue found in this promotion,” Goodell wrote. “The negative societal impact of additional gambling cannot be minimized in a community.”
What a difference a Supreme Court ruling makes. When Goodell sent his letter, the NFL had no way to capitalize on sports gambling, which was allowed in just four states—Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana—that had been exempted from the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, passed by Congress to limit the spread of sports gambling. But when the Court ruled in May 2018 that the law was unconstitutional, states rushed to legalize sports betting, and after just a smidgen of hesitation, professional leagues have jumped in. Last week, Goodell announced that NFL teams in the 14 states that have legalized sports betting can now host stadium betting lounges, where gamblers can gather, learn the odds on games around the league, and bet through apps on their phones. The NFL already has a casino sponsor, Caesars, and a fantasy sports sponsor, FanDuel, and individual teams can sign their own deals with casinos—so the league long ago gave up its worries about gambling’s “negative societal impact.” The latest move means that now sports bookmakers themselves can appear on site, though they can’t accept bets at windows within their lounges—at least, not yet.
The rapid pace at which the NFL has embraced what it once preached against reflects a broader social change, as states desperate for revenues rush to legalize many forms of gambling. In this, the United States isn’t alone. Around the world, state-sanctioned sports betting has spread rapidly in the last 20 years, especially in Europe. The experience there, chronicled in dozens of studies, confirms that Goodell was right when he worried about social effects. Studies have found that the normalization of gambling through frequent advertising and sponsorship deals with sports teams has sparked growing rates of online betting by young people and rising rates of addiction among teens, though most venues officially restrict participation to adults. Young boys are especially at risk; the NFL itself acknowledged this when it ruled that the new betting lounges won’t be allowed where “underage fans” would be exposed to them. Experience elsewhere, however, shows that the league, and society in general, needs to do much more to mitigate the impact on the young of our rapid acceptance of gambling.
The rise of legal gambling in Europe has precipitated intense scrutiny of its effects. A 2016 review published in the Journal of Gambling Studies found 44 studies on youth gambling, many focusing on European nations. The studies show that, in many countries, as many as half of all adolescents report gambling in the past year; in Iceland, nearly 80 percent had placed bets, and in Lithuania, the number was 70 percent. The rate of frequent gamblers—those gambling at least once a week—is about 10 percent to 15 percent. Though some of these young people report gambling casually among friends, the incidence of gambling on legalized, government-sanctioned sites is alarming. In Britain, 68 percent of those who bet said that they played slots, and 47 percent bet on the lottery. Online gambling is growing rapidly among the young, in part because they are more comfortable in this environment but also because they can evade age restrictions more easily. In Greece, 37 percent of young gamblers bet online; in Switzerland, 55 percent.
Kids are gambling more not merely because they see more of it in society, but because advocates increasingly pitch gambling as a social good. One study on underage betting in Italy, for instance, found that even non-gamblers approved of it, likely because of a “perception that gambling may contribute positively to provide additional funds to the government for social good as well as to add needed jobs,” the study said. That’s how virtually every campaign to expand legal gambling is waged here and around the world.
The NFL and other leagues, as well the states themselves, promise to build restrictions into the legalization of sports gambling to mute its influence among the young. Yet, these curbs are largely ineffective, because once the campaign over legalization recedes, few people pay close attention to its implementation. England’s Gambling Act of 2005, which helped propel sports betting to new levels, contains restrictions on how sports-betting firms can promote their services. But advertising and marketing of sports betting has become so pervasive that it now touches every part of sports—like, say, soccer. In the top tier of English soccer, the Premier League, where sponsors buy space on team jerseys, nine of 20 teams have sold shirt space to betting companies. In the country’s second-tier league, the so-called Championship League, betting firms have purchased 17 of 24 team jersey sponsorships. Players too young to gamble legally themselves wear these jerseys, and one newspaper found that promotional tie-ins on team websites included advertising on pages aimed at young fans.
English regulators received a spate of complaints about pervasive betting ads during the 2018 World Cup, and the country is now adding rules to crack down on advertising, including limiting ads that urge viewers to “bet now” (a common strategy in the Internet age). England is also considering banning promotions that give first-time clients free bets—something increasingly common in the United States. Much of this is spurred by the rise of problem gambling, including among youth. Within five years of the expansion of legal gambling, the number of problem bettors increased to 450,000 from 200,000, according to the British Gambling Prevalence Survey. Up to 16,000 of those problem gamblers, it’s estimated, are underage, and about 36,000 more young people are considered at risk of becoming problem.
Since the initial debates starting in the 1960s about legalizing lotteries and then casino games a decade later, advocates have argued that the industry and government, working together, can ameliorate the bad social outcomes of legal gambling. More recently, advocates have promoted sports gambling as something that “everyone” does—so why not make it legal? But plenty of evidence suggests that legalization of virtually any type of gambling increases its frequency, and that promises to increase programs for those who develop problems fall short. Betting parlors on-site at sporting events, unthinkable a few years ago, are just one sign of how rapidly the landscape in America is changing—and how few people have thought through what the social cost may be.
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