The legalization of sports wagering and the increase in problem gambling

It’s been 4 years since the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to legalize sports gambling. Thirty-three already have and with great impact

I’ve never been much of a gambler, though I do recognize its allure and dangers. It’s not hard to be drawn in by a casino room floor when visiting Las Vegas. The glittering lights, rich architecture, dealers passing out cards and the clink clink clink ping of slot machines are designed to turn heads and empty wallets. Of all the sounds and sights, it’s the roulette table that sucks me in as the spinning ball bounces around as onlookers like me remain breathless to see where it lands when the stakes are high.

While most Americans think about gambling as an in-person phenomenon, an even more enticing — and more dangerous — gambling trend has emerged over the past four years, and it’s taking in a new generation of unwitting participants. 

Companies such as DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars and FanDuel, have been working to export the casino playbook to online sports betting. The surging industry dubbed “the sports gambling gold rush,” is predicted to reach a staggering $39 billion by 2033, but the negative social impacts could also be significant.

A growing vice

Almost all of us know the urge that prompts us to check our phones. Refreshing email or scrolling through the social feed can turn into a compulsive habit. Popular apps and websites are developed to keep users engaged for as long as possible. Many services that were once only available in person have adapted to the new technology and now thrive on the internet.

Online shopping allows companies to guide consumers toward purchases more effectively than in-store salespeople ever could. Streaming sites are able to provide uninterrupted music and entertainment 24/7. Now casinos, meticulously designed to keep customers gambling, are showing their potential to translate to a medium already set up to hook users.

In Murphy v. NCAA, the Supreme Court ruled in May 2018 that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act violated the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, clearing the way for individual states to legalize sports gambling. 

“The reality is the online market has become a much greater opportunity than brick and mortar business.”

A Harvard Law Review article at the time noted that before the court had made its decision in the landmark case, “many worried that (a national acceptance of sports gambling) would corrupt sports leagues and increase gambling addiction.” Though some have argued that corruption has indeed increased in the wake of Murphy v. NCAA, evidence of any significant change one way or the other is hard to come by. But experts are far more concerned about the impact legalized sports gambling is having on individuals, particularly those already susceptible to addictive behaviors.

“There is some evidence,” explains Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow of Responsible Gaming at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “that the legalization of sports wagering has led to an increase in problem gambling.”

Prior to the court’s 2018 decision, betting on the outcome of a sports game was legal only in Nevada; four years later, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized or enacted legislation to legalize sports betting within their borders. 

Though it’s difficult to measure the full extent to which the industry has grown in states where sports gambling is newly legal (revenue data from the largest sports betting services are not public knowledge), analyzing sports betting tax revenue is one indicator of how robust the industry is becoming. Since legalizing the practice in January of this year, for instance, the state of New York has already collected a whopping $267 million in sports-betting tax revenue alone. If New Yorkers keep that up over the next seven months, annual sports betting tax revenue in the Empire State could rival the $622 million in gaming tax revenue that the entire state of Nevada collected in 2020 — a particularly noteworthy feat considering that Nevada is home to 441 casinos and the gambling capital of the world.

“With the advent of online sports gambling, the reality is the online market has become a much greater opportunity than brick and mortar business,” said Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College, Zicklin School of Business and a sports and gaming consultant. 

Despite the added tax revenue, experts say legalized sports betting has likely caused addiction in new gamblers and led to an increase in problem gambling — gambling that damages or disrupts one’s relationships or vocational pursuits.

“Online betting means that gamblers have a casino in their back pocket at all times now,” says Edelman. Alan Cavaiola, the director of addiction studies at Monmouth University and the author of “A Comprehensive Guide to Addiction Theory and Counseling Techniques,” offered a similar perspective: “There has been an increase in online sports gambling and accessibility plays a major role.” 

Keith Whyte, the executive director at the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C., points to a survey his organization conducted in 2021 that showed that the “risk for gambling problems has increased by roughly 30% since 2018.”

“For those with existing gambling problems, this creates 24/7 access to their drug of choice.”

The states where the practice has become legalized, Edelman observes, “have absolutely seen an increase in people calling gambling hotlines and needing help.” 

In the 33 states where sports betting has been legalized, gambling companies are able to advertise robustly and without any of the regulations common with other addictive goods and services. “It’s telling that tobacco can’t be advertised on TV and there are many limits to alcohol advertisements, but there is currently no regulation I’m aware of limiting gambling advertisements,” says Edelman. “Americans who suffer from pathological gambling who live in the states where sports betting has been legalized are now subject to a bombardment of advertisements continually inducing the very behavior they may be trying to avoid.”

To rectify this, Edelman suggests sports leagues and states where sports gambling has been legalized, ought to offer, “alternative and reasonably priced broadcasts that are scrubbed from gambling advertising so that children and pathological-prone people don’t have to be constantly subjected to gambling ads.”  

Zachary Hansen, an assistant professor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies, notes that the constant access makes things especially difficult for individuals trying to shake the habit. “The ease of betting online with a smartphone creates a much more convenient pathway to initiate gambling. For those with existing gambling problems, this creates 24/7 access to their drug of choice.”

Lockdowns and limited face-to-face interaction during the pandemic has also increased the number of bettors online. Massachusetts Gaming Commission communications chief Thomas Mills underscores research that suggests an overall “increase in online gambling participation” in recent years; along with a 2021 impact study that found a bump in online wagers when casinos closed due to COVID-19.

Experts cite a host of harms affecting those afflicted with a gambling addiction. “Problem gambling symptoms include increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, ‘chasing’ losses, and loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences,” Whyte explains. “In extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, or even suicide.” 

“The major harm from online sports gambling is obviously financial, however, gambling disorders tend to erode trust in relationships as well,” Cavaiola offers. He explains that when individuals with gambling disorders begin chasing their losses, “they will often stop at nothing to obtain money to place further bets. This may include stealing from family and friends, embezzling from their workplace, and property theft which can be hocked for cash.”  

“Having mobile access makes it easier to hide gambling from others.”

A BMC Public Health study that analyzed how gambling impacts “individuals, families and communities,” notes that the practice’s harms “are not restricted to people with a gambling disorder,” and often affects families and friends as well. Hansen says that matters are further complicated when sports betting accounts are set up to withdraw funds automatically, causing some bettors to “feel more like they are wagering tokens rather than actual money, leading to larger amounts of money lost.” Hansen also notes, “having mobile access makes it easier to hide gambling from others.” 

Once hooked, a gambling addiction can be very hard to shake. Feldman explains that gambling is processed in the brain, “exactly as drugs and alcohol do,” and that “gambling can be just as hard to get under control as drugs or alcohol, however treatment of gambling disorder is highly effective.” 

Problem gambling treatment options for addicts include one-on-one counseling. “In treatment, people gain insight into their personal motivations to gamble ... learn ways to cope with cravings, and prevent gambling relapse,” Hansen explains. Experts also suggest talking about one’s addiction with other gamblers going through similar struggles or who have overcome them. “Gamblers Anonymous is free and meetings are easily accessed either in person or virtually,” Cavaiola says. “I also highly recommend self-exclusion programs to my clients whereby they can notify online sites that they are not to be allowed to gamble and are not to be given credit. It’s not foolproof but anything that blocks easy access to impulsive gambling helps.”  

Whyte similarly recommends problem gamblers prearrange limits on the amount of money they can spend on any given site, and he suggested anyone struggling with a gambling addiction call the National Council on Problem Gambling for confidential help over the phone at 800-522-4700 or by chat at  

“We want to create as much awareness as possible,” Whyte says, “to help gamblers make an informed choice about reducing their risk for gambling problems and creating pathways to help if they may have a problem.”