Most people would agree that sports betting is a form of gambling, in the sense that all gambling is defined as taking a risk. Can the same be said for fantasy sports? Officials often see it as such. Yet, most people won’t characterize the stock market as gambling. So where is the line drawn, and by whom?
In a presentation before the Indian Gaming tradeshow in March, gaming consultant Melissa Blau showed a slide which said sports bettors “don’t view sports betting as gambling.”
It’s a younger, wealthier demographic, with a higher disposable income, Blau said of the typical sports bettor, in comparison to a casino player. Sports betting is seen more as an entertainment pastime, according to USBets.
Is this perception in the eye of the beholder?
“In the mindset of someone who only likes sports betting and can walk through a casino and not play poker, craps, blackjack, sure, they’re going to have different likes and dislikes than someone who just goes and plays slots in a casino, but they’re still all in the same family,” said Timothy Fong, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, the co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at the university, and the director of the school’s Addiction Psychiatry Consultation Service.
“For me, as someone who studies gambling, it doesn’t make much sense at all,” Fong said. “But if I were highly invested in the business, and I wanted a brand new group of customers, and I was aware that the word ‘gambling’ had connotations to it, I would rebrand them as this new species.”
The truth is that gambling does still have somewhat of a negative connotation. Part of the approach to deal with this negativity could be to shorten the word to gaming, a word associated with fun or skill, not risk and danger.
Fong also brought up the positive values associated with sports, specifically in American culture, and those influences over perceptions of sports betting. In other words, sports themselves have a positive reaction in American society.
“In many ways it is a microcosm of our society,” said Brett Abarbanel, a professor at UNLV and the director of research at the university’s International Gaming Institute. “We celebrate big wins, two teams competing… and there is a winner.
“Human beings for thousands and thousands of years have been risk takers, so when there is this spectatorship of competition, there is going to be an element of wagering involved. There’s risk-taking,” Abarbanel said.
An academic paper by Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez, Mark Griffiths, and Susana Jimenez-Murcia in 2021 said “The normalization of sports betting behavior hampers the identification of betting-related harms and, paradoxically, by lowering the social stigma associated with being a sports bettor— something, in principle, positive—undermines problem gambling self-awareness among those experiencing it.”
The paper also contends that “by drawing narrative elements, meanings, metaphors, and symbols embedded in sport, the notion of sports betting attaches itself to a positive set of connotations.”
Abarbanel said a significant aspect of these perceptions is the sense of a “skill game,” just like the sports wagered on.
“They are doing active decision making. They are making choices that will make them come into a win, as opposed to just pushing a button over and over,” Abarbanel said. “When you throw in these elements of skill, you begin to change the way people think about these decisions and the risk they are undertaking.”
A growing number of states allow mobile online wagering, which doesn’t require a visit to a casino.
“The larger picture of this is that we now have a whole new segment of the population that are engaging in gambling and sports betting that never would have been drawn to go inside of a casino,” Fong said. “That is the larger public health question. By expanding gambling to every household in America, are we now exposing a lot more individuals, who are biologically at risk, to develop this disorder? Of course the answer is yes.”
The modern gambling industry has expanded so far and so fast and has broken cultural barriers, which have a massive impact on our culture.
“If you don’t have that sense of danger—that edge—then you’re perhaps blinding people to the risk,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling
There have been arguments for decades about whether to label the stock market, lotteries, or daily fantasy sports as “gambling.” They all involve risk and the potential to lose large amounts of money, but there are important reasons those involved don’t want them to be defined as gambling.
“We assume if it’s ‘gambling,’ it’s dangerous and needs regulation. If it’s ‘gaming’ and not regulated, it’s not dangerous,” Whyte said. “I’ve had lottery directors tell me their product is not gambling.”
Fong said, “People who come here to see us for treatment, they don’t say, ‘I’m a sports bettor that has a problem.’ They say, ‘I can’t sleep, I’m depressed, I’m stressed out, I have no money, I’m lying to my wife, I’m almost at my wit’s end, and I want to kill myself.’ They don’t care what we call it.”
Sports betting can convince many that it is a skill, entertainment, and not really gambling. But they can’t get away with that when it comes to online casino games. The potential for problems has increased two or three times, according to NY Online Gambling.
When it comes to sports betting, your investment is limited as the game you’re betting on has to be played, although in-play games can take your money a bit faster. iGaming has no waiting, just keep playing and keep betting, and for some, keep losing.
As New Jersey has shown, the revenue New York could generate from iGaming is likely to dwarf the astronomical numbers mobile sports betting already has produced.
The introduction of a bill to do just that could occur in January. But it won’t be shepherded as quickly as sports betting.
“When I look at iGaming, I’m more cautious, because I think the population for iGaming is far greater than mobile sports gambling,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo, one of the architects of New York’s mobile sports betting structure and the sponsor of the first Senate iGaming bill that failed to gain approval this year. “I just feel that we really now have to emphasize problem gaming, addiction, and having regular conversations with OASAS.”
Addabbo was referring to the Office of Addiction Services and Supports. He said part of his work in drafting new legislation to introduce iGaming next January will be to carefully craft the language on problem gambling. The launch of mobile sports betting brought with it 12 safeguards against problem gambling, including the monitoring of accounts, self-exclusion mechanisms, and the ability to freeze accounts in some cases.
Getting even stronger mechanisms in place to address online gambling problems is at the heart of the issue, Addabbo said. He is considering limiting the hours bettors can access online casino games, among other measures.
“It is a revenue generator. It is a generator for significant educational funds and for problem gambling and addiction funding as well,” Addabbo said.