Opinion | What’s New for This Super Bowl? The N.F.L.’s Full Embrace of Gambling. – The New York Times

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Opinion Writer
Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 will be the first for which the National Football League has fully embraced gambling. Three bet takers — DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Entertainment — have been named official sports betting partners of the league. Four others — PointsBet, WynnBET, BetMGM and FOX Bet — have been designated approved sports book operators. It’s a big change for a league that once aggressively discouraged betting on games.
If you think gambling on football — or on anything else — is just good, clean fun, then this explosion of opportunities to place bets probably looks like progress. Sports books are making odds on more than 4,000 “proposition” bets for the Super Bowl, including whether the singer of the national anthem will forget any words and how many ads will depict people wearing masks. Pass the potato chips, place another bet!
For some people, though, gambling is a nightmare. Steve, presumably a pseudonym, was an alcoholic living under a bridge in Pennsylvania who got into treatment, got sober, repaired his relationship with his family, helped one daughter with her college applications and coached his other daughter’s softball team. Then he started gambling and his world fell apart.
“He has maxed out all of his credit cards,” according to Mary Carr, a drug and alcohol program administrator, who told his story in prepared testimony before the Pennsylvania State Senate Committee on Community, Economic and Recreational Development in 2011. “No, Steve isn’t drinking or using, yet. He is gambling, gambling uncontrollably, and it is at our local casino. He is embarrassed, ashamed and feeling helpless.”
Gambling addicts can imperil themselves and their families by wagering more than they can afford. In the extreme, that can lead to bankruptcy, embezzlement, family violence and suicide. More often, people gamble more than is healthy even though they may fit only one or two of the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for gambling addiction, which include being “restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling” and a need to “gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.”
The question society hasn’t squarely faced is whether the good, clean fun that some people get from placing wagers outweighs the harm suffered by gambling addicts and the much larger group of problem gamblers, and if the bad outweighs the good, what to do about it.
That question becomes more salient every year. It’s not just the N.F.L. that has thrown its lot in with gambling interests. Since 2018, when the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 law that effectively banned commercial sports betting in most states, online sports betting in one form or another has spread to 25 states and the District of Columbia. This chart shows the rapid increase in the “handle” — the total amount wagered.

Online sports betting still doesn’t involve as much money as state-run lotteries and online and brick-and-mortar casinos, but it presents special risks. One is its ubiquity — at the Super Bowl, for instance. Presenting wall-to-wall gambling advertising during the big game feels like putting trays of loose cigarettes on every coffee table in America and telling ex-smokers, well, you don’t have to smoke if you don’t want to. And, as smoking marketers knew for decades, minors and young adults are highly impressionable. Young men, who tend to watch a lot of sports on television, are particularly susceptible to becoming addicted to gambling through online sports betting, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. And online sports betting can be a gateway to casino gambling, which is more lucrative for the house, he adds.
Casino technologists and designers have become expert in the art of manipulation (something we also see in grocery store layouts). By now, most of us know the tricks casinos use to compel people to wager more. No windows, no clocks, a labyrinthine floor layout that keeps people stuck inside, sitting and playing. Slot machines have irresistible sounds and colors, and some give payouts that aren’t even as big as the bet but still activate the “I won” portion of the brain.
Wagering apps, whether for sports or casino bets, use all those tricks and add a whole new set developed to keep people engaged with social media on their phones by engaging our desires for instant gratification. There is “a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, said in a 2017 TED Talk. Liraz Margalit, a digital psychologist in Tel Aviv, told me that mobile app makers tone down the colors and sounds for first-time gamblers so as not to scare them off. App designers have taken research done to help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and applied it to gamblers, she says.
A 2018 article in Gaming Law Review explains that casinos, both physical and virtual, try to induce a state of “attenuated thought,” or “dissociation,” by eliminating transactional frictions. The “bet again” function saves a player’s previous bet size and payline choices, while electronic funds transfer allows them to keep playing when their original stake runs out. Anything that can be done to break people out of their trance, then, is for the better. “One of the most effective policy changes in terms of reducing gambling expenditure was the introduction of smoking bans that caused gamblers to take a break and leave the gambling venue to smoke,” the authors wrote.
I read transcripts of recent conference calls in which gambling executives described their strategies to Wall Street analysts. As you can imagine, finding ways to limit wagering was not high on their list of priorities. Instead most of the talk was about the costly inducements that the companies are offering to attract new players, hoping to get them to stay. The terms of art are TOD and LTV: time on device and lifetime value.
Here are two remarks:
Jason K. Park, chief financial officer of DraftKings: “This is a product that lends itself to a little bit of egging and elbowing and ribbing and talking trash with your friends or people that are in your network. And to have all of that embedded within your favorite app I think will drive retention for sure but also increase levels of play in monetization, new sport introduction, all of that.”
Richard Schwartz, chief executive officer of Rush Street Interactive: “When you’re betting on things like sports and casino, you want to be able to enter the app and do a very quick face ID. Get in there, play, have it available on your phone very easily and accessible.” He added that there are “limited markets where we have some friction that we’re very eager to get rid of.”
There’s nothing illegal about any of this, of course, but gambling executives’ understandable desire to add customers and get them to spend more takes on a different complexion when you consider that some customers have a hard time saying no and may be gambling with money they cannot afford to lose.
It’s not just gambling that can be addictive. People have unhealthy online relationships with pornography, with shopping and with social media, like Facebook. There’s a website called Game Quitters that has articles such as “How to Stop Playing Candy Crush for Good.”
“I sometimes wonder if we haven’t fixated on gambling to a point of over-fascination, given that there is no shortage of ways that people can part with money for experiences,” says Chris Grove, who founded the sports betting practice of the Eilers & Krejcik consultancy in Irvine, Calif., and remains a consultant to the company.
True enough. But gambling is especially pernicious. It’s the only non-substance-related addiction recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013.
Right now there seems little will to regulate gambling among either Democrats or Republicans. As a November article in The Atlantic put it: “The left wants the government out of people’s private lives. The right wants the government out of their financial lives.” We may decide some day that we made a big mistake.
Regarding your newsletter on Jan. 28: Even as scientists seek to review and sort out good research, a more compelling need is to set expectations with the public at large about scientific inquiry, its accuracy, its limits, and the inevitable variability in metrics. Especially in a public health emergency like Covid. We have a public that believes science gives us 100 percent accuracy, 100 percent of the time, for 100 percent of people.
Daniel Welch
Old Saybrook, Conn.
“What we are really comparing our new approach against is traditional ‘supply side economics,’ which also seeks to expand the economy’s potential output, but through aggressive deregulation paired with tax cuts designed to promote private capital investment. It is, unquestionably, important to properly implement regulation and maintain a pro-growth tax code, but they are not sufficient and can often be overdone. Modern supply side economics, in contrast, prioritizes labor supply, human capital, public infrastructure, R & D and investments in a sustainable environment.”
— Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in remarks prepared for the 2022 Virtual Davos Agenda hosted by the World Economic Forum, Jan. 21, 2022
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