This piece is part of a series of stories about today’s sports-betting boom and how to combat a gambling addiction. To read the rest of the stories, click here.
IT STARTED WITH a $300 bonus credit for FanDuel. Samith A. began receiving referrals from friends to join the betting app when New York legalized online sports betting in January 2022. The then-22-year-old sales specialist had never placed a bet, but the promotional offers tempted him—up to $1,000 for “risk-free” bets—so he downloaded the app and started placing a few wagers on the NBA. A few months passed, and nothing really hit . . . until something did. He won a $300 bet on a Lakers-Jazz game. He was up double—and he hadn’t even spent any of his own money yet. That was the firstt ime he felt that gambling high.
Summer came around, and Samith was bored, so he took $25 and selected a bunch of MLB teams for a parlay based on minus odds, meaning they were projected to win. He ended up turning that $25 into $2,000 in one day. Quick cash that makes you think, If I’d put in $250, I would’ve had $20,000. If I’d put in $2,500, I would’ve had $200,000. Challenge accepted. Samith started placing bets daily. There was only one week he didn’t bet that summer: when he went on vacation to Hawaii, where online sports betting isn’t legal.
Samith’s social feeds spurred him on. Gambling Twitter is filled with heavily promoted communities of sports bettors, like @GoldBoysBets, which charges for access to its picks and entices people to pay for them by posting its winnings (think turning $5 into $5,000, $1,800 into $60,000). That FOMO. Samith joined the group and started placing bets on sports he didn’t even watch, like football. Then tennis. Then the random overseas games at 2:00 a.m. He would win some, lose some, but he was basically breaking even. Then he started betting even larger amounts of money trying to get ahead. When he lost, he’d keep betting higher amounts to make back what he lost, and he’d lose that, too. At one point, he was losing $3,000 a week. He was continually transferring money from his savings and paychecks to his debit card. From September to November, he was down $12,000.
Thanksgiving weekend came around, and there were a lot of promotional offers on football, so Samith placed a $200 special bet on every NFL team getting a touchdown and field goal. He won all his money back, but he promised himself he’d take fewer risks. Still, he ended up losing $6,000 by the end of January. That’s when he decided to self-exclude (aka ban himself) from FanDuel for a month. “You have to sit with yourself and ask, Where is this leading toward?” he says. “Is this something that is bringing you happiness, or is it leading toward an addiction?”
A FEW YEARS ago, it would have been unheard of for an NFL announcer to discuss which team the money line was favoring in the game they were covering, or for viewers to watch commercial after commercial from sports-betting apps during NBA games. Since the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018, 38 states plus D. C. have legalized sports betting as a quick way to increase tax revenue. No longer the shady pastime our dads did under the table, sports betting has exploded into a $7.5 billion industry (on track to become $182 billion by 2030) that’s become more accessible—and more embedded in our society—than ever.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), we’re experiencing the largest and fastest expansion of gambling in our nation’s history. The American Gaming Association (AGA) reports that the number of Americans open to placing a sports bet has grown by 24 million since 2019. This unprecedented growth is attributed to easy access to mobile sports betting, as well as exposure to sports betting through sports broadcasts, sports-betting advertisements, and celebrity and athlete sportsbook partnerships that normalize—and encourage—betting. In the first quarter of 2023, Americans wagered a record $31.11 billion on sports—a 15 percent increase compared with the same period in 2022.
Five years into the widespread legalization of sports betting, we’re at an inflection point. While the reason behind the bipartisan effort to legalize it is clear (hello, money), it doesn’t come without a cost: As sports betting becomes more and more accessible, the number of people who are likely to develop a gambling addiction will continue to increase. The NCPG estimated that the risk for a gambling addiction rose by 30 percent between 2018 and 2021, particularly among men ages 18 to 24. Men are more likely to have a gambling problem than women, and sports bettors are much higher-intensity gamblers overall, with live in-game betting being associated with greater levels of impulsivity.
A gambling disorder, which is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as repeated problem-gambling behavior, is also linked with depression, anxiety, and suicide. In fact, suicidality among those who gamble at problematic levels is higher than among the general population. This is on top of debt (the average debt generated by a man addicted to gambling is between $55,000 and $90,000), job and home loss, damaged relationships, legal issues, and more. “There’s a state of gambling withdrawal just like opiate withdrawal or alcohol withdrawal,” says Timothy Fong, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a codirector of its gambling-studies program. “When you’re not able to gamble or participate in gambling, your body and your brain react to it. It goes through sleeplessness, changes in appetite, sadness, depression, anxiety. However, with mobile sports betting, there’s no such thing as that anymore, because you’re never not in a casino. You’re there unless you’re completely cut off.”
Some guys are at a higher risk than others. According to one study, Black men are more likely to develop a gambling addiction than white men. Guys who are single and under 30 are also at a higher risk (though Men’s Health discovered that a significant number of married men think they may currently have a sports-betting addiction), as well as anyone with a history of substance abuse or a mental-health disorder, such as depression. Sports bettors specifically often have higher education and income levels, as many perceive the results of their gambling as being determined by their skills and knowledge rather than chance and luck, overestimating their ability to win. This is known as the delusion of expertise and can accelerate gambling behaviors and, ultimately, the development of a gambling addiction.
“We call [gambling addiction] the hidden addiction,”says Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG. “There are few, if any, outward physical signs, and it makes it a lot harder to track and detect.” This means it’s difficult to assess the full extent of the potential gambling public-health crisis that’s unfolding. To find out more, Men’s Health surveyed men across the country and found that 38 percent of them had placed a sports bet in the past 12 months. Of those men, 61 percent bet either daily or weekly, and nearly half believe that sports-betting advertisements and promotions influence their gambling habits. (Advertising spending for sports and online gaming reached an estimated $1.8 billion in 2022.) Those who have seriously considered quitting note that sports betting is mostly affecting their mood and their productivity—and nearly one in five of them say it’s destroying their life.
With legal sports-betting apps now at people’s fingertips, Whyte believes that problems among younger people, “from start to addiction,” are occurring much sooner, and the rate and severity of gambling problems will increase unless we as a society—and especially the direct stakeholders within the industry—rethink our approach to responsible gambling, as well as treating gambling problems. “The peak [of the severity of gambling problems] may come in the next five years, but by then the next big thing will have happened and people [will] have moved on,” says Whyte. “So we have to worry now about what may be coming in the future.”
THE GAMING INDUSTRY doesn’t seem to be too worried (it strongly believes the legal marketplace offers more visibility and protections), although it’s evolving its approach to “responsible gaming.” In 2019, the AGA launched its public-service campaign “Have a Game Plan. Bet Responsibly.” This includes partnerships with leagues like the NBA and MLB. Alongside the campaign, the AGA has a set of guidelines for any company or organization that wants to be a part of this legal marketplace. They’re not legally binding—they’re more a “living, breathing document” that’s updated as potential issues arise, such as colleges partnering with sports-betting companies.
In 2021, Louisiana State University became the first SEC school whose athletic department partnered with a sports-betting company, Caesars Sportsbook. Once the partnership went into effect, a mass email was sent—including to students who were under 21 and could not legally bet in the state—that read, “Bet $20, get $300”and encouraged people to download the Caesars app.
Robert Mann, a journalism professor at LSU whose kids were enrolled there at the time, recalls the backlash the university received about its disregard for the health and well-being of its students, along with concerns for the integrity of its sports programs. “That a university sees that as a legitimate revenue stream is just morally reprehensible,” Mann says. “It’s just a matter of time before some athlete is enticed to throw a game or shave points because someone has a huge bet on the game. We know it will happen, because it always does.”
In spite of the negative feedback, the university kept its partnership with Caesars Sportsbook until a year and a half later, when the AGA updated its Responsible Marketing Code for Sports Wagering, which now prohibits “college partnerships that promote, market or advertise sports wagering activity (other than to alumni networks or content focused on responsible gaming initiatives or problem gambling awareness),” as well as “sportsbook NIL [name, image, likeness] deals for amateur and college athletes.” Soon after, other colleges terminated their partnerships, too. What remains to be seen, though, is how many young students were directly exposed to the partnerships during this time period and will face the repercussions.
Today, sportsbook operators are increasingly focused on investing in responsible gaming tools. FanDuel and DraftKings, for example, allow customers to set deposit limits, wager limits, time limits, and cooling-off/time-out periods. While well-intentioned, there’s no data on how effective these tools are in preventing people from developing gambling disorders. It’s like expecting a person drinking at a bar to cut themselves off after four drinks.
When Men’s Health asked the AGA about any concerns the organization may have about the public-health impact of the legalization of sports betting, senior vice president Casey Clark said, “Our stance is that any percentage of people who have a problem with gambling is too high. So we want to make sure that anybody who has an issue has access to quality and consistent care.”
Despite the growing evidence that there’s a major sports-betting addiction problem, the experts Men’s Health spoke to were hesitant to call it a crisis, due to the lack of national data on problem gambling and the limited number of people who seek treatment for a gambling addiction. A public-health crisis would be indicated by an increase in bankruptcies, unemployment, crime, divorce, and suicide, notes Dr. Fong. However, there’s currently no federal entity that traces these issues back to problem gambling.
In the meantime, there are key preventive measures to take, starting with a national helpline (1-800-GAMBLER). There are a variety of problem-gambling helplines manned by underfunded resource centers, causing confusion among sports bettors when they see multiple numbers appear in small print on their TV screen. Additionally, a national approach to self-exclusion, which the AGA fought against in 2018, would allow people to ban themselves from every sports-betting app rather than having to self-exclude from individual ones.
Lia Nower, Ph.D., J.D., a professor at Rutgers University and the director of its Center for Gambling Studies, recommends the creation of a federal agency for problem gambling that would regulate any aspect of gambling related to the issue. “In the UK, they have the Gambling Commission, and they are a watchdog for the industry,” she says. “Here we have no watchdog on a federal level. It’s left to individual states, and there’s no federal money for research or prevention or education. In the National Institutes of Health, which is where most of us academic researchers would go to get money, we have an agency for drugs, an agency for alcohol, an agency for mental health. We don’t have any agency for problem gambling.”
ONCE SAMITH’S ONE-MONTH self-exclusion period ended, he started receiving promotional offers again from FanDuel. He thought to himself, “Okay, it’s a free $250 bet. Let me just play something for fun.” He wagered even higher amounts per bet ($500, $1,000), betting every day, and continued to do so for a couple months. He spent a lot of time looking at stats, data, and analytics—a behavior indicative of a gambling addiction—and often felt disengaged while out with friends.
By the end of April, Samith had lost a total of $20,000 since placing his first bet. After another long losing streak and chasing his losses, he was determined to quit this time. He went on Reddit and read other people’s sports-betting addiction stories before sharing his own. He started receiving sobering responses from guys in their 40s and 50s. Guys he really didn’t want to end up like.
Samith self-excluded from FanDuel again, this time for six months. He’s been trying to occupy himself with other hobbies and detach himself from gambling, which he’s now realizing is a “rich-people sport” and that the sports-betting companies attract “people that are trying to chase that dream of becoming rich.”
He doesn’t plan on going back—for now.
“I’m just trying to get grounded into reality,” he told Men’s Health in May. “So far, I feel like I’ve maintained my composure. The hard part is it does become an addiction, so you do get that itch. Like, Oh, let me just do one bet. I can’t watch sports the same way anymore, because I think about betting and how much I could make.”
If you or someone you know may be struggling with a gambling addiction, contact 1-800-GAMBLER. Ready to take the next step? Book an appointment with Kindbridge Behavioral Health, and receive a 20 percent discount on your first therapy session using the code “MensHealth20.” Make sure to also include Men’s Health as the referral source on the intake form.
This article originally appears in the September 2023 issue of Men’s Health.
Rachel Epstein is the Deputy Editor at Men’s Health, where she oversees, edits, and assigns content across MensHealth.com. She previously held roles at Marie Claire and Coveteur. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.