Legal Sports Betting – Our Next Addiction Crisis?

With the legalization of sports betting, we may be courting our next addiction crisis.

Sports betting is not new but, in 2018, the Supreme Court lifted a longstanding prohibition that significantly limited gambling on sports. Since that decision, legal sports betting has been big business – approximately $220 billion in five years big. It’s no wonder that 38 states have since chosen to legalize it.

Not everyone is thrilled by the pace of expansion, however – gambling disorder affects an estimated two million adults in the United States each year. In many states where sports betting is now legal, the behavioral health impact is a major concern.

The Science of Addiction and Gambling

Conversations about addiction usually focus on the misuse of drugs and alcohol. Other types of addiction, such as gambling disorder, are left out. This narrow view persists despite how similar gambling disorder and substance use disorders are.

The fundamental science of addiction is centered around the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain in response to a chemical or behavioral trigger. Over time this release is less and less effective, requiring either increased consumption or potency of the trigger to achieve the same effect. Research shows that gambling disorder relies on many of the same mechanisms. Veterans, college students, and those of lower socioeconomic status appear to be more at-risk for becoming addicted to gambling (and other things) than other groups.

In recent years, the evidence base on sports betting in particular has rapidly developed. When compared to gamblers who do not bet on sports, sports betters have been found to gamble more frequently and report higher rates of problem gambling. Sports betting has also been associated with more frequent use of substances and increased consumption of video games and pornography – two forms of media garnering new attention as being highly addictive.

Gambling Disorder and Its Consequences

As is the case with substance use disorders, gambling disorder has a significant impact on the health and well-being of the individual and those around them.

For starters, the negative social consequences of gambling disorder are many. On top of financial losses, individuals often lose or damage their interpersonal relationships. They may have difficulty performing at work or school. Unfortunately, the impacts persist long after the problem behavior has been resolved.

Gambling disorder doesn’t exist in a vacuum either. Often, individuals also struggle with alcohol and/or substance use disorders. Gambling disorder frequently co-occurs with serious psychiatric conditions, including post-traumatic stress, bipolar, major depressive, and personality disorders. Research has also found pronounced and disheartening links between gambling disorder and suicide.

Given what we are learning about gambling disorder and its impacts, we should be concerned by sports betting’s meteoric rise.

What’s Behind the Sports Betting Boom?

The sports betting boom has been made possible by two key factors: the industry’s ability to incentivize play and the institutional backing of the professional sports apparatus.

Sportsbooks, gambling operators that accept bets and pay out winnings in-person or online, deploy a number of tools to incentivize new players. For example, deposit matches match a new player’s first deposit and free bets give a new player an allowance to make bets. These tactics not only lower the financial barrier of entry but also project the illusion that sports betting isn’t that risky. More and more, players are learning firsthand that these promotions aren’t as generous or straightforward as they seem.

Then, there is the gamification of bets. Gamification adds a degree of fun and whimsy designed to entice the casual viewer. For example, each year, Super Bowl prop bets let viewers gamble on everything from the length of the National Anthem to what songs the half-time performer will sing.

The professional sports industry is also responsible for the growth of sports betting. From the four major American professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) to the English Premier League, the governing bodies of sport have quite literally co-signed on sports betting through official sponsorships. Teams and venues have even followed suit with their own partnerships.

Sports media broadcasters incorporate sports betting into their content, too. Some of this integration is subtle – a scrolling ticker with the latest betting odds, for example – but, increasingly, broadcasters are more overt and are going so far as to license their own brands to sportsbooks. If that wasn’t enough, sportsbooks themselves are creating podcasts and TV networks.


Most people who bet on a game or two won’t develop a gambling disorder, but public health experts are understandably worried about the entanglement of sports and gambling. Proponents have a simple answer: Gamble responsibly. Leagues, teams, and sportsbooks encourage players to bet responsibly, know their limits, and never chase losses. They argue the onus is on the individual and they might be right. But we should watch out for those who gamble and lose and be ready with help.

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