What If Sports Bettors Don’t Consider Themselves Gamblers?

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The large, high-ceilinged room on the second level of the Anaheim Convention Center was packed, with tribal casino representatives, gambling industry executives, press, and vendors filling most of the available seats.

Melissa Blau, a gaming consultant, had the attention of the audience during the opening session of the Indian Gaming Association tradeshow and convention in April. She was speaking about the options tribal organizations have as sports betting expands in the United States — retail vs. mobile, running their own shop vs. partnering with an operator, etc. A slide went up during her presentation that compared sports betting to casino, which the audience of tribal representatives would be more familiar with, since sports betting has yet to be legalized in California while tribal casinos have been around in the state since the late 1980s.

At the bottom of the slide, a single line stood out, at first, as outlandish. It 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. “And they don’t view sports betting, particularly, as gambling, so it’s an entertainment pastime.”

At the National Indian Gaming Association Association convention this week. In the first presentation, found this, uh, interesting… pic.twitter.com/tOR22MeOFj

— Jeremy Balan (@jeremybalan) April 19, 2022

A glance around the room didn’t capture a single look of confusion or dismay that a clear gambling activity would not be considered gambling by those participating in it, but there were some nods in agreement.

How could this be? How could bettors putting wagers on sports not consider it gambling, and why would they think that?

Blau, in the moment and even months later, declined to share what data or experience inspired her statement, but those who study gambling and the psychology behind it don’t necessarily disagree with her sentiment.

Could this self-perception be true?

“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.

But while Fong acknowledges a segment of sports bettors classify themselves differently than other gamblers, he doesn’t attribute that self-perception to cognitive distortion — where gamblers may be lying to themselves to make them feel better — as much as a product of the environment, which has presented sports betting more through the lens of entertainment than as a risky gamble.

“If you sat down with a sports bettor and really pressed them, in time they would probably agree what they’re doing is gambling, but they don’t view it that way, in part because it’s not advertised or portrayed that way,” he said. “What would be the advantage of separating sports bettors from gamblers? It depends on your lane. As a clinician, it’s not something I would do. For me, as someone who studies gambling, it doesn’t make much sense at all.

“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.”

Words matter

The perception of gambling is shifting, and although it does not carry the same stigma as it did 20, 50, or 100 years ago, there is still a lingering negative connotation. A “gamble,” even outside the commercial gambling world, means “an act having an element of risk,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

So, as legal gambling — specifically sports betting — continues to proliferate in the U.S., it is no wonder why those in a position to benefit from that expansion might want to soften language surrounding it, like the framing of “gaming” instead of “gambling.”

“The word ‘gambling’ still brings about a lot of connotations, stereotypes, and myths. ‘Gaming’ seems softer, but video games are not without problems. … Gambling is still associated with harm and gaming is not,” Fong said. “They’re creating this brand new community of sports bettors, and that sounds great, but if you ask a group of a hundred people on the street about what a sports bettor is — would you hang out with them? Would you date a guy with ‘sports bettor’ in his Tinder profile? I don’t know where that currently exists right now.

“Take something completely outrageous. Men that look at child porn might not look at themselves as sexual predators. They might consider themselves ‘men who enjoy young people.’ You’re just putting lipstick on a pig.”

The influence of sports

Fong also brought up the positive values associated with sports, specifically in American culture, and those influences over perceptions of sports betting, and that point was furthered by Brett Abarbanel, a professor at UNLV and the director of research at the university’s International Gaming Institute.

“Sports really is this bastion of society. In many ways it is a microcosm of our society,” Abarbanel said. “We celebrate big wins, two teams competing against each other is kind of like war, and because in matches like this, there is a winner … which means, when you are spectating, it isn’t just entertainment, it is competition.

“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.”

Then why wouldn’t the risk taking of sports betting be considered “gambling” by those who participate in it? This issue was explored by a trio of authors (Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez, Mark Griffiths, and Susana Jimenez-Murcia) in an academic paper titled “The Symbolic Construction of Sports Betting Products” in 2021.

“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 stated. “Attributes that symbolically approach gambling to health, nature, suitability for young people, or being a working-class game, contribute to the perception of sports betting as a riskless activity.”

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.”

An earlier paper, from a similar author group (Lopez-Gonzalez, Griffiths, and Ana Estévez) in 2018, studied “male sports bettors undergoing treatment for gambling disorder” in Spain. The study found two “fundamental characteristics of sports betting social perception” — “the absence of negative connotations associated with sports betting comparative to other gambling forms” and “the presence of positive connotations that sanitized sports betting as a harmless practice.”

“Bettors reported the presence of positive connotations about betting, and the lack of negative connotations, which affected them in terms of stigma, gambling normalization, and peer influence,” the paper concluded. “The paper draws attention to the significance of the social perception process and suggests that policymakers should be cognizant of these perceptions in order to inform responsible gambling regulation.”

And, Abarbanel said, a significant aspect of these perceptions is the sense of a “skill game,” just like the sports wagered on. Almost identical to debates over classifying poker and daily fantasy sports from the past, the aspect of skill over luck (although luck still is a significant influence) changes perception.

“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.”

That opinion is validated by a study from 2022, on Australian men ages 18-24, that examined how they perceived risk in sports betting. It found that “perceptions of control were evident in participants’ accounts of a range of strategies that they described could be used to reduce the risks associated with sports betting and enabled a competitive edge in winning money. They stated that these strategies could positively influence the outcomes of their bets, and also influenced the types of betting products and markets they favored, with particular engagement in high-risk markets.”

Those high-risk markets — specifically pointed out to be “single-game multi” markets, or single-game parlays, as we know them in the U.S. — gave the sense of less risk, although those wagers are considered on the top end of hold percentages for sportsbooks.

“Serve up Same Game Parlays to players who have a proclivity to engage with that type of bet.”

Imagine any other industry that targets a demographic based on their lack of understanding of math.

ie: A bank serves up higher mortgage rates to people who seem finance deficient. https://t.co/15tppuEVyu

— Captain Jack Andrews (@capjack2000) May 21, 2022

“They indicated that bets through this type of product could result in more immediate rewards. This, as well as the association between having a significant interest in sport and a perception that they had a high level of sporting knowledge, influenced the appeal of multi bets,” the study noted. “This perception of control led a number of participants to perceive that engaging with this type of product reduced the risks associated with losing, describing these bets as ‘low risk, high reward.’ However … these markets, alongside risk-reducing promotions such as inducements and cash-back offers, contributed to a few participants staking more money on these markets.”

What are the consequences of this perception?

While academics like Fong and Abarbanel, as well as problem gambling advocates, agree that the vast majority of sports bettors can participate responsibly, they worry about the rapid expansion and how the perception of sports betting as a lower-risk activity can increasingly endanger those vulnerable to addiction. And while that stigma of “the gambler” shifting may be a benefit for most who participate, that coin has another side. Many U.S. states with legal sports betting allow for mobile or online wagering, which can be accessed without ever stepping foot in 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. “Casinos are being brought to them. 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.”

Both Fong and Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, made the analogy of buying a ticket to a movie, which is entirely viewed as a form of entertainment. If a consumer buys a $15 movie ticket, that money is gone, and the payoff is the entertainment of the movie, or as Fong put it, “a hit of dopamine” for an action movie. And that occurs without major consequences. The same could be said for a sports bettor who makes a wager on a sporting event, watches the event, then moves on. But what about those who don’t?

“We don’t know exactly how much we’re going to enjoy the new Thor movie, but there’s a euphoria to winning a thousand dollars,” Whyte said. “No movie is going to live up to that. That $15 could turn into $15,000. So, I think there is enormous risk there in a couple ways. One, for people who may get into trouble, they could be betting more than they bargained for. You don’t go to a movie and lose your house.

“The modern gambling industry has expanded so far and so fast and 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.”

But this is not a new phenomenon. There have been arguments for decades about whether to define things like 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.”

So what does that mean in practice, and how should those in charge of framing and overseeing the sports betting industry (regulators, operators, etc.) proceed? There was a recent move by FanDuel to stop using the words “risk-free” for promotions, and some operators are getting better about responsible gambling advertising, but are there consistent and sustained messages about the inherent risks of gambling? There are not, and some question whether those in the gambling space should have a greater social responsibility.

“These are private businesses that need to maximize their profits,” Fong said. “If I ever got in front of CEOs, I’d ask them, ‘How do you feel about yourselves at night?’ The same for gun manufacturers. Millions of Americans love your product, and the vast majority of people do not engage and have a serious problem, but there are going to be a tiny percentage who end up dead because of what you’re doing. Are you OK with that?

“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.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Author: Ryan Gonzales