Online sports betting has never been easier and that's sorta terrifyingGet the Full StorySports betting is like a rollercoaster: The highs are thrilling, the lows considerably less so, and at the end, you might feel a little sick.I learned this the hard way in mid-January during an NFL playoff game between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals. I didn't care at all about who won the game or even by how much. I was only there for a player named Cam Akers. You see, online sports betting had just become legal in New York, and with just a few taps on my iPhone screen, I was able to put a few bucks down on Akers scoring a touchdown, which felt likely and would've had a decent payout.I was on the edge of my couch cushion, ignoring the beer in front of me as each time the Rams got close to the end zone, they suddenly... stopped giving the ball to Akers. I developed a sense of rage towards the Rams head coach Sean McVay, who was seemingly going out of his way to screw me, specifically, out of 30. "What the hell is he doing?" My thinking became conspiratorial; my mind convinced a millionaire football coach I've never met was playing me like a fiddle. As the clock ran down at the end of a mostly boring football game, it became clear to me that, as a factor of mathematical impossibility, Akers wouldn't score. More importantly, my checking account would also be a little emptier because of it. There just wasn't enough time left in the game. As the Hollywood football team celebrated the beginning of what would become a championship journey, I felt like the biggest loser on the planet. Dejected and demoralized, I realized I had added an unnecessary layer of anxiety onto something that should've been and usually is a casually enjoyable time.Maybe I'd feel differently if I'd won that day, or on any of the other small playoff football bets I made. But for as much of a thrill ride as the online sports betting experience can be, there's a whole lot about it that can make you feel like you need to take a shower pronto, too.The major players in a big new industryThose relatively small financial losses and major ego hits I suffered during the playoffs were made possible by the rapid spread of online betting parlors that advertise constantly, on both social media and during in-game commercial breaks. These include DraftKings a publicly traded independent company , FanDuel owned by Irish firm Flutter Entertainment , and Caesars Sportsbook, operated by the famous casino company of the same name.Every major pro sports league in the U.S. partners with at least one of these companies, so I wasn't able to avoid it at all in the course of watching football every weekend for several months. After decades of sports betting being the domain of smoky backrooms and shady phone calls, the barrage of advertisements combined with the slickness and ease of placing bets on my phone was tantalizing, to say the least.For example, it took me about 30 seconds of scattershot tapping in the DraftKings app to put together a seemingly reasonable series of hypothetical bets totaling 30 that could've netted me more than 100. I didn't place them, but one press of a button would've changed that.
Easy money! Maybe. Probably not.
Credit: DraftKings Screenshot: Alex Perry
It's astonishing to me that all of this is so easy now. What's even more unbelievable is that we're here after a full century of gambling being taboo in the sports world.Wait, sports betting is legal?
They held a big ceremony when the first legal sports bet in New Jersey was placed in 2018.
Credit: DOMINICK REUTER AFP via Getty Images
Even as someone who cares a ton about sports, New York state opening the floodgates to online betting at the start of 2022 was a surprise to me but not to the folks who stood to profit off of it in a suddenly friendly legal environment. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that a federal ban was unconstitutional, states now had the ability to legalize and regulate betting as they saw fit. In less than four years, we went from Nevada Vegas, baby! being the country's lone sports betting sanctuary to now over half the U.S. allowing it in some form. Other states, like Florida, are working on getting laws or constitutional amendments passed to join in on the fun.This is bizarre to take in as an amateur sports historian because for so long, the leagues wanted absolutely nothing to do with betting. The potential for game fixing is obvious, and leagues partnering directly with betting sites has led to some conspiratorial thinking by some sports fans, myself included. I mean, it was pretty weird how the refs kept throwing flags at the end of Super Bowl LVI in ways that directly helped the Rams who were favored to win the game.I don't actually think betting had anything to do with that, but it's hard not to wonder. Until the Supreme Court ruling, sports leagues took a hard line against sports betting partially to discourage that conspiracy mindset. As recently as 2014, college basketball players at the University of Texas-El Paso were kicked off the team for betting on sporting events, which didn't even include games they played in. Beyond that, there have been a number of higher-profile cases that rocked various leagues:1919: Several Chicago White Sox players are generally agreed to have thrown or purposely lost the World Series in exchange for mob money1983: 23-year-old Baltimore Colts quarterback Art Schlichter is suspended indefinitely from the NFL for betting on games, a suspension that was never lifted1987: Pete Rose, who still holds the record for most hits in major league history, is banned for life from baseball for betting on games2007: Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleads guilty to accepting bribes to affect the outcomes of gamesBetting on games or otherwise being adjacent to the betting industry was enough to make you persona non grata in every major sports league in this country as recently as Barack Obama's presidency. Now, the NFL is officially partnered with multiple betting services, betting information is shown in onscreen graphics during games, and you can t sit through a commercial break on gameday without seeing ads for betting apps. Hell, there are even NFL and NHL teams in Las Vegas now. A new normal has emerged so fast that it's like the days of career-ending shame and embarrassment for anyone caught betting never existed at all.Gambling in the social media ageThe major pain I felt as the Rams gave the ball to anyone not named Cam Akers near the end zone is a very minor example of how this stuff can be problematic, even if it s fun. And to be clear, I don t believe there's any going back now, nor should we. Pandora s box is officially open and sports betting is unlikely to get less legal around here anytime soon. Merely losing money is better than losing money in a way that could invite jail time. That said, it s worth understanding how easy online access to sports betting could be legitimately dangerous for some people.According to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a nonprofit devoted to gambling addiction research, around 1 percent of the U.S. adult population has a severe gambling problem, with a higher proportion of those with problems in the college age range. That comes out to around 2.5 million adults who may exhibit behaviors like betting unreasonably high dollar amounts to increase the excitement, chasing losses going back for more after losing money to break even , and lying to others about it, per the American Psychological Association, America's largest psychological organization. And, of course, problem gambling doesn t exist in a vacuum these problems affect the gamblers partners, children, and other loved ones, too.
The group that s most addicted to gambling is our governments. They re addicted to the enormous revenues that are generated as a result of wagering.
It hasn't always been easy to place money on games. Before you could load up a phone app and put money down on a game in seconds, there were at least social or psychological barriers barriers in place to stop less ambitious people, like myself, from diving in. You had to either know a guy, cross state lines depending on where you lived , or use offshore companies that ran the risk of federal prosecution or simply screwing you over. Those barriers have been torn down, with gambling ads littered all over social media where the aforementioned young adult age group that s more susceptible to these issues might see them.
Betting lines displayed old-school style at a traditional Vegas sportsbook, before it was legal around the country.
Credit: Ethan Miller Getty Images
Jeffrey Derevensky, a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal whose bonafides include testifying in front of Canada s senate about legalized sports betting said that online sports betting is being pushed in spaces where younger people might see it because that demographic is vulnerable to some of the, well, patently false things sports betting can fool you into believing. Young adults are the big risk takers, they re the people who think they know everything, Derevensky said. You watch a lot of sports, you read a lot about sports, you talk to your buddies about sports, and therefore you think you re very proficient in sports. Whew. I felt seen when he said that. One reason I was so eager to try out these apps is that I thought I knew what I was betting on. I study sports with a passion and thought my insight could help me win money, like Derevensky said. It turns out this stuff is fundamentally random players can get hurt, or have mental lapses, or an oblong-shaped football can just bounce in a way it shouldn't.Derevensky was also quick to point out that the biggest driver of this new legality isn t individual addiction, but rather revenue potential at the government level. Remember, gambling income is taxable. The group that s most addicted to gambling is our governments, Derevensky said. They re addicted to the enormous revenues that are generated as a result of wagering. Case in point: In the first month of legal betting in New York, nearly 2 billion in wagers were placed. This created 138 million in gross revenue and 70 million in tax revenue, per the governor s office. Simply put, it s immensely profitable and the state doesn t even have to put in much effort to get that money. People want to do it, so why not take a cut?GuardrailsIf you, like me, are of the mind that maybe this could be a fun thing to try, it s a good idea to set some personal guardrails for yourself. For example, I never put down more than 15 on any individual bet because I didn t want to lose more than the cost of a cheap by New York standards meal. But I m not a professional.Dr. David Greenfield is a professional, as the founder and medical director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, which treats patients and contributes to internet addiction research. I asked him what precautions first-timers should take and he boiled it down to three things:Understand that you don t have any kind of edge, or that you don t know something that nobody else knows like how I was certain Cam Akers would score a touchdown Only bet what you can afford to loseDon t bet based on emotion or, in other words, don't just bet money on players or teams you likeThat last point is crucial. I had to stop myself from betting on the team I actually care about in the playoffs because their games give me enough anxiety as is. Beyond that, one of Greenfield s specialties is internet addiction. Interestingly, he said there are similarities between that and gambling addiction. He likened the internet to a casino in its own way and predicted internet-based gambling would produce more problems going forward because it s adding one potent ingredient to another. No matter what you re doing on the internet , you never know what you re going to get, when you re going to get it, and how good it s going to be, Greenfield said. "The internet is essentially the world's biggest slot machine, the smartphone is the world's smallest slot machine...you would lose interest in your smartphone instantly if it were not connected to the internet."Down, but not out
Confession: I bet on the Bengals to lose in the playoffs before they made it to the Super Bowl.
Credit: Rob Carr Getty Images
Even with all of that in mind including my own negative forays into betting , I m still of the belief that legalizing and normalizing it is better than keeping it in the shadows. Generally speaking, it s less shameful to admit that you need help if the thing you need help with isn t something that other people are going to shun you for. We don t need to add shame where shame doesn t need to exist. Money has been changing hands based on the outcomes of sporting events for longer than any of us have been alive, so I d rather it be open, transparent, and regulated than relegated to back alleys and shady parlors.But I can t lie: The handful of bets I placed on NFL playoff games none involving the team I personally root for, and none on the Super Bowl altered my relationship with the sport in a way I felt a little gross about. I ve never even liked fantasy sports. I tune in to see athletic achievement and people cheering their teams to victory, not to count some guy s stats to make sure I have a higher number on a spreadsheet than a virtual opponent of mine. I don t want to artificially care about something I wouldn t care about naturally, and that s what betting did for me. It also doesn t help that I lost nearly all of them.I don't need extra spice on top of the sports-fandom stew I've cooked for myself over the past several years. I'm in this for the love of the game, man. In my brief time with it, sports betting introduced more anxiety than pleasure.It's scary. It can feel gross. It can drain your wallet. And you bet the app is still on my phone anyway.