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Mobile, online sports betting could increase bad gambling behaviors

With a prevalence rate of gambling addiction that is already more than twice the national average, New Jersey’s aggressive introduction of mobile and online sports betting has raised some concerns among responsible gaming advocates and experts.

Ease of access, expanded wagering options and increased marketing toward a new demographic of gambler are among the key issues that Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said could amplify both the number of people who develop poor gambling behaviors and the severity of the problem for sports bettors in the Garden State.

“I don’t think we’re really prepared for those things coming together,” Whyte said.

During a congressional hearing on federal sports betting regulations last month, Whyte referred to those combined factors as a “Frankenstein monster” that is “unprecedented in America, and indeed anywhere else in the world.”

“As a result it is likely that most Americans will soon be bombarded by marketing urging them to bet instantly from their phone on every action by every player on every play in every game in every sport,” Whyte said in his testimony on Capitol Hill.

The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey expressed similar concerns for mobile and online sports betting, particularly the speed and the repetition of wagering the platforms offer.

While sports betting has only been legally available in New Jersey since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal ban in May, the Council on Compulsive Gambling said it has seen consistent increases in the number of calls to its help hotline over the past three years.

With New Jersey bordering two major professional sports markets and the widespread acceptance of online gaming, the council said it expects those figures to increase in the coming years.

Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling studies at Rutgers University, said research has found an additive affect to expanding gaming options.   

“In and of itself, online or sports wagering is not going to raise the prevalence rate of addiction,” she said. “But the more things you introduce, the more they’re available, acceptable and accessible, the more likely people are to ultimately get into problems.”

Whyte said there is a clear link between the number of betting activities one engages in and gambling problems.

“The more activities, the more types of gambling you engage in is pretty predictive of risk for gambling problems,” he said.

One of the biggest issues responsible-gaming advocates have with mobile and online sports betting is that it does not target the core casino gamer, meaning the customer base is growing as is the potential for addictive behaviors. Several research studies have concluded that sports gamblers are younger and have more disposable income than table and slot gamblers, which makes them a coveted demographic.

“(Sports betting) appeals to the group of folks that the casinos have long been trying to get (and) figure out a way to get into casinos,” Nower said. “It’s a different animal because it appeals to young people.”

There is, however, an upside to mobile and online sports betting rolling out so quickly in New Jersey. Both Whyte and Nower commended the state’s gaming regulators at the Division of Gaming Enforcement for embracing best practices of responsible gaming and incorporating those recommendations into the online and sports betting framework. For instance, mobile and online sports betting providers are required to offer a betting limit option so players can preemptively curb problematic behavior.

The DGE also requires a portion of the $100,000 sports betting license fee to be used for gambling disorder prevention, education and treatment.

“If you can provide some harm reduction when people start to move — because it’s a spectrum from being just regular social gamblers to problematic gamblers — people will be able to continue gambling, just at a manageable level,” said Nower.

Overall, it is important to note that the vast majority of gamblers are responsible and do not have a problem, Whyte said. According to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, nine out of 10 gamblers are able to do so without any negative consequences.

Nonetheless, Whyte said the NCPG and similar groups will continue to advocate for more awareness, education and resources to combat problematic gambling behaviors as mobile and online sports betting options increase.

“There will be a small but significant portion of gamblers who experience negative consequences as a result of sports betting,” he said. “Together with all stakeholders who will profit from sports betting, our challenge is to implement measures to reduce that harm as much as possible even as sports gambling expands across the nation.”

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