Over the next few days and weeks, millions of Americans will be paying close attention to college students. Our region is particularly lively as Friday sees the NCAA men’s basketball tournament coming to Albany for the first time in two decades.
But those of us who are gripped by March Madness fever – count me among the more than 10 million people who watch the tournament each year – are also having to contend with a deluge of sports betting advertisements that now accompany the games. In contrast to the sheer sportsmanship and school spirit that will be on full display during the tournament, the gambling component – greatly exacerbated by online and television advertising – presents potentially devastating outcomes for those tempted to play for wins, losses and betting all sorts of statistics in between.
The start of the NCAA tournament seems like the perfect time to point out all of this because this sports betting ad is aimed at young men. In other words, the ads target the very people who will be playing the games that so many will be betting on.
We don’t have to accept being inundated with such ads, which proliferated after the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a federal ban on sports betting and ultimately paved the way for legal mobile sports betting in New York. Currently, 36 states have legalized sports betting, with 26 states – including New York – also allowing people to place bets directly from smartphones.
In its first year of mobile sports betting in 2022, more than $16 billion was wagered on sports betting in New York.
Much like how the federal government put an end to cigarette TV advertising with the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, the Betting on our Future Act, which US Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, introduced last month before the Super Bowl, would ban electronic displays for sports betting.
For those who trivialize sports betting as harmless fun, consider the downside. Problem sports gambling and gambling addiction is very serious and affects approximately 7 million people in the United States. More than 4% of New York City adults are at-risk or problem gamblers, according to the State Office of Addiction Services and Support.
The consequences can be as severe as dropping out of college after betting federal student loan money, or even suicide.
And the calls for help keep growing.
The National Problem Gambling Helpline Network received 270,000 calls in 2021 — a more than 45% increase from the previous year. New York saw a similar spike in calls to its hotline after legalizing mobile sports betting last year, according to Brandy Richards, office manager for prevention and special programs at the NY Council on Problem Gambling.
Young people are particularly at risk and particularly vulnerable to advertising.
“Research suggests that young people’s brains are not fully developed until they are 25 or 26 years old. And at that age there is a tendency to engage in risky behaviors, gambling being one of them,” said Dolores Cimini, psychologist and director of the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research at the University of Albany, during a roundtable discussion hosted by was hosted by Tonko last month.
About 15% of college students gamble daily, aided by easily accessible mobile apps, Cimini found.
The ads, including promotions like “free” bets, prey on them.
Of particular concern is that some colleges and universities have signed millions-worth of sportsbook deals to run ads in front of college students — many of whom are underage, according to reports The New York Times. (Most states, including New York, require people to be 21 to bet on sports.) In a shamefully crowning example, the Times reported on Caesars Sportsbook, which has a five-year, $8.4 million contract -Dollar proposed to promote online gambling at Michigan State University.
This is absolutely unacceptable. Sports should be about the thrill of the game – buzzer beaters and Cinderella stories. If betting adds to your enjoyment and you are able to gamble responsibly, then that is absolutely your right.
But we shouldn’t be subjected to the relentless stream of online sports betting advertisements that have the effect of entrenching the flawed notion that sports and betting are inextricably linked.
“In my field research, I’ve found that individuals who are trying to recover and redefine themselves and move away from this problem gambling are constantly being presented with information,” said Scott Meyer, a peer recovery advocate, during the roundtable . “They don’t want to stop watching the game they once enjoyed so much. But they see ads. I had one person who went to an Islanders game and counted 250 ads being thrown in their face.”
These ads shouldn’t bombard anyone — especially those who are predisposed to risk.
“We educate our young people about prevention in relation to drug use and education, but we don’t teach the same messages for gambling,” said Richards of the NY Council on Problem Gambling.
When we plaster the airwaves and social media feeds with advertising related to online sports betting, the focus should be on prevention and available help.
If you or someone you know is struggling with gambling addiction, visit oasas.ny.gov/gambling or call the 24/7 hotline at 1-877-8-HOPENY.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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