Waite: Sports betting ads send the wrong message

Television screens showing basketball

In this March 2022 file photo, giant video screens line the walls of the sportsbook at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City N.J. on the first day of March Madness last season. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

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Over the next few days and weeks, millions of Americans will be paying close attention to college students. Our region is especially abuzz, as NCAA men’s basketball tournament games are coming to Albany on Friday for the first time in two decades.

But those of us who catch March Madness fever — count me as one of the more than 10 million people who watch the tournament every year — must also contend with a barrage of sports betting ads that now accompany the games. Unlike the pure athleticism and school spirit that will be on full display during the tournament, the gambling component — heavily exacerbated by the online and television ads — poses potentially devastating outcomes to those tempted to bet on wins, losses and all sorts of statistics in between.

The start of the NCAA tournament seems like the perfect time to point all of this out because those sports-betting advertisements target young men. In other words, the ads are aimed at the very individuals who will be playing the games on which so many will be betting.

We don’t have to accept being inundated with such ads, which proliferated following the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling that struck down a federal ban on sports betting, ultimately paving 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, New York saw more than $16 billion wagered on sports betting.

Much in the way the federal government put an end to cigarette TV advertising via the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, the Betting on our Future Act, which U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, introduced last month ahead of the Super Bowl, would ban electronic ads for sports betting.

To those who trivialize sports wagers as harmless fun, consider the flip side. Problem sports gambling and gambling addiction is very serious, affecting roughly 7 million people in the United States. More than 4% of New York adults are at-risk or problem gamblers, according to the state’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports.

Consequences can be as serious as dropping out of college after betting away federal student loan money or even suicide.

And the calls for help are only increasing.

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 increase in calls to its helpline following the legalization of mobile sports betting last year, according to Brandy Richards, bureau director of Prevention and Special Programs at the NY Council on Problem Gambling.

Young people are at heightened risk and particularly susceptible to advertisements.

“Research suggests that the brains of young people are not fully developed until 25 or 26 years old. And there’s a tendency during that age to engage in risky behaviors, with gambling being one of them,” Dolores Cimini, a psychologist and director of Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research at the University at Albany, said during a roundtable conversation hosted by Tonko last month.

About 15% of college students gamble daily, aided by easily accessible mobile apps, Cimini noted.

The ads, including promotions such as “free” bets, are preying on them.

Particularly disturbing is that some colleges and universities have signed deals with sportsbooks worth millions to put ads in front of college students — many of whom are under age, according to reporting by The New York Times. (Most states, including New York, require people to be 21 to wager on sports.) In an ignominiously crowning example, the Times reported on Caesars Sportsbook proposing an $8.4 million, 5-year deal to promote online gambling at Michigan State University.

This is absolutely unacceptable. Sports are supposed to be about the thrill of the game — buzzer beaters and Cinderella stories. If betting adds to your enjoyment and you’re able to gamble responsibly, that’s absolutely your right.

But we shouldn’t be subjected to the relentless stream of online sports betting ads that have the effect of ingraining the flawed idea that sports and betting are inherently linked.

“In my fieldwork, I’m finding that individuals who are trying to recover and redefine themselves and get away from this problematic gambling, they are getting the constant feeding of information in their face,” Scott Meyer, a peer recovery advocate, said during the roundtable. “They don’t want to stop watching the game that they once enjoyed so much. But they are seeing advertisements. I had one individual who went to an Islanders game and counted 250 advertisements thrown in their face.”

These ads should not be bombarding anyone — especially not people predisposed for risk.

“We’re teaching our young people about prevention in terms of substance use and education, but we’re not providing those same messages for gambling,” said Richards, with the NY Council on Problem Gambling.

If we’re going to plaster the airwaves and social media feeds with any ads to do with online sports betting, the focus should be on prevention and available help.

To that end, if you or someone you know is struggling with gambling addiction, visit oasas.ny.gov/gambling or call the 24/7 helpline at 1-877-8-HOPENY.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

By Andrew Waite

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