Super Bowl Highlights Super-Spread of Sports Gambling — and the Risks Posed

The rapid expansion of sports betting has advocates for responsible gambling, as well as members of the gambling-recovery community, concerned.

Fans celebrate the victory of the Los Angeles Rams over the Cincinnati Bengals while they watch the game on a screen in a street outside the SoFi Stadium during the final match of the Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood on February 13, 2022.
Fans celebrate the victory of the Los Angeles Rams over the Cincinnati Bengals while they watch the game on a screen in a street outside the SoFi Stadium during the final match of the Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood on February 13, 2022. (photo: Apu Gomes / AFP/Getty)

A record-high 117 million people watched the Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, to win Super Bowl LVI this past Sunday.

But for an unprecedented number of viewers, the focus wasn’t just on football (or even the halftime show and commercials), but on the game’s impact on their wallets. 

More than 31 million people are believed to have bet on some aspect of the game, with an estimated $7.6 billion wagered. Both figures are more than double what they were for last year’s Super Bowl.

The explosion in Super Bowl betting points to the wider expansion of legalized sports gambling across the United States since 2018, when the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which had effectively banned sports betting in all states but Nevada. In the wake of the court’s decision, more than 30 states have authorized some form of sports gambling, and one-third of Americans live in a place where they can bet on sports, either in person and/or online. As of January 2022, $87 billion has been bet on sports since 2018, more than $52 billion of it last year alone.

The rapid expansion of sports betting has advocates for responsible gambling, as well as members of the gambling-recovery community, concerned.

“Among my community,” said Marc Lefkowitz, a recovering gambling addict who works for Kindbridge, a teletherapy company for problem gambling, “it has really offered so many more opportunities to gamble.”


All-Out Blitz

The expansion of legalized sports betting coincides with the ubiquity of mobile devices, creating unprecedented accessibility to a form of betting that used to be reserved to Las Vegas — or perhaps a visit to a shady bar and the neighborhood bookie. In many states, you don’t need to go to a brick-and-mortar sportsbook to place a bet — you can just reach for your iPhone. 

The ease of placing bets is coupled with a deluge of advertising. Companies like FanDuel, MGM and Caesars have spent hundreds of millions of dollars pushing online sports betting in recent years. Sports-betting companies are even able to air commercials during NFL games, as they did during the Super Bowl, after the league not only reversed its long-standing and intense opposition to the practice, but actively partnered with the industry. 

Sports betting dominates in-stadium advertisements, as well, and several teams have even opened physical sportsbooks inside their venues, like at Nationals Park, home of the MLB’s Washington Nationals, and Chicago’s United Center, where the Bulls (NBA) and Blackhawks (NHL) play.

Others are following suit, as sports legends and Hollywood celebrities alike are teaming up to promote the industry. For instance, the Manning family — including NFL legends Archie, Peyton and Eli (as well as brother Cooper) — prominently figures in Caesars Sportsbooks ad campaigns throughout the season, capped off by an appearance in the company’s Super Bowl commercial. WynnBet’s $100-million season-long ad campaign featured NBA star Shaquille O’Neil and actor Ben Affleck, the latter a somewhat strange inclusion, given his own personal struggles with gambling.

And it’s not just standard bets, like over/under or betting against the spread, that are in play. Online sports betting includes a plethora of “in-play betting” options, allowing users to bet on everything from how much yardage the upcoming play will gain to who will catch the next pass. These bets are high frequency and high speed, with new options provided with each new play.

Taken together, these factors make modern sports betting particularly risky, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), an organization co-founded 50 years ago by Msgr. Joseph Dunne, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

According to NCPG’s research, the rise of sports betting has coincided with a twofold increase in gambling problems in the U.S. between 2018 and 2021. Whyte points out that these risks aren’t evenly distributed throughout the population, but are mainly concentrated among “young, male online sports bettors.” 


Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic moral teaching accepts gambling as a legitimate use of people’s money — “so long as they have the money and don’t have something better to do with it,” explained David Cloutier, a moral theologian at The Catholic University of America.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, teaches that games of chance or wagers “are not in themselves contrary to justice,” but “become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others.”

“The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement,” states the Catechism (2413). 

Cloutier, however, notes that the basic principle behind the Church’s teaching needs more contextualization in an era of online sports betting executed on an industrial scale. He says that a deeper moral question “is really whether this is a good use of social resources and whether there are harms that are being generated,” noting that the present-day normalization of sports gambling is a far cry from how the practice was previously viewed in American culture, when it was tolerated only in certain corners, “but, in general, discouraged as a routine form of entertainment.”

Cloutier notes that widespread sports gambling risks undermining the genuine goods found in sports fandom, such as building community and celebrating athletic accomplishments.

“I think the question about this sports betting [phenomenon] is whether part of what it does is pull people away from things like fantasy-football leagues with their college friends or March Madness pools with their co-workers and pulls them toward these commercialized sites that are anonymized and have higher stakes and don’t have the same interpersonal components,” he observed. “Love of sports is one thing, but the love of money by means of rooting for a particular player is different and also morally different.”

Additionally, Cloutier stresses that a “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” a central principle of Catholic social teaching, needs to come into play when evaluating the social and legal status of sports betting. In addition to being a risk for triggering a gambling addiction, something studies show 1%-3% of adults are genetically predisposed to, gambling also tends to have a disproportionate impact upon the poor.

“It’s a statistical reality that these games take advantage of the poor because they promise them riches without strings,” he said.

Cloutier notes that implanting sound laws related to gambling activities is challenging because “you cannot legislate virtue.” Instead, he suggests that reasonable regulations should be pursued that prevent the worst vices and mitigate harm caused to others. Because of its dependency on finances to fuel it, gambling addictions in particular are linked to devastating consequences for the addicts’ families, as well as for wider society.

Cloutier personally supports strong limitations of sports betting, but notes that people may prudently apply the Church’s principles on the issue and reach different conclusions.

And, in fact, different Catholic advocacy efforts have landed at different responses to the phenomenon. In California, where voters will be asked to weigh in on a number of different sports-betting options in November elections, the state Catholic conference “has no official position,” confirmed executive director Kathleen Domingo.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Catholic Conference has made opposing a bill to legalize sports betting in the North Star State one of its top legislative priorities for 2022.

“This is not simply innocent fun that people use to make their game-day watching experience more exciting,” MCC’s executive director, Jason Adkins, told the local Catholic newspaper.  “This is something that could result in significant detriment to those who already have addictive personalities and gambling problems and to their families. We all suffer when that happens.”

For its part, the NCPG has developed “Responsible Gaming Principles for Sports Gambling Legislation,” which includes measures like dedicating at least 1% of sports-betting revenue to gambling addiction treatment and prevention programs, and requiring sports-betting operators to include the ability to set limits on time and money spent betting.

NCPG provided these guidelines to all states, but Whyte says most ignored them. While most states that have legalized sports gambling have included stringent regulations around licensing and counting revenue, measures to address responsible gambling have “fallen to the wayside.”

“It’s an afterthought in most state regulations,” he said, adding that the safety net in most states is “frayed and tattered” or even just flat out absent.


Impact Down the Road

While Whyte has serious concerns about the widespread expansion of legalized sports betting, he notes that the shift has also come with opportunities to promote responsible gambling practices.

For instance, while the NFL has been a member of the NCPG for more than a decade, the lifting of the sports-betting ban in 2018 has led to deeper cooperation between the league and the advocacy group. In 2021, NCPG received a $6-million dollar grant from the NFL, and the organization also helped the league develop a responsible gambling ad with former NFL coach and TV analyst Steve Mariucci. Since it first ran in October, the advertisement has led to 300,000 unique visits to NCPG’s

Whyte says the increase in attention is also an opportunity to shift common public perception about gambling addictions, which are viewed with far more shame and stigma than other forms of addiction, like alcoholism or drug-addictions.

Still, responsible-gambling advocates aren’t naïve about the challenges posed by the explosion of legalized sports betting. Lefkowitz is concerned that the accessibility and ubiquity of sports gambling will lead to greater exposure to people who are predisposed to develop an addiction but might otherwise not have had an opportunity to gamble.

He also knows that, in part due to the shame surrounding the addiction, people engaged in problematic gambling tend to wait until it’s too late to seek out help for the issue.

“I’m just hoping that we don’t have to wait too long for [states] to make changes to it to make it safer,” he said. “Because a lot of people are going to get hurt during that lag — and I know what that’s like.”

The opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is seen in the Vatican Synod Hall on Oct. 3, 2018.

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