Is Ohio's approach to sports gambling a 'slippery slope' to creating addicts?

'A lot of people chase the money'
Sports betting
Posted at 10:49 AM, Jan 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-05 22:41:09-05

CINCINNATI — He was a horse-racing enthusiast who became a compulsive gambler after Kentucky embraced interstate wagering and simulcasting in the 1990s.

“I thought I had to bet every race,” said the Gamblers Anonymous member who agreed to be interviewed if we didn’t name him. “One night when I was watching races from Louisiana at Turfway Park, I thought, ‘What in the world am I doing here?’”

Although he hasn’t placed a bet since 2005, he remembers how hard it was to beat his addiction by avoiding the track “one day at a time.” He’s not sure he could have done it if betting by phone were possible at the time. And that’s why this compulsive gambler is worried about Ohio’s launch of sports betting.

“It’s right there in your face and it makes it so easy that somebody that was maybe teetering on the edge could just easily make that bet without thought of the consequences,” he said. “People that enjoy sports are naturally more competitive and they are looking for action. Having it so it’s legal and you can do it from home, it’s the convenience aspect, that’s the slippery slope.”

BetMGM opened a retail sportsbook at Great American Ball Park on Jan. 1, 2023.

Ohio aims to help sports bettors avoid problems by expanding telehealth options for compulsive gamblers and making it easier for gamblers to voluntarily ban themselves from making sports bets.

State lawmakers provided a stable funding source for such efforts, with 2% of sports-betting tax revenue pledged to a problem sports gaming fund.

But Ohio has done little to restrict the kinds of sports betting that some experts have linked to problem gambling, including eSports, proposition bets and live bets offered during a sporting event.

“All of those companies have figured out a way to keep the player engaged,” said Stacey Frohnapfel-Hasson, prevention chief at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. “This is a science, and it has been studied exhaustively. It continues to be made better and faster and more effective, again to keep the player engaged, keep the money flowing.”

Martino's on Short Vine was among roughly 700 sports betting kiosk locations that opened on Jan. 1, 2023.

What’s the risk of addiction?
Frohnapfel-Hasson fears an increase in problem gambling similar to what followed the legalization of casino gambling in 2012.

“When we expanded Ohio’s gambling landscape with racinos and casinos we doubled the amount of problem gamblers that we had in Ohio,” she said. “In 2012, 5.7% of Ohioans had some level of risk for gambling. By 2017 that went to 10%.”

State officials estimate 76,000 Ohioans are “high-risk problem gamblers” and more than 919,000 are at risk for problem gambling. The National Council on Problem Gaming says the rate of problem gambling among sports bettors is at least twice as high as among gamblers in general.

Bowling Green State University researcher Joshua Grubbs published survey results in October showing “younger men with greater family income” are “especially prone to wager” on sports. Grubbs, an associate professor of psychology at Bowling Green, summarized his findings in a letter to the JAMA Network Open, a medical journal published by the American Medical Association. Grubbs surveyed 2,806 adults and found those who engage in e-sports wagering and daily fantasy league play are more likely to develop symptoms of problem gambling.

“Although sports wagering is likely a safe and reasonable recreational activity for many people, our findings suggest that individuals who wager on sports may be at higher risk of gambling-related problems,” Grubbs wrote.

‘Addiction by Design’ Author Natasha Schull said sports-betting apps use the same technology as slot machines to keep players engaged. Schull is an anthropologist whose 2014 book “shows how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state.”

In an interview, Schull said slot machines alter jackpot pay outs with randomized reinforcement schedules that keep bettors guessing, unable to stop. Sports-betting apps do the same thing with in-game bets and constantly changing odds, she said.

The unpredictability and excitement of sports betting makes it "very addictive very quickly," said Rachel Johson of the Center for Addiction Treatment.

“The most addictive form of interaction, whether you’re a pigeon or a person, (is) some kind of mechanism is that you never know what you’re getting, and you never quite know when,” Schull said.

That’s why Rachel Johnson has entered a 12-month fellowship program at the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio. Johnson, senior director of clinical services at Cincinnati’s Center for Addiction Treatment, is sharing what she learns with the center’s counselors to confront addiction problems as they emerge.

“You’re going to see a lot of negative consequences,” Johnson said. “Specifically, finances are the big ones that people see the most or the quickest … but there’s also mood disorders, depression, anxiety, substance use disorders. A lot of times people start drinking or using drugs to kind of cope or substitute.”

Sports betting ads are hard to ignore in Ohio

View from the sportsbook
K.C. “Cars” Williamson has witnessed some of those negative consequences in regular visits to Indiana casinos, where sports betting has been legal since 2018. The Colerain Township resident, who got his nickname by selling used cars at Jeff Wyler Eastgate, said he wins more than he loses on sports bets because he stays in control.

“A lot of people chase the money. It’s hard not to,” Williamson said. “And when you’re out here chasing the money, sometimes you fall short.”

K.C. Williamson talks about sports betting after visiting the Barstool Sportsbook in Lawrenceburg.

Williamson expects he’ll place more bets on his phone now that Ohio has legalized that option, but he’ll continue to visit retail sportsbooks because he enjoys the social aspect of sports betting. And he’ll continue to place bets during games, especially at half time.

“I love to bet the Bengals when they’re down,” he said. “They got more of a chance than any team to come back and cover that spread.”

Williamson won $1,400 by betting on a Bengals comeback against Kansas City last year. He calls it his best bet ever. His worst bet also involved those two teams, although he wouldn’t say what he lost when the Bengals beat the Chiefs in December.

“I couldn’t believe Patrick Mahones would lose three times. But guess what? He did,” Williamson said. “I lost enough.”

Williamson said he stays in control of his betting by sticking with sports and teams he knows well.

“Don’t ever gamble more than you can afford to lose and then also when you do win money (remember that) you can’t expect to win all the time. Keep your bets smart and make smart decisions,” he said.

Sportsbooks offer similar advice in the Responsible Gaming language they’re required to share with people when they bet.

FanDuel puts “information on the bottom of our betting sheets, on the back of our tickets, all over our web site,” said Jeff Lowich, vice president of retail operations for the nation’s largest online sportsbook. It also provides “all sorts of time-out limits and betting limits you can set for yourself. So, it is something we continuously put in front of our customers so that they can see all of the ways that they have to be able to limit themselves and make sure they’re playing within their means.”

But FanDuel also intervenes when betting behavior warrants it.

“It happens all the time,” Lowich said. “It happens in our retail sports book. Our retail manager might have a conversation with somebody about responsible gaming and hand them an RG pamphlet that we have all over the sportsbook. Same thing from an online perspective where we might suspend a customer’s account and have a conversation with them to make sure they’re comfortable with what they’re doing.”

Jeff Lowich explains the betting options at Belterra Park's new FanDuel Sportsbook.

View from a GA meeting
At Clifton United Methodist Church on Dec. 17, 11 compulsive gamblers read aloud the20 questions that Gamblers Anonymous urges bettors to ask themselves, including:

  • Question #4: Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
  • Question #11: Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
  • Question #16: Have you ever committed, or considered committing, an illegal act to finance gambling?

The group allowed the I-Team to ask questions and observe the open meeting on the condition that none of the participants would be identified.

Members of the group were mixed on the effectiveness of voluntary exclusion programs, which allow gamblers to ban themselves online and in retail various locations. Some said they were helpful in overcoming their addiction, but others said there were too many ways around the self-imposed ban.

They also talked about the barrage of sports betting ads that arrived with Ohio’s launch.

“They don’t trigger me,” said the horse-racing fan who agreed to a more in-depth interview after the meeting. “It triggers the people around you. They’re worried that a lot of the ads that are out there are going to influence a gambler.”

Fifteen years after his last bet, the compulsive gambler offered two bits of advice to those struggling with a gambling addiction. The first is to answer those 20 questions honestly. He didn’t at first and it delayed his recovery.

“When I got help, then I really could see what kind of damage I was doing,” he said. “Not just financial but other areas too.”

And the second tip? Beating addiction takes hard work and persistence.

“I didn’t get myself in trouble overnight and it wasn’t overnight fixing it. It just takes one day at a time as far as staying away and adding another day of abstinence,” he said.

Problem gambling resources:

  • The Ohio Responsible Gambling Coalition offers a live chat and hotline 1-800-589-9966 for people concerned about gambling addiction. It also offers a two-minute quiz that evaluates your risk of problem gambling.
  • Gamblers Anonymous offers a searchable database where you can find a Gamblers Anonymous meeting every day of the week in Greater Cincinnati.
  • The National Council on Problem Gambling offers a help line 1-800-522-4700 and online chat for people concerned about betting addictions. It also has a list of questions to consider when searching for a treatment facility.

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