What lies beneath the omnipresence of sports betting and crypto trading.
By Margaret Connor
As I stepped out of 116th Street Station, trying not to slip and brain myself on the staircase, I saw a surprising face waiting for me at the mouth of the staircase. Jamie Foxx, star of the iconic Collateral, was plastered on an advertisement for BetMGM, “the king of sportsbooks.” Open-mouthed in a gaudy green jacket, he fist-pumped in victory next to the enormous “RISK-FREE FIRST BET UP TO $1,000” and the much smaller “Gambling problem?” I rolled my eyes, but it was far from the first sports betting ad I’d encountered. I knew they could be pervasive, but it wasn’t until I passed by the display and saw what was on its other side that I ran out of patience: There, just behind it, was a competing ad for Caesars Sportsbook. Legalized betting has a complicated history in New York City. When my parents lived in Brooklyn in the 1990s, the options were to go down to the track and watch thoroughbreds race, or to visit a local OTB—an off-track betting parlor run by a public benefit corporation. Though OTBs still operate in other state counties, the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation folded in 2010, following waning interest in racing and the growth of more private, more convenient options for legal gambling. The two major changes that have brought about our current state of oversaturation are the statewide legalization of sports betting in 2019 and the ensuing legalization of online sportsbooks in January 2022.
On Jan. 8, four online sportsbooks—Caesars Sportsbook, FanDuel, DraftKings, and Rush Street Interactive—launched. Within two weeks, they had handled over $600 million. (That comes out to around $31 per New York State resident, or three times the budget of Hudson Yards’ suicide-magnet, the Vessel.) It makes sense, then, why these advertising campaigns are going all-out. As I looked at the ads on the bus stops and subway entrances every morning on my way to class, and then on the LinkNYC boards every night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were going particularly all-out around the Columbia campus. They’d have good reason to. Young men are particularly susceptible to problem gambling, and it’s safe to wager there are some deep-pocketed marks at an Ivy.
Recently, the widely publicized death of Jack Ritchie, a 24-year-old teacher who died in February by suicide following years of struggling with a gambling addiction, has highlighted the difficulty that problem gamblers and their loved ones face when trying to find adequate, meaningful support. The scarcity of accessible therapeutic services, combined with the current ubiquity of sportsbook ads, means it is now disturbingly easy to develop a gambling problem yet frustratingly hard to find a means out of it. And don’t let the glossy advertisements and celebrity endorsements fool you—there’s a lot to lose. In addition to monetary loss, the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry’s webpage states, “Individuals with a gambling disorder are more likely to struggle with substance misuse and are more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, medical and legal problems, and are more likely to risk their jobs and personal relationships.”
As governed by 9 NYCRR § 5325.6(b-c), sports betting ads must display the numbers of New York State’s HOPEline, a 24/7 confidential hotline. (While the HOPEline’s website proclaims itself “New York State’s 24/7 problem gambling and chemical dependency hotline,” typing “HOPENY” followed by a space into Google will automatically suggest “hopeny gambling,” and nothing else. Also, the ny.gov page on the New York State HOPEline has a two-sentence explanation of the service followed by a “Learn more here” link that serves you a “page not found” notice.)
To find out what resources are available to problem gamblers in New York, I texted the little number on the bottom of the posters. I posed as the Concerned Loved One of a hypothetical 22-year-old with a sports betting problem living in the 10027 zip code—a Promising Young Man whose studies were suffering as a result of his sports betting. Soon, I was put in touch with a counselor who asked a few basic questions (What type of gambling? Is there any substance use or alcoholism as well? Is he a current member of the Armed Services?) and gave me the number of the Manhattan Problem Gambling Resource Center.
While I was impressed with the hotline’s response time, the counselor’s odd phrasing and word choice led me to wonder whether they were not a native English speaker or they were using a very awkward script: “He would benefit from some counseling to look into why it is that he gambles, what purpose it serves in his life at this point and how he can find ways to cope. I am glad you reached out on your friend’s behalf. He is very young and has the opportunity to serve a healthy life at this point without risking putting himself in an early financial straining situation that could take him years to recover from. The earlier he gets help, the better.”
Counseling can be a valuable resource, but it only goes so far. Even “early help” can’t protect you from seeing BetMGM ads on LinkNYC screens or keep you from hearing FanDuel ads that play over the radio in John Jay Dining Hall. The danger of online sportsbooks and constant betting ads is that they cannot be avoided.
With traditional gambling, if you recognize you have a gambling problem, you can contact casinos and request that they ban you from the premises, which they will do. The face-to-face involvement with other parties and the physical limits of these gambling spaces offer protections that simply aren’t possible with online betting. (While the New York Constitution explicitly limits sports betting to approved brick-and-mortar casinos, legislators allowed mobile betting to subvert this by housing their servers on these properties.) Before Ritchie’s death, his father took him to local betting shops and had his son sign a form excluding him from betting at those locations. Ritchie then began gambling online. You can’t opt out of ads on the subway.
You can’t even avoid gambling ads when trying to get help for your gambling problem. Some posters, including those from BetMGM, include the curiously trade-restricted phrase “know when to stop before you start.” As I attempted to find the owner of the trademark, I found the slogan listed on several sportsbook and casino websites that simultaneously served me popups or overlays that advertised slots and sports betting. Go figure.
This new landscape of sports betting—where anyone can place bets anytime, anywhere, with no background knowledge—is uniquely dangerous. By making gambling intensely private and extremely convenient, potential problem gamblers have few protections. On top of that, available “support” is insufficient, practically an afterthought. If sports betting is to become a part of our lives, there needs to be more support for problem gamblers, and our understanding of addiction must expand to recognize how pervasive it can be. Normalizing risky behavior is dangerous for current and potential gambling addicts.
The Columbia Gambling Disorder Clinic’s description of pathological gambling emphasizes that gambling problems aren’t confined to casinos, or even what we traditionally consider gambling: “A gambling disorder […] is not limited to casino gambling. Frequent playing of lotteries, sports betting including fantasy sports, […] whether online, on phone apps, or in person, may signal a gambling problem. Daily personal involvement in stock markets including cryptocurrencies, and difficulty in being able to reduce or stop trading activity, can also signal problem gambling behavior.”
It’s telling that this model of addiction and recovery emphasizes the abuse potential of technology, whether in your hand or on the blockchain. While cryptocurrencies can function speculatively not unlike the stock market, the world of decentralized finance, or DeFi, comes with few of the legal protections that regulate the Dow Jones’ offerings. This is perhaps the blockchain’s biggest draw: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Sports betting and cryptocurrency have experienced a parallel rise over the last few years. Both have enjoyed an explosion in accessibility and visibility—and with them, profitability. The pandemic shuttered major forms of in-person entertainment like concerts, theaters, sports, and brick-and-mortar shopping. If you were fortunate enough to have a chunk of disposable income during the initial period of lockdowns, you had limited options for physical places to spend it. Crypto and online gambling became an appealing place to gamble, invest, spend, and earn.
The sphere of decentralized finance and this new world of sports betting want to hammer home the same message: It’s fun, and anyone can do it. As one ad I saw atop a skyscraper during a walk in Central Park put it, “What’s the best that could happen?” Trading NFTs is so much cooler than suit-and-tie investing, and just look at the young men in FanDuel ads hanging out with their friends in a brightly lit sports bar!
Their demographic overlap, then, should come as no surprise. Both skew male, both skew young, and both want to attract tech-friendly dudes with disposable income. The culture of new sports betting in many ways resembles that of the cryptosphere in its flippant courting of risk and glib dismissal of loss. In Sarah Resnick’s recent article exploring the social intricacies of the DeFi scene, one of the crypto clans she encountered were “degens (degenerates, or speculation addicts),” a self-deprecating community appellation I encountered on Reddit’s r/sportsbook forum. This demographic and subcultural overlap matters because it represents a specific targeting of potential risk-addicts, as well as the normalization of dangerous behaviors rebranded as guilty-pleasure hobbies.
It’s possible that increased adoption will spur legislation on crypto marketing, possibly leading to something in line with New York State’s rules on sportsbook ads. It’s possible, too, that the public will become so educated about cryptocurrency that the “95% of crypto day traders lose money” factoid ceases to be bandied about. But as things stand right now, with cryptocurrencies fast growing in visibility and attracting techies and the tech-illiterate alike, is someone drawn in by one of these ads coming into DeFi with enough knowledge to navigate these waters? “The answer is probably no,” according to a Columbia CS major about to start work at a DeFi startup.
Just like the lack of regulation, the lack of information about the risks traders and gamblers face is purposeful. For sportsbooks and many crypto services, your loss is their gain. Your age, income, and mental health are irrelevant in the face of profit. Only pressure from government and consumer protection groups can induce these industries to take their customers’ safety seriously. Uninformed consumers are better customers: They complain less and they risk more. When you see the next DraftKings ad on public transport or glimpse a promotional display for a new crypto service, know how much predation and pain lies below the brewskis and QR codes.
Crypto services, too, have begun advertising themselves to the sports crowd. Sports figures who have endorsed crypto projects include Floyd Mayweather, John Terry, Stephen Curry, and Tom Brady. Eli and Peyton Manning have appeared in Caesars Sportsbook ads and have “launched” an NFT collection. A 2021 poll by Morning Consult found that sports betters are more than twice as likely to be familiar with cryptocurrency than the general population.
If you are, perchance, someone who watches sports, you may have seen the Coinbase advertisement that played during the 2022 Super Bowl. Costing nearly $14 million, it was 60 seconds of an unaccompanied QR code bouncing around the screen. That ad is now iconic: It drew such an audience that it reportedly caused the Coinbase app to crash. What it was not was regulated. The laws surrounding crypto advertising are far looser than those for sportsbooks; New York regulations mandating the inclusion of a HOPEline don’t apply. Who can say how many sports-watching, DeFi-curious viewers scanned that QR code? Nowhere on that screen was there a hotline number, a message about responsible usage, or even a “gambling problem?”