Super Bowl Sunday means a lot of things this year: parties, commercials, bean games, guacamole bowls, Taylor Swift love, Taylor Swift hate, Taylor Swift talk about beans and guacamole , a few hours of football – there will be some football – and finally a new and significant record that almost no one is discussing. By the end of the day, according to the American Gaming Association, a record 68 million Americans will bet an astounding $23 billion on the Super Bowl — and most of them will do so legally.
How did we get here?
Six years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned sports gambling and effectively limited the practice to one state: Nevada. Almost overnight after the ruling, about a dozen states opened some kind of legal sportsbook — and more were soon to come. Lawmakers, desperate to pad their state budgets, wanted to make money by taxing long-standing business, and shiny new companies sprung up to give people what they wanted: a chance to decide on some action and made the game more interesting.
Today, some form of sports gambling is legal in most states, and in many, including Massachusetts, people can place bets from the comfort of their couches — on their phones — using apps offered by FanDuel, DraftKings , BetMGM and others. In this new world, according to ubiquitous advertising, gambling is exciting and fascinating. People aren’t just sitting in a sea of slot machines in the middle of the day. They’re sitting alone in the blue glow of their phone screen – and they’re hitting it big. However, the ads make it seem that way. Everyone wins.
I’ll be honest: sometimes I even place bets on my phone – $20 here, $10 there, and that can they make the game more interesting. But it can also make it more painful. If I lose—and I often do—I’ll go to bed angry or wake up the next morning with a stew of regret. The $20 bet is like the second or third glass of wine – it’s usually a mistake.
We don’t see this side of gambling advertising. But there are people out there who see it every day – and it can be dark. Gambling helplines across the country are overwhelmed with calls from people who lost big over the weekend, from spouses who are keeping secrets, from people who are thinking about suicide, from misguided callers who think the helpline might be ‘help them recoup their losses, from college kids who have lost thousands of dollars betting on their phones, and from their parents worried that their kids will lose money. “We’ve had an increase in calls from parents,” Felicia Grondin, executive director of the New Jersey Compulsive Gambling Council, told me. “They’re just looking for someone to talk to.”
Grondin expects similar conversations on Monday, the day after the Super Bowl. According to data compiled by the National Council on Problem Gambling, calls to gambling helplines typically peak between noon and 4pm on Mondays, and workers say they are always inundated after big games. People need help, and regulators are concerned that those who need it may soon include underage players. Last fall, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission raised concerns that people under the age of 21 could be placing bets, and Lia Nower, a leading gambling expert, said she believes that is already happening.
Now, the director of Rutgers University’s Center for Gambling Studies, told me that television ads are designed to appeal to adults and children — the first generation of children who grew up with widely legalized gambling. “Studies show that kids see these ads on TV,” Nower said. “They can remember the names of the companies. It makes them want to try it.” And when younger players try it, Nower said, they’re more likely to make impulsive choices. They are not only betting before the game, but during it.
Old-school gamblers call the practice “chasing.” You start losing, so you place a different bet to protect your losses. Then, you start losing that bet, so you place another bet to get back. And suddenly, if you’re unlucky, you’re down—probably a lot of money. “In a moment,” Nower said.
It’s something that happened many years ago to one of our most infamous players: baseball legend Pete Rose. At his low point in the 1980s, according to my reporting, Rose lost up to $30,000 a week betting on sports, and he couldn’t even bet on his cell phone. He was chasing his losses, calling the reservists on a landline.
Now that it’s much easier to gamble, lawmakers need to have serious conversations about what comes next. Addiction counselors argue that more money should be set aside to get problem gamblers the help they need. Health care providers should begin screening for gambling addiction, how they screen for problems at home with drugs, intrusive thoughts, alcohol and weapons, and experts like Nower believe regulators should reconsider how gambling is advertised, packaged and sold.
“It’s like how cigarettes were marketed in the Marlboro Man era,” Nower said. “That’s where we are with gambling right now.”
It’s good. It’s all rage. Sixty-eight million people will be doing it this Sunday, and no one wants to talk about how it will make us feel in the morning.
Keith O’Brien is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book “Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose and Baseball’s Last Glory Days.”