I’m for sports gambling in Georgia if social costs are mitigated

A gambler makes bets during a viewing party for the NCAA men's college basketball tournament inside the 25,000-square-foot Race & Sports SuperBook at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. (Ethan Miller/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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A gambler makes bets during a viewing party for the NCAA men's college basketball tournament inside the 25,000-square-foot Race & Sports SuperBook at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. (Ethan Miller/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Churchill Downs is a few furlongs from the campus where I attended college. My extracurricular activities in the fall included betting on ponies at the track after class (or, occasionally, instead of class). I headed across the Ohio River for gambling cruises soon after Indiana legalized casino boats. I’ve made regular trips to Las Vegas for 25 years. I write a weekly football picks column because, for me, point spreads make the games more interesting.

I bring all that up to say that I am pro-gambling. People should have the option to place wagers on games in regulated markets. Georgians have been able to do it for 30 years via the state lottery. The latest efforts to make sports gambling legal in the state died in the Legislature without getting a vote. I was sorry to see that because I want sports gambling to be legal in Georgia (I’d settle for one horse-racing track).

But just because I’m in favor of it doesn’t mean I ignore the potential downsides. It seems lots of people do that when making the cost-benefit analysis of legal sports gambling. The benefits tend to be overstated – in New Jersey, the No. 1 state for sports gambling, tax revenues are 20 times less than for the lottery and a fraction of casino gambling – while the potential costs are shrugged off.

The possibility of fixed games is way down the list. The expansion of legal sports betting makes me more confident that the games are on the up and up. More regulated betting markets means more ways to discover suspicious activity. One takeaway from Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley getting busted for gambling on NFL games is that his bets were discovered via the league’s monitoring of sportsbooks (Ridley wasn’t accused of trying to fix games or trade on inside info).

I worry more about the human and social costs that come along with expanded gambling. That’s especially true for young adults. They are among the more enthusiastic supporters of sports gambling. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution opinion poll in 2020 found that support for legal gambling on professional sports among Georgia voters was 57% overall, but nearly 70% among voters ages 18-29.

Young adults have less impulse control than older adults because their brains haven’t fully developed. Making it easy to bet feeds those impulses, especially if, as the Georgia bill proposes, wagering is done via mobile devices. The dopamine hit of making bets is just a click away on smartphones that are always at hand. Cashless transactions can make the money seem less real.

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 2 million U.S. adults meet the criteria for problem gambling per year, and another 4-6 million adults have a mild or moderate gambling problem. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines problem gambling as persistent and recurrent wagering “leading to clinically significant impairment or distress” as indicated by four or more behaviors over a 12-month period. Among them are repeated and unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop gambling, “chasing” losses to try to get even, gambling when feeling distressed and the loss of a job or relationships because of gambling.

The National Council on Problem Gambling notes that financial woes caused by problem gambling lead to “bankruptcy, crime and even suicide.” The financial damage isn’t limited to the gambler. The public costs include court expenses and health care. According to the Council’s research, every $1 spent to prevent gambling addiction saves at least $2 in social costs.

All states that have legalized gambling also include measures to combat gambling addiction. But the few somber messages urging problem gamblers to get help are overwhelmed by the many exciting commercials urging bettors to put down wagers. You no longer need to live in a state with legal sports gambling to see those messages. Sportsbooks sponsor leagues, and their advertisements saturate coverage of televised games. In-game commentators provide their picks for featured bets.

Georgia’s sports gambling bill proposed that 5% of revenues would be set aside for problem-gambling programs. It’s a good bet that, as soon as the coffers get tight, such funding would dry up. That happened in Nevada when the pandemic hurt revenues from gaming and tourism. The state cut 42% from the meager $2 million budget for its problem gambling program. It’s in Nevada’s best interests to burnish the reputation of the gaming industry, and the state still treats problem gambling as an afterthought.

I admit that there’s some hypocrisy in my position. On one hand, I pick games against the spread and express support for legal sports gambling. On the other, I’m expressing concern about the social costs of sports gambling. My personal preference has social costs, and I’m advocating for mitigation of those harms. Expanded gambling in the state will cause more of them if it doesn’t come with enough money and attention to the problems.

It’s true that I have a vested interest in legal sports gambling in Georgia. I write about sports for a living, and betting increases interest in games. That’s why Arthur Blank, Tony Ressler and Liberty Media spent a lot of money lobbying politicians to support the sports-gambling bill. The owners of the Falcons, Atlanta United, Braves and Hawks see an opportunity to expand the market for their products. Eventually, they might keep a cut of the take for themselves.

I don’t object to that (the public subsidies they get for their private stadiums is another matter). I’ve been a recreational gambler for a long time. That means I’ve lost more money than I’ve won. Gambling has never been a problem for me, but it is for millions of other people. Let’s not forget them as we talk about making sports betting legal in Georgia.