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Betting Big

Gambling companies eye a gold mine marketing sports wagering to youth.

Even the casual sports fan has noticed a proliferation of commercials and advertisements attempting to entice them to gamble on the outcome of the contest they are watching. The onslaught — on network television, Twitter, and sports-affiliated websites — will only intensify with the pending Major League baseball playoffs and the progression of the National Football League fall season.

For the first time, the NFL this year is permitting seven league-sanctioned gambling companies to show commercials during televised games. Six such commercial slots are available during each contest. DraftKings, FanDuel Group, and Caesars Entertainment are now official sportsbook partners of the NFL, with the authorization to present game clips and league logos on their betting apps. Increasingly, all-sports networks such as ESPN are airing entire shows such as “Daily Wager” that focus on gambling odds.

The door opened for such activity in 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can operate, sponsor, and promote commercial sports gambling ventures. Since then, sports betting — hitherto confined to gambling houses in Nevada — has been legalized in 32 states and another 10 have such legislation in the works.

“This is part of the relentless march by state governments and powerful gambling corporations to introduce extreme forms of gambling into as many homes as possible,” says Les Bernal, national director for the Washington, D.C.-based Stop Predatory Gambling. “There are massive campaigns to normalize commercial gambling on TV, social media, radio, and streaming platforms.” Repeated invitations to participate in a sports fantasy league began springing up six years ago.

David R. Just, science and business professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, says that Americans being able to bet on NFL, MLB, and college football games from the comfort of their home around the clock is a recent development — one encouraged at times by the seemingly incestuous relationship between gambling companies and teams. For instance, this year various regional telecasts of major league baseball games are carried on Bally Sports. The affiliated Bally Corp. operates casinos in 14 states, plus online sports betting operations across the country.

Historically, Just notes, there has been a strict separation between gambling and sporting contests to ensure fair play because of the potential for cheating. Yet in the past four years, Las Vegas has become home to the Golden Knights professional hockey team and the NFL Raiders.

Bernal, 52, says the advertising blitz is an attempt by gambling companies to lure youth into lifelong habits of betting on the outcome of games. He says there is an epidemic of children involved in betting in the United Kingdom as a result of legalized online sports gambling initiated in Great Britain and Northern Ireland two years ago.

“Kids are growing up there thinking betting on games is a perfectly normal way to make money,” Bernal says. “But kids are the most prone to get sucked into gambling addiction.”

According to Bernal, the profit margins of commercialized sports betting aren’t as high as slot machines or table games at casinos. But if companies can lure young people into placing wagers on sports, it can lead to other types of gambling.

“The goal is not getting people to bet on a game once a week for 17 weeks of the football season,” Bernal says. “The real profit margin is getting people to wager 365 days a year in their home.”

Thus, those who sign up for a sports gambling app on a smartphone will be bombarded with Las Vegas-type online casino pitches anywhere they have an internet connection.

Gary W. Blackard, president and CEO of Adult & Teen Challenge, the Assemblies of God U.S. Missions ministry to those with addictions and other life-controlling issues, agrees that misery will be the outcome of the plethora of promotions for betting on athletic events.

“The incessant marketing opens up more opportunities for people to become addicted to sports betting,” says Blackard, 53. “With easier accessibility, more people will ‘play’ which will result in more people falling into the traps of addiction.”

Blackard, who is based in Ozark, Missouri, predicts that more people will be seeking help from Adult & Teen Challenge in the next couple of years because of the increased presence of gambling via social media, television, and other electronic media.

Bernal is concerned that the betting opportunities have moved beyond simply which team will win the game. It’s about over/under point spreads. And, he notes, DraftKings is in partnership with media companies to unveil a remote control device that connects to a television screen to place a bet by pressing a button before every pitch.

“In-play wagering is like a slot machine experience when it comes to sports,” Bernal warns. “It’s not just predicting whether the Cards will beat the Cubs by a run, but rather whether the next pitch will be a ball or a strike.”

Likewise, in football, the player chooses whether the next down will be a run or a pass, or how many touchdown passes Tom Brady will throw in the first quarter.

“There are limitless wagering options while the game is happening,” Bernal says. “ This is the most extreme and dangerous form of gambling ever invented.”

Consequently, a bettor could lose hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a single game.

“Now kids are rooting not just for their team to win, but whether the team will cover the point spread,” Bernal says. “It changes the way kids watch sports.” He cites a UK study that showed 80% of youth view sports and gambling as synonymous.

Bernal is aggravated that the aggressive gambling come-ons are marketed with terms such as “risk free” or “free bets.”

“It’s totally predatory, preying upon fans, especially kids,” Bernal says. “No other product can be advertised this way.”

Blackard says such enticements can tempt Christians to look elsewhere for help rather than relying on the Lord.

“Saying it’s easy to get rich by playing ‘games’ sends the wrong message,” Blackard says. “The odds are simply not in favor of those looking for an opportunity to make money.”

Blackard thinks the sports gambling push is an attempt by Satan to distract Christians from experiencing a deeper walk with Christ. The devil will use any wedge — gambling, alcohol, pornography, food, even shopping — to prevent Christians from a closer relationship with the Lord, Blackard says.

“This is dangerous,” Blackard warns. “We will see the economic downfall of families trying to replace money lost in bets.”

Bernal is lobbying for marketing and advertising for commercialized gambling operators to be banned from the airwaves, as the Federal Communications Commission did with tobacco products 40 years ago. But he realizes he faces an uphill fight. With the vast majority of states sponsoring gambling ventures such as lotteries, no state attorney general has initiated litigation against gambling companies over predatory practices. Last year, when state government shut down restaurants, movie theaters, and even hiking trails due to COVID-19, lotteries continued selling tickets unabated.

Just, 46, believes sports betting commercials and advertisements will saturate the market for the foreseeable future. Sports gambling is projected to generate around $4 billion in revenue this year.

“This is a growth market,” Just says. “As long as no regulator steps in, this will grow stronger in prominence, visibility, and acceptance.”

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.