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Sports betting is booming, but at what cost?

The sportsbook in the Circa Resort & Hotel ahead of Super Bowl LVIII on February 10, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
The sportsbook in the Circa Resort & Hotel ahead of Super Bowl LVIII on February 10, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, a free and confidential service, is available by calling or texting 988. 

The national 24-hour Problem Gambling Helpline, also free and confidential, is available at 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537).

The sports betting boom. It’s changed how fans engage with sports and brought in wads of cash for the leagues.

But it’s also brought scandals, concerns over player safety and growing worries about gambling addiction.

Today, On Point: Is it time to reconsider how we handle sports betting, just six years since its legalization?


Danny Funt, reporter covering the sports betting boom.

Richard Daynard, professor of law and president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University.

Also Featured

Rep. Paul Tonko, Democratic representative for New York’s 20th congressional district. He recently introduced the SAFE Bet Act.


Part I

ANNOUNCER: The 2024 Major League Baseball season set to get underway…

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Opening day of the 2024 MLB season. The headline was supposed to be simple: Shohei Ohtani, one of the biggest stars in baseball, was making his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers … one of the favorites for the World Series.

In the offseason, Ohtani had signed a 10-year, $700 million deal with the Dodgers, giving him the biggest contract in the history of North American sports.

But the story that captured the attention of baseball fans got a lot more complicated than that:

The scandal broke when the L.A. Times reported that Ohtani’s name came up in connection with a federal investigation into a sports betting ring in Orange County.

CHAKRABARTI: That connection came through Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani’s longtime interpreter who was seen everywhere Ohtani went in America. Ohtani’s lawyers say that Mizuhara had stolen $4.5 million from Ohtani to pay off his gambling debts … debts he accrued through sports betting.

Now, we should be clear that this story is one that actually involves illegal sports betting. Since 2021, Mizuhara had been placing bets through an alleged illegal bookmaker in California … although he asserts that he thought what he was doing was legal.

Major League Baseball is investigating the situation … and we don’t know whether Mizuhara would’ve made the same decisions if sports gambling was illegal, period. But what we do know is that a lot has changed in the world of sports since sports betting was legalized by the Supreme Court in 2018. The sports betting industry in America has grown exponentially, multi-billion dollar exponentially. But so have the concerns:

ESPN:  Lions players, including former first round pick Jameson Williams, have been suspended for violating the NFL’s gambling policy.

ESPN: Raptors forward Jontay Porter is under investigation by the league following multiple instances of betting irregularities.

WCPO-TV (CINCINNATI ABC AFFILIATE): The head baseball coach at the University of Alabama fired following sports gambling here and a couple of suspicious bets.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s not just in pro sports. The problem goes into the NCAA as well, which we’ll talk about in a minute. But is America’s sports betting industry getting out of hand, even as it’s booming and producing a windfall as well? What is the cost of all the betting going on in athletics?

Let’s start today with Danny Funt. He’s a reporter covering the sports betting boom. He’s also writing on a book on the topic. Danny Funt, welcome to On Point.

DANNY FUNT: Hi, Meghna. Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so I’ve said generically. The sports betting boom, how would you describe how big the industry has gotten since 2018?

FUNT: As you said, I don’t think even gambling’s biggest advocates could ever have anticipated how enormous it’s grown, how profoundly it’s transformed the business of sports. I definitely would recommend taking the over on how big it’s going to get in the coming years. Since that Supreme Court decision you referenced in 2018 that paved the way for states outside of Nevada to legalize sports betting.

There’s been more than $330 billion wagered legally on sports in the U.S. Just an incomprehensible number, and sports books have generated about $25 billion in revenue from that. But yeah, just every aspect of how you consume sports, even if you’re not a gambler, has been transformed by this industry.

And as states continue to legalize, this is only going to get more inescapable and more controversial.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to come back to the transformation that’s happened for even non-betters. But who’s getting the windfall from these $330 billion sorts of tsunami of cash? It’s not just the sports books, obviously, or the leagues that are benefiting greatly from it. Who else is getting a windfall here?

FUNT: Some states have certainly generated a huge amount of tax revenue from legalizing this.

Others, including Colorado, where I live, have fallen far short of expectations. So that’s been a bit of a mixed bag, despite those staggering wagering totals we were just talking about. But yeah, basically everyone with skin in the game has tried to cash in on this new industry.

Sports media companies have signed incredibly lucrative deals with sports books, teams have put sports betting parlors and their stadiums and arenas, former players, as you can see, on just about every other commercial, are advertising for these companies.

So yeah, everyone wants a piece of the pot, and in many respects, a lot of them are disappointed, despite the fact that it seems like everyone you talk to has a bet going on, a given game.

CHAKRABARTI: So the teams have places to bet inside their facilities?

FUNT: Yes. So in Washington, D.C., for example, the NBA arena, the soccer stadium, the baseball park, all of them have a brick-and-mortar sportsbook now, attached to their stadium. The same is true for the Cleveland Cavaliers arena, where there’s a place you can go to bet, just outside of where you’d go to watch the action from your seat.

And I bring the Cavs up because their head coach, J. B. Bickerstaff was one of the people in recent days who said how out of hand this has gotten. He was talking about how he hears fans in the stands, heckling him when the team is winning, but not going to cover the point spread, or he even had someone call his home to threaten him. Because I guess Cavs game had cost that person money.

Yeah, it’s truly infiltrated not only the business in kind of an abstract way, but literally the places we go to watch sports.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, my gosh. Okay. And then the number of people, right? I’m seeing that the average monthly users of the most popular betting apps, and we should say that my guess is that most people are using the apps to place their bets and maybe not necessarily going to the facilities to stay at an arena or a stadium.

But that number of people has soared to 600% to more than 16 million. Is there any way, Danny, to describe who is part of that 600%growth?

FUNT: You’re exactly right. The vast majority of sports betting now takes place online, and you can imagine how nice it is for people who want to bet at the sports bar, from their couch and not have to drive to some casino to place a bet.

So that’s certainly generating a huge amount of growth. States are cagey about disclosing who exactly is placing bets and how many people are placing bets, but it’s no mystery that a ton of this growth is coming from young men who have a propensity to gamble more than the average person. There’s been some controversies about colleges letting sports books advertised on campuses, but I think it’s clear that the same people who are such adamant sports fans are, this huge untapped, client base for these companies.


FUNT: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: So I’m going to, I want to talk about the cultural aspect of this as well a little bit later in the show, but Danny, you mentioned that basically every sports news site has a sports betting beat now.

And you said that I think even ESPN has its own sports book, there is this perfect synergy going on between the coverage of sports, the playing of sports, the business of sports, and the thrill of gambling, right? And the legalization of sports gambling. And it’s brought out some pretty good commentary.

There’s one that I saw a couple of weeks ago on Twitter from a guy named @JeffIsrael25. And it was spot on. He has this satirical quote where he quoted:

“Welcome back to SportsCenter Presented by ESPN Bet, for more on the Ohtani situation we go to our FanDuel MLB Insider Jeff Passan at our DraftKings Studio in Los Angeles brought to you by Caesar’s Sportsbook. Jeff, how could something like this happen?”

End quote. Okay, so not actually a quote. He made that up. But I feel like through satire, he’s accurately describing something about just how inescapable gambling has become, even just in the watching of sports.

FUNT: Yes. And as you said, ESPN getting in the game with licensing their name and getting a stake in a major sports book recently is a huge development in that. I was speaking with a former person who worked in the industry setting odds and used to be a professional sports better just yesterday, and he was saying that his eight-year-old son sees so many ads, especially on ESPN Bet.

Now he felt obligated to walk his kid through the basics of probabilities and why it’s so hard to actually win money on sports. And he was saying, just as I might teach my kid how to drink responsibly or why cigarettes are dangerous, gambling falls into that boat now. Pretty incredible.

Yeah, it’s much easier now to list the outlets that don’t take money from gambling companies than those that do. And I would just respectfully quibble with one thing you said. You said basically every sports media company now has someone on the sports betting beat. They certainly have all sorts of staffers promoting bets and talking about all the different ways you can bet on sports.

There’s actually a pretty shocking dearth of reporters who cover this industry aggressively, as they might cover tech or tobacco or any other major sector of the economy. I think we could wonder why that is. The fact that advertising dollars are pouring in must play a part. But as much as these media companies are promoting gambling, I think they’re dropping the ball in reporting on it.

CHAKRABARTI: Danny, you are very gracious and saying you want to respectfully quibble. You could just be like, “No Meghna. That was a mischaracterization.”


CHAKRABARTI: The truth is there’s so much money here that they call it the sports betting beat, but it’s not really aggressive journalism at all. Full stop. I will take that point.

Very humbly, that’s exactly right. Okay. We’ve got just about 30 seconds before we have to take our first break here, Danny, just let me quickly ask you, for you as, I’m going to presume you’re a lover of sports. Also, you live in Fort Collins, so that’s a major sports city in this country.

How has betting or sports gambling just changed your relationship with watching or being a fan?

FUNT: I think, if you’re a food critic, you should go out to eat at restaurants. So as a sports betting reporter, I do wet my beak a little bit, but the more you learn about sports betting, for me personally, the more it’s a loser’s game.

So I try to keep my betting to a minimum.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, and is it, just quickly, is it changing, do you think even just your enjoyment of watching?

FUNT: Oh yeah, I talk to so many people who are diehard fans of teams, but if they forgot to place a bet that day, even if their team wins, they seem more bummed out than excited after the game.

That’s for sure.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay, so we’re going to come back to that in terms of how it’s changing sports fans as well. So Danny Funt, stand by for just a quick moment. Back in a second. This is On Point.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Danny we mentioned the Ohtani scandal at the top of the show, which has to do with his career interpreter and not him directly, as far as we know. There’s at least one other headline grabbing scandal I want to get some information from you on, and that’s regarding the Toronto Raptors Jontay Porter.

Can you tell us that story?

FUNT: Sure. I would expect your listeners not to know who that is. He’s a pretty —

CHAKRABARTI: No, wait, I’m gonna jump in there. You never know who’s listening. We have huge, we got big time sports fans that listen to public radio. But go ahead.

FUNT: Apologies to his mother if she’s tuning in.

No, yeah, I just say that only because he’s a bench player on the Toronto Raptors, he’s been in and out of the league. Makes the minimum salary, but he made headlines recently because the NBA was investigating two games, he played in one in January, one in March. Where he played less than 10 minutes in one of the games.

He only took one shot. The first time he left the game with a nagging eye injury. The second time, I guess it was due to an illness, but these forgettable games got people in a tizzy recently. Because DraftKings, one of the market leaders, one of the top sports books in the country flagged that a huge amount of money had been bet on prop bets for Jontay Porter, which means how many points he’d score.

How many three pointers he’d make, stuff like that. And a rush of bettors before the game tried to bet the unders on those props. So now the question in everyone’s mind is, was Porter yanking himself from the game to look out for his own bets? Did someone within the team have inside information and try to profit from that?

Lot more mysterious than known at this point, but it’s the sort of thing that people said would be inevitable once you started making, not just betting on the game, but betting on every micro aspect of the game available to the masses.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so this is really important to understand. To underscore, it’s not just you bet on who wins, and who loses and by how much.

It’s basically, every aspect of different games, can you bet on, let’s say, with the Women’s Final Four now, how many, not just points, but let’s say rebounds, assists, or even three pointers, Caitlin Clark bags?

FUNT: Yeah, definitely. And immediately, it didn’t take a gambling expert to realize that this would be so ripe for corruption.

I think, you think of like the Black Sox scandal with players throwing the World Series. That might be a little outlandish nowadays, but it’s far easier and far subtler to throw how many catches a certain receiver will have in the first quarter of a college football game, or how many free throws a player will attempt in the second half of a basketball game, those things sports books offer literally thousands of prop bets every day.

They can barely keep track of who’s betting what and these leagues, I think, are in over their heads on trying to police that sort of potential corruption.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. The question I’m about to ask may sound facetious, but I’m serious. Like, how far do the prop bets go? Can you make a bet on how many drama queen dives a soccer player is going to take headfirst into the pitch?

FUNT: I wouldn’t be surprised at some unregulated sports books, that the line tends to be things that are actually part of the game. So as much as we hear about, for the Super Bowl, for example, “What color will the Gatorade be that’s dumped on the winning head coach’s head?” At actual regulated sports books, you generally can’t bet those sort of things. Because of course some trainer knows, you know, the sort of Gatorade they put in the cooler before the game.

So it tends to be things that are actually on the quarter or on the field that are part of the game. But yeah, the goal is to make basically every aspect of a game bettable. And you can imagine how addictive that is. If I can bet on, not only who’s going to win, but will the next pitch be a strike or will the runner on first try to steal second?

It turns a three-hour betting experience into a every 30 second betting experience for some people.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s like being able to pull the handle on the slot machine pretty much continuously for three hours. It’s a lot. Now I mentioned the women’s final four in the NCAA. The NCAA is not terribly happy, or leadership is not terribly happy with all the betting that is going on in college sports for a bunch of reasons. One of them is player safety. So in February, NCAA President Charlie Baker spoke to ESPN. And talked about this.

CHARLIE BAKER: The biggest thing is fear, and we actually had one championship where there was a threat made against the team from a better that was serious enough that we gave the team 24/7 protection for the rest of the time they were in the tournament.

CHAKRABARTI: And by the way, just last week, Baker announced that he wants to ban prop betting from college sports. Citing an NCAA survey that suggests about a quarter of power five conference schools, the biggest sports schools in this country, have received reports about athletes getting harassed by people with betting interests.

So Danny, what kind of harassment are we talking about?

FUNT: It’s pretty scary and it certainly happens at both the pro and the college ranks just when we’re talking about young adults. They’re extra vulnerable, so I can understand why people like Charlie Baker are concerned about it. The harassment might range from going to class the day after a game and the person sitting next to you says, “Hey, you know, your missed free throw cost me 100 bucks.” To much more aggressive harassment that goes on online. And immediately once states began legalizing sports betting and including college sports.

Those sorts of concerns came up. Now, the pushback you get from people in the industry and people who are advocates for as much gambling as possible is that if we ban that sort of thing, it’ll just go on illegally through some campus bookie or some offshore online sportsbook. And when that happens, we won’t be able to detect it as easily.

We won’t be able to identify suspicious gambling, like what we were talking about with Jontay Porter and rush to people’s safety as quickly. So it’s a bit of a devilish dilemma. But I can certainly see a strong case why college students, college athletes are under so much pressure to begin with. To think that they’re costing people money on their individual performance and could be brutally harassed for it.

I think it’s definitely something that might merit an intervention.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, for sure. Is there also a concern on the other side where, we’ve done any number of shows about the fact that the biggest athletic schools make billions of dollars from their top athletes, particularly in, say football and basketball. That, and they, because of NCAA rules, the athletes can’t benefit from that really at all.

So is there the possible lure of corruption on the other side with college athletes?

FUNT: Definitely. Just last summer, there were a rash of scandals at Iowa and Iowa State with players found to be betting on sports. Just a few weeks ago, a former Vanderbilt quarterback said he was approached by mobsters who tried to entice him to fix games.

So there’s all sorts of problems that anyone who wants this to go on, will have to deal with. Not only players betting and people around the teams betting, but them being extorted, facing harassment. Yeah. And as you said, they’re not seeing the money that comes from sports betting.

Maybe it trickles down in some way if more people are tuning in. Because they have a bet that could raise the potential for these NIL deals that student athletes get nowadays. But yeah, I think it’s understandable why they don’t want to be subjected to that. Just recently, an NBA player, so not a college player, but I think he made a valid point.

He said that prop bets make him feel like a prop. And I could understand why. People betting on your individual performance is dehumanizing in a weird way.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve also seen with the sharp exponential growth in the money flowing through legalized sports gambling in this country, there are many reports of an increase in gambling addiction, especially amongst the young men that seem to form kind of the core target audience for sports.

The sports gambling industry and before I go any further, I just want to remind folks that if you or anybody you know is suffering from a gambling addiction or even has the concern that might be the case, there is a national 24-hour gambling helpline.

It’s 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537). And of course, if there are significant mental health concerns that are going along with a gambling problem, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which is free and confidential, is available at 988.

Okay, 988, that’s the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Danny, hang on here for a second because I want to bring Richard Daynard into the conversation. He’s a professor of law and president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University. And in fact, when it comes to how large industries target and market to people, Professor Daynard has been one of the leaders of forming the legal basis upon which the tobacco industry was held legally liable for the consequences caused by tobacco use. Professor Daynard, excuse me, by tobacco use. Professor Daynard, welcome to the show.

RICHARD DAYNARD: Delighted to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So you are challenging the sports betting industry. You’re making a case against them, a legal case.

What is that case?

DAYNARD: Okay. It’s the first case we brought. I’m sure there will be other cases following by us and by other concerned attorneys and citizens. This case was, we think it’s an easy one. It’d be very embarrassing if we’re wrong on this. Because this was a promotion that I think is in large part still going on by DraftKings. That said that if you set up an account with them as a better, you would get $1,000 in basically in free money. And it turns out that the fine print had some small restrictions on that. To qualify for the $1,000, you had to make an initial deposit with them of $5,000.

Then you needed to bet $25,000 over the next three months. And then when you’ve done all that, you still don’t get the $1,000. It’s just credit for further betting. So that seemed to be a, if there was ever an unfair or deceptive act or practice in commerce, this strikes, this seems to be a classic case of that, which is a legal standard, one of the legal standards for holding marketers liable for, basically lying about their products.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s a misleading marketing case, right? But what really changed the tobacco industry was the successful argument that they were knowingly advertising a harmful product. In fact, that they had ample evidence of their own about the harms of tobacco use and that they were marketing it to not just everyone, but including kids.

Is there anything similar that you’re seeing in the sports betting industry?

DAYNARD: I think there’s everything similar. The marketing is, clearly, as Danny was saying, it’s clearly aimed at young men, and young doesn’t, there may be age limits for particular kinds of bets, but big surprise, kids figure out how to get around that.

And the pitch of having these macho player heroes marketing this product, clearly designed to get the kids, and particularly boys and young men, into this. And the fact is that the part of the brain, I think it’s called the prefrontal cortex, that tells you, “Hey, that may not be such a great idea, betting your whole future on this thing.

Not such a great idea.”

That part doesn’t fully develop until you’re about 26 years old. Their market are people who basically, for relevant purposes, are not fully adults. And even though they can be in their early twenties. And that’s who they’re going after.

And the marketing, our concern about the marketing, is part of it is what does it take to qualify for this? We go back to what I said. You need to place $25,000 of bets within three months. What that means is a lot of bets, unless you’re going to, blow it all in one bet, very unlikely.

It means you’re doing betting regularly, and that’s what gets you addicted. That the regular hit, pressing the button and it was all demonstrated, really developed by the gambling industry. The casino industry figured this all out about 30 years ago, when they started. If you think about casino gambling, Agent 007 or whatever in Monte Carlo or something, you’re not talking about slot machines there.

You’re talking about 21 tables or roulette tables. But around 30 years ago, these tables started to be removed from casinos. They weren’t making the money, and they were being replaced by slot machines. And what was the thing about the slot machines? The thing about the slot machines was the fact that you continually —


Point well taken, but slot machines are legal. If you’re an adult, you can go into any casino and there’s been no, no one’s been, no casino has been sued for having them.

DAYNARD: Right. Yeah. And these are legal too. In other words, we’re not saying that this is not legal. What we want to say is that making, designing something, because after all, when the legislatures gave the green light to sports betting, to online sports betting.

They clearly were not thinking about what’s going on now. They were not thinking about betting on every play in a game. Nobody was articulating that for them. And they thought this was something, going to be something pretty much gambling, when you’re sports betting, in the past, you’re betting on which team is going to win.

That was the thing people really have convictions about.

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