scorecardDon't lose your life savings on your phone: A millennial with a sports-betting addiction explains how he's cut back as March Madness hype mounts
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Don't lose your life savings on your phone: A millennial with a sports-betting addiction explains how he's cut back as March Madness hype mounts

Jacob Zinkula   

Don't lose your life savings on your phone: A millennial with a sports-betting addiction explains how he's cut back as March Madness hype mounts
PolicyPolicy6 min read
  • James, 34, said he became addicted to sports betting after his state legalized it two years ago.
  • He wagered over $200,000 last year as gambling took over his life.

It was July. James remembers the evening like it was yesterday.

He bet $3,000 that a run wouldn't be scored in the first inning of a MLB game, only to see a runner quickly cross home plate.

Then he bet another $2,000 that there wouldn't be a run in the next inning of a different game. He lost that as well. Now down to roughly $7,000 in total winnings on the year, he bet it all on a third game going scoreless in the first.

He won that bet but said something finally clicked.

"I remember that exact moment," the 34-year-old told Insider. "I'm like, 'I'm crazy. This is not great.' But sometimes gambling addiction gets you to do crazy things."

With March Madness now in full swing, he's trying to not go overboard.

Last year, James, which is not his real name because he spoke with Insider on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, bet over $200,000 on sports across legal gambling platforms such as DraftKings and FanDuel, according to documents viewed by Insider, often wagering as much as $5,000 per day. At his peak, he turned roughly $2,500 into over $30,000 in winnings.

While the highs were "exhilarating," James said, gambling began to take over his life. His mood soared and plummeted based on the outcomes of bets, and his addiction began to influence his relationships with his friends and family. He recalled not being able to even read his child a book without actively monitoring a bet.

Legal sports betting has surged in the US since the Supreme Court paved the way for it in 2018. As of March, it's legal to bet on sports in 33 states and is legal but not yet operational in three others. In a July Pew Research Center survey of US adults, one in five respondents said they bet on sports in the prior 12 months. And based on its March survey of US adults, the American Gaming Association estimated over 30 million Americans planned to bet on March Madness through an online betting platform or at a physical sportsbook.

While the industry has been a boon for states' tax revenues, created jobs, and entertained millions, some experts are sounding alarms about the potential for a spike in sports-gambling addiction in the years to come. Among the key concerns is that sports bettors may be at more risk than other gamblers for developing gambling problems.

Experts told Insider there wasn't robust data on the scale of sports-gambling addiction in the US.

The best research, experts say, has come from states that have legalized sports betting. Last year, the Illinois Department of Human Services estimated that 3.8% of the state's adult population — roughly 383,000 people — had a gambling problem, and that an additional 761,000 were at risk of developing one. In February, the Rutgers Center for Gambling Studies estimated that roughly 6% of New Jersey residents had engaged in "high-risk problem gambling." States are taking some steps to address the problem, such as allocating funding to prevention, education, and treatment of gambling problems, but some say they should be doing more.

While Timothy Fong, a codirector of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, said sports gambling could enhance American entertainment for decades to come, he added that a much darker future couldn't be ruled out.

"Here's a product that we know is addictive," Fong said. "Here's an American appetite for that product. And then you combine the forces of a very powerful and effective industry combined with technology. This is where potentially it could go really bad."

Insider reached out to DraftKings and FanDuel, who both pointed to their responsible-gaming resources and tools that all bettors had access to, including information on where they could seek help in their state. Many platforms allow bettors to place restrictions on their deposits, wages, and time spent on the site or app.

They can also subject themselves to "cool-off periods" that prevent them from betting for a specified length of time. Many states also provide the option of "self-exclusion," which prevents bettors from signing up or logging on to any legal online sportsbook for a specified period.

Christine Thurmond, senior director of responsible gaming at DraftKings, said in a comment, "DraftKings takes a systems-based approach to responsible gaming, which includes the ongoing optimization of our technology, detection, and intervention processes, as well as looking at the gaming environment as a whole and collaborating externally with scientific experts, advocacy groups, operators, or other parties to spur innovation in safe play. We view these efforts as critical to the success of our industry and in the best interest of our customers."

FanDuel declined to comment.

If you're not careful, mobile betting is a way to 'lose your life savings on your phone'

Before sports betting was legalized in his state in 2021, James said he had done it only during the occasional trip to Las Vegas.

After downloading a sports-betting app, he began by betting roughly $50 to $100 at a time on anything from baseball to hockey to tennis. But then he started winning — at one point winning roughly 14 of 16 bets — which he said was the "worst thing" that could have happened to him.

"Once you're winning, you're chasing that win," he said. "I was just addicted to winning, and it didn't matter what sport or what game it was."

He suspected that he must be getting lucky but said it became difficult to convince himself that he didn't have a real edge — known as the "illusion of control."

James began upping his bets to $250, then $500, and then $1,500. He wagered several thousand dollars almost daily for a two-month stretch last year, winning and losing as much as $5,000 depending on the day.

"Mobile betting is really what is killing everyone," he said, "because a lot of times people go through addiction, whether it's drugs or alcohol or anything, but the problem is that you have your phone with you 24/7, so you can literally do it at any time."

Ten of the states that have legalized sports betting allow only in-person betting at sportsbooks.

James said that he never tried using deposit limits, cool-off periods, or self-exclusion because he felt they would "not solve the root of the problem" and that he'd figure out a way to keep betting somewhere else if he really wanted to.

He's fortunate that his overall gambling balance has never been down more than $3,000 since he started sports betting, but he said he believed the ease of access provided a way "to lose your life savings on your phone."

It's 'really hard to stay away from gambling'

After the $7,000 bet in July, James decided to make a renewed commitment to get better but said the process hadn't been easy. He felt isolated and embarrassed, which made it difficult to talk to his friends and family about his struggles.

The first time he called the gambling-support line 1-800-GAMBLER, he was disappointed because he was simply directed to addiction resources — he just wanted to talk to somebody. More recently, he said he had a better experience with the gambling-help hotline.

Today, James said his addiction "comes in phases" and that his last "big bet" was $4,000 on a baseball game in fall that didn't hit.

He said it's "really hard to stay away from gambling" and that he still bets, though not as frequently. He said he wagered between $50 to $100 on games now, adding that his last bet was during the Super Bowl.

The one thing that's helped him the most, he said, is trying to give up mobile betting and bet only at the sportsbook 30 minutes away from his home, which has created an extra "barrier to entry."

"I'll probably go there for March Madness," he said, "maybe place a few bets, but I'm cool with that."

Are you struggling with a sports-gambling addiction and willing to share your story? If so, reach out to this reporter at jzinkula@insider.com.




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