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Illinois Grapples With Rise in Sports Gambling Problems

Problem-gambling therapists, researchers and long-term Gamblers Anonymous members are seeing a jump in the number of people, especially young men, seeking treatment for sports gambling problems.

(TNS) — The safest bet before Sunday’s Super Bowl is that there would be millions of dollars spent gambling in Illinois. Wagers placed with the state’s sports gambling industry soared in 2022, with gamblers betting nearly $10 billion and casinos raking in $800 million in revenue from gamblers’ aggregate losses.

Bets on the big game are fun entertainment for many, but the growing stakes go beyond money: Three years into legalization, sports gambling problems are also on the rise.

Problem-gambling therapists, researchers and long-term Gamblers Anonymous members told the Chicago Tribune they are seeing a jump in the number of people seeking treatment for sports gambling problems. The struggle seems to hit young men under 35 years old particularly hard and is robbing them not just of money, front-line workers say, but of connection, time and hope.

“If we don’t address it really quickly, we’re going to have some tragedies,” said Elizabeth Thielen, senior director of Lake County’s Nicasa Behavioral Health Services.

Illinoisans bet $1 billion on sports for the first time in October, then did it again in November and December, state data shows. The legalization of sports gambling generated more than $142 million in tax revenue last year from lost bets and sportsbook licenses, much of it earmarked for the state’s infrastructure-focused Capital Projects Fund.

But it has also led to a surge in sports gambling’s accessibility and acceptability. The practice quickly has become a commonplace part of sports culture. Commercials flaunting “risk-free” bets now flood televised sports games and social media sites. Legal betting areas are set to open at the United Center and Wrigley Field. “Bet tenders” roam some Chicago bars, nudging people to make accounts and place wagers on the now-omnipresent smartphone betting apps.

More resources are needed to raise awareness about problem gambling, better understand the condition through research and treat people who gamble compulsively, some experts believe.

“And it’s got to happen fast, because we are going to have a tsunami of people who need understanding, care and treatment, and we’re not going to be prepared for it,” said Dr. T. Celeste Napier, director of Rush Medical’s Center for Compulsive Behavior and Addiction.

In response, regulators and sportsbooks highlight the work already underway to address problem gambling, like a new statewide public awareness campaign, donations to support groups for problem gambling and resources for responsible gambling on mobile betting apps.

The people fighting problem gambling and the institutions hauling in millions of dollars on lost bets agree: Sports gambling is here to stay.

“And it’s ever increasing,” said Calvin Miller, associate director for the nonprofit Illinois Council on Problem Gambling. “It’s not going anywhere, so there’s going to be a need for awareness for anyone developing a problem.”

Against the Spread

An estimated 383,000 Illinoisans have a gambling problem, while an additional 761,000 are estimated to be at risk of developing one, according to a study published in 2022 by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

An unofficial leader at a weekly Near West Side Gamblers Anonymous meeting, 42-year-old Jimmy knows dozens of people living with gambling problems. Sports gambling has at points consumed his own life. The habit formed when he found a bookie as a high school sophomore. By the time early illegal internet sports gambling arrived over a decade later, he was ducking into bathrooms during dates to place bets and he was uninvited from family dinners.

“I wasn’t really living,” said the recovering compulsive gambler, who requested partial anonymity to adhere to Gambling Anonymous rules. “The gambling caused destruction in every part of my life.” He hasn’t placed a bet since 2009, a recovery he credits to attending weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

For many years, the meetings were mostly attended by older people, he said. But he now sees younger men showing up and “a disease spreading.”

“You can see it getting worse by the minute. On TV, sportscasters talking about point spreads. There’s advertisements everywhere. You’re not going to be able to go to a bar and watch a game without somebody in your group talking about gambling,” Jimmy said. “It’s attacking everybody now.”

Teddy, another recovering problem gambler who helps answer calls to Gamblers Anonymous’s Chicagoland hotline, said he too is seeing younger men coming to meetings. The worst losses of his long bout with problem sports gambling weren’t the squandered money, but “the character and the time and everything that goes with it,” he said.

The 69-year-old’s last bet was on Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999, when Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway was named MVP. He recalled having an hourlong window to call his bookie on Sundays. He’d find a pay phone to place bets in between 16-inch softball games with friends, he said.

But things have changed since sports gambling was made legal, he said. The new ability for millions of people to wager on always-available sports betting apps scares him.

“There’s so much negative that I see coming down the road,” Teddy said.

Around 5 percent of the clientele at Oak Park’s Way Back Inn addiction recovery center had problems with sports gambling before it was legalized. That rate has shot up to around 30 percent and continues to rise since legalization, according to the center’s executive director, Anita Pindiur.

Pindiur is pushing for medical professionals, such as physicians and nurses, to start regularly screening patients for problem gambling issues. It can be hard to spot problem gambling because there often aren’t physical signs like there are for many addictions, she said.

Some patients she sees can’t sleep with sports gambling constantly available at their fingertips. Others face financial pressures: mounting loans, credit card debt, pressure to borrow or steal. Gambling has the highest suicide rate of any addiction disorder, she added.

While Pindiur praised the growing effort to address problem gambling, she added that there still aren’t enough control and support. She criticized mass advertising that could affect young people who are already more vulnerable to addiction.

“People need to know that help is available. People need to be able to recognize the signs,” she said. “People don’t have to feel helpless.”

Covering Bets

The state budgets $10 million a year to fund treatment for problem gambling and to raise public awareness, according to an Illinois Department of Human Services spokesperson. The state’s efforts include the new “Are you really winning?” campaign now popping up in TV ads, radio spots and online and funding for 29 treatment and outreach providers across Illinois, as well as provider training, said IDHS gambling problems administrator Jim Wilkerson.

On every football or basketball game, “you see at least five” ads for sports gambling, Wilkerson said.

“Financially, we’re outgunned. They’re going to be spending a lot more money on those ads than what we have the capability to spend,” he said. Still, Wilkerson expects the state’s new ads to build community awareness about how to recognize and respond to problem gambling. “We want to create a gambling informed state,” he said.

Like the researchers and problem-gambling treatment workers the Tribune spoke with, Wilkerson said many people who place bets on sports are able to stop and can safely engage with gambling as entertainment. But he too is seeing a “significant increase” in sports gambling problems across the state. It’s a rise he’d expect from the addition of any new gambling opportunity.

“That’s an entertainment activity that people want to engage in, and we would support that. But there’s always some individual that is going to go above and beyond,” he said. “That’s why we’re here, to try and help those folks that it’s going to become an issue for.”

Miller, of the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling, noted the state operates a 24/7 problem gambling help line. The help line received 1,283 calls during the fiscal year of 2020, 2,889 the following year, and 5,460 in the fiscal year of 2022, according to an IDHS spokesperson. From last July to December, which was the first half of fiscal year of 2023, it received 4,461 calls.

The state also offers a voluntary gambling self-exclusion program that blocks people from casinos and sports wagering after in-person registrations, Miller added. He believes the sportsbook companies are getting better at educating gamblers about responsible gaming.

An Illinois Gaming Board spokesperson declined an interview on problem gambling and the restrictions governing sports wagers, but pointed to a list of resources on the board’s website for dealing with problem gambling.

A spokesperson for DraftKings also declined an interview, but said the company donates $15,000 a year to the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling. The company’s Illinois sportsbook made $201 million in adjusted revenue in 2022, with $32 million paid in taxes.

The state’s largest sportsbook is run by FanDuel, with $343 million in adjusted revenue and $55 million in taxes paid in 2022. The company’s efforts to address problem gambling include annual companywide training days, a $100,000 donation to the National Council on Problem Gambling and awareness campaigns with celebrities, spokesperson Chris Jones said.

“Responsible gaming is the responsibility of the entire industry, and collectively we are all focused on it,” Jones said.

FanDuel’s website also offers optional wager and deposit limits and can even trigger wellness checks when gamblers appear to be chasing bad bets, he added. Sports gambling happened before it was legal and would continue if it were made illegal, but legalization allows for consumer protections and tax revenues to exist, he argued.

Lessons From a ‘Rat Casino’

In psychiatry professor Napier’s Rush Medical laboratory, there is a “rat casino.” There are no roulette tables or free drinks, but when the rats press a lever, electrodes connected to their brains stimulate their pleasure centers at different probabilities in lieu of money.

Some rats regularly make decisions chasing unlikely, large pleasure stimulations instead of more likely and moderate ones, Napier said. When she places them back in the “rat casino,” the habitual “gambling” rats inevitably start taking gamblinglike actions again. The risky behavior even increases when scientists give the rats dopamine-increasing drugs. The tests reveal something about problem gambling, Napier argues.

“It underscores the fact that it’s biology,” she said. “It’s like any other chronic disease.”

Problem gambling has long been stigmatized as showing a lack of willpower, Napier said. But because gambling problems are rooted in neurobiology, she said, more funding for medical research would allow scientists to learn how to identify people who are most vulnerable and to develop drug treatments for people who compulsively gamble.

There are no Food and Drug Administration-approved treatments for problem gambling, and research funding hasn’t had an increase equivalent to gambling’s jump in accessibility and acceptability, Napier said. She wants the companies publicizing and profiting from sports gambling to do more to support research.

“There’s a tremendous missed opportunity here, in terms of being a good citizen,” she said. “As we make these venues more accessible to everybody, there needs to be a huge educational effort to make sure people understand this. And we’re not seeing that here.”

University of Chicago professor Dr. Jon Grant, who specializes in addictive behaviors, said he is seeing in his psychiatric clinic a shift toward more problems with online gambling. But he said it’s hard to tell precisely how problem gambling is changing across the state without better surveys.

“It can be done. It’s just an investment. Everybody wants to see if things are getting worse,” he said.

But the problem is already sizable enough, especially with most problem gamblers never seeking help, he said. Fighting stigma and increasing awareness are needed steps, but there are other challenges, including a shortage of practitioners trained in treating problem gambling.

“We need more. It’s hard to get in to see a therapist,” he said.

The people most vulnerable to problem gambling are young people, especially males, and people with family histories of addiction, Grant said. The younger people start gambling, the more likely they are to develop a problem, he said. He worries the ability to make dozens of bets in seconds by phone could change young brains to increasingly seek instant gratification and become more impulsive.

One Chicagoland Gamblers Anonymous member told the Tribune that he started gambling online in seventh grade. By college, betting on casino games consumed his life, leading him to miss classes and even drop out for a semester. The problem continued for 10 more years.

The 34-year-old finally stopped gambling in 2018 on the night he lost $100,000. The loss happened after a relapse. That night, he pulled his hair out in clumps, dug grooves into his computer with his fingernails and even contemplated taking his own life.

Fortunately, with help from friends in Gamblers Anonymous, he was able to cope and make a plan. Now nearly five years later, his debt is almost fully paid off. But he worries about the boys he coaches as a high school sports coach. Sports gambling has changed the way people relate to sports, making fans more self-centered, and gambling triggers are everywhere, he said, hidden in the betting lines listed alongside scores on ESPN or casual conversations about wagers. The sportsbooks are “waiting for these kids,” he said.

Thielen worries that kids won’t understand the potential consequences of gambling with a credit card, a practice allowed in Illinois that some states with legal sports gambling, like Iowa and Massachusetts, have outlawed. Thielen also fears they could get swept up in the fast-paced, in-game bets made possible by new technology.

She has seen a rise in people under the legal age of 21 becoming addicted to sports gambling, she said. It might in part stem from an amendment to state law permitting people to register for sports gambling online, she added.

Illinois law originally required sports gamblers to register in person at a casino or sportsbook, but online registration was temporarily allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, before being made permanently allowed in March 2022.

Suburban mother Dana didn’t notice when her then-16-year-old son’s money started disappearing during the pandemic. The boy’s failed sports bets with DraftKings and FanDuel, made after he managed to illegally register for accounts on the sportsbooks, came from his own paychecks, according to his mother, who asked to remain partially anonymous to protect her son’s privacy.

But when the teen went away last summer, his sports gambling problem spiraled. He called his mom: “I have to come home,” she recalled him saying.

The boy, now 17, is working with a therapist to control his gambling problem. The family and a practitioner made a plan to strictly limit the number of bets he can make and the small amount of money he can wager. The supervision is the only way to keep gambling under control, Dana said.

Sportsbooks say requirements to link Social Security numbers and bank accounts with gambling accounts prevent kids from signing up, but Dana says it was easy for her son to start placing bets and that she knows many kids who have figured it out.

She said it took hours of calling and emailing before she heard back from the sportsbooks when she tried to get her son’s account taken down. She’s a well-resourced and attentive parent who is close with her kids, she said. The problem makes her feel “very, very helpless.”

“They’re putting their financial gain before our kids’ mental health,” she said.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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