College athletics is a billion dollar industry. Until recently, there was one cash cow it could never tap into legally: sports betting. That landscape is changing.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law prohibiting sports betting. Now, according to the American Gaming Association, 36 states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized sports betting, with five others engaged in “active legislation.” The online gambling industry is a fast-growing enterprise, projected to be worth more than $145 billion by 2030, and sports betting is a big reason why, according to research from Custom Market Insights.
Major universities, with tens of thousands of students and potentially millions of fans, have become a particularly attractive market for sports betting companies, especially in an age of heightened use of digital technology. The attraction is mutual, as colleges see an opportunity to rake in millions of dollars and recoup lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic by partnering with sports gambling companies.
While many students may see avenues for diversion and financial gain, experts agree that there are risks attached that students and parents should think about.
At least eight universities have deals with sports gambling companies, a number that is expected to continue growing, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, a national advocacy organization. In addition, The New York Times has reported, “at least a dozen athletic departments and booster clubs have signed agreements with brick-and-mortar casinos.”
These partnerships allow sports betting companies to advertise on campus, in athletic venues and, in some cases, directly in students’ email inboxes. At Louisiana State University–Baton Rouge, which signed a deal with Caesars Sportsbook in 2021, some students received an email prompting them to “place your first bet (and earn your first bonus),” including students who were under Louisiana’s legal betting age of 21, the Times reported.
Other schools who signed partnership deals have reportedly used similar enticing language encouraging students to download a sports betting app. Questions have been raised about the ethics of these partnerships, as some feel they don’t fit the mission of higher education and instead prey on a vulnerable population and provide another avenue for students to be exposed to potentially addictive behavior.
“It’s so gross on every level,” says John Delony, a mental health and wellness author, speaker and podcast host. “There’s literally no good that comes from this, other than the schools found another way to get money. Schools have absolutely failed at the most important mission they have, which is to educate students and to keep them safe.”
As more schools figure to partner with sports gambling companies and more students become exposed to it, here are some things to know.
Greater Risk for Students
These partnerships create an additional risk for gambling problems among college students, Whyte says. Although most states prohibit casino gambling for those under 21, age restrictions for online gambling vary. About 6% of U.S. college students say they have a serious problem gambling, according to the nonprofit International Center for Responsible Gambling.
A big concern, experts say, is that college students often don’t have much money to begin with, and getting wrapped up in gambling can compound those issues.
Some students may see sports betting as an avenue to pay for college, make money or forge a career or side hustle, but such outcomes are unlikely, says Delony, who previously served as chief student affairs officer at Belmont University in Tennessee and the dean of students at Texas Tech University Law School. Instead, he says, students often fall deeper into debt and have trouble paying for bills or other necessities.
While Delony says gambling can be a form of entertainment, people need to know when to stop. Setting those limits can be particularly difficult for young adults, he says, especially if their peers are continuing to participate.
Almost two years ago, the NCPG released a set of guidelines for colleges and universities that are partnering with gambling companies, noting that college and university students tend to have higher rates of problem gambling.
A 2021 NCPG survey showed that, among respondents ages 18 to 34 who had gambled in the past year, 27% reported that they had engaged “many times” in at least one “problematic gambling behavior indicator,” which signaled more than just a casual relationship to gambling. That rate was higher among males in that same demographic.
“If a university is going to take money from a sports gambling company, they should make sure that they’ve got problem gambling prevention resources for their students,” Whyte says. That could include posters, public service announcements, classes or training sessions. “Some of that revenue should go back into making sure that college students and student-athletes are not harmed by these relationships.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of college athletics, had long held an anti-gambling stance, but now the organization and its members “are evolving as the sports wagering landscape continues to change,” NCAA spokesperson Michelle Brutlag Hosick wrote in a statement to U.S. News.
“Gambling harm education remains a key focus of the NCAA,” the statement reads, and the NCAA says it has partnered with EPIC Risk Management “to provide a comprehensive gambling harm and student-athlete protection educational program for its members,” though it didn’t elaborate on the specifics of what those educational programs include.
This is not the first time a so-called “vice industry” — which typically includes products with addictive potential like drugs, alcohol and gambling — has been promoted on college campuses. Universities have long held partnerships with alcohol companies, and experts also drew similarities to how universities often partner with credit card companies, which can cause students to fall into financial trouble.
Parents often educate their children on the dangers of things like drugs, alcohol and even predatory credit card offers. When it comes to gambling addiction, however, people are naive, says Michelle Malkin, an associate professor of criminal justice at East Carolina University in North Carolina who researches problem gambling and gambling-motivated crime.
“All people, in general, unless it’s someone who has had someone with a gambling addiction in their family, don’t realize when they’re placing those bets that there is this slippery slope toward addiction, like with substances,” she says.
Sports betting, with its unique potential for excitement, is particularly appealing as well as dangerous, she says. People often start with small bets that they can afford, but when they win or lose, they either crave more or are trying to recoup losses from the previous bet. A $5 bet turns into $10, which turns into $100 and then into thousands. When a situation becomes dire, she says that’s often when people turn to illegal means to make money in order to recoup debts.
She says parents should pay close attention to their child’s behavior, whether that’s at home or through phone calls if their child is away at college. If they’re preoccupied with watching a lot of sports games and their mood is disproportionately impacted by the result of the games, that might be a sign that they have a problem with gambling. She says too often, people don’t notice there’s a problem until it’s too late.
“When it comes to young people, emerging adults, those people on college campuses, there’s just not that (much) information out there on how to engage in gambling in a healthy way,” she says. “The problem is that most young people wouldn’t know what the signs are to say that they have a problem with gambling because all their friends are doing it, too.”
Whyte adds that “most colleges have no idea how many of their students are already gambling, much less if that rate is going up or down.”
Education and Modeling Responsible Behavior
The state of Ohio legalized sports betting on January 1, 2023. Although the state’s largest school, The Ohio State University, has not announced plans for a sports gaming partnership, the university’s student wellness center says it’s ready to help serve students who might develop a problem.
“Educating students about responsible gambling and the risks and pitfalls associated with gambling is a very important issue,” Roger Perkey, wellness coordinator of outreach and prevention at OSU’s student wellness center, wrote in an email. “If students are properly educated, they will be able to recognize if a problem exists early on, which will be much less costly to correct than the latter.”
Matt Jones, founder of Kentucky Sports Radio, which covers University of Kentucky sports, says it’s a mistake for colleges to use predatory means to attract students to gambling, but he points out that some students will gamble whether or not they’re enticed to by a university.
“This world does not exist where you can just get rid of all vices,” he says. “I think what colleges should do is try to educate their students on the dangers of all of this.”
When LSU announced its seven-figure partnership with Caesars, which would include a scholarship fund for students, the university said in a press release that “Caesars is committed to working with the Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gaming, regulators and the community to provide responsible gaming resources to all eligible sports bettors in the state and driving awareness of the responsible gaming tools available on the Caesars Sportsbook app.”
Other schools that have formed similar partnerships have also pledged to offer gambling addiction education and resources to people who need help.
Experts say it starts with parents modeling what it looks like to gamble — or engage in any potentially addictive activity — responsibly. They should demonstrate how and when to walk away and set limits and how to withstand peer and social pressure to participate when they’ve hit their limits, Delony says.
Most kids who gamble have parents who also do, Whyte says.
“Parents play a large role in talking to kids about it openly and thinking about how their own gambling behavior may influence their kids,” he says. “Be aware that it’s an activity that can be addictive. There’s a lot of myths and misunderstandings around it, but for parents, it’s a great teachable moment.”
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Correction 01/13/23: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the American Gaming Association.