Local Politics: What comes after legalized sports gambling?

Is Ohio as prepared to deal with the downsides of legalized sports betting — primarily increased rates of gambling addiction — as it is eager to realize the economic benefits?

Craig Calcaterra
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, gamblers place bets in the temporary sports betting area at the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia.

It took more than three years from the time the legislation was introduced, but just before Christmas Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill into law legalizing sports gambling. Soon, Ohioans will join residents of 32 other states and the District of Columbia in being allowed to place sports bets online, at casinos, at racetracks and at standalone betting kiosks in bars, restaurants and various sports facilities. 

However, you can't place your bets just yet. It'll take a good amount of time to set up Ohio's sports wagering regulations and infrastructure, and that includes divvying up the licenses for the state's betting windows, virtual and otherwise. The new law requires that betting be available no later than January 1, 2023, and most observers believe it will take almost all of the available time between now and then to get everything in order.

I'm not a gambler myself — the house always wins in the long run, and I have a thing against throwing my money away — but I'm not necessarily opposed to the legalization of sports gambling. For one thing, it was inevitable. The law which prevented every state except Nevada from legalizing sports gambling was clearly unconstitutional and deserved to be struck down. It's also the case that, even if that law weren't overturned, prohibition of attractive vices has a proven track record of not working, and maintaining such prohibitions is usually a bad idea. A great number of people were already gambling on sports illegally via offshore websites and local bookies, and it's better from a policy perspective to bring such things into the light, subjecting them to destigmatization, regulation and taxation. It's also worth noting that most of Ohio's neighbors — Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana — have already legalized sports betting, and it's a better idea to keep the revenue from Ohio gamblers in-state instead of sending it over the border.

Still, legalized sports gambling will create a great many problems, and given how poorly Ohio has fared at dealing with most of the other problems it’s faced in recent years, it’s a good time to ask whether the state is in any way prepared to deal with what's coming down the pike. 

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I cover sports for a living, and a big part of writing about sports in the past three years has involved covering sports gambling. It's an industry into which leagues, teams, and sports networks are diving headfirst, forming business partnerships with both brick-and-mortar and online casinos. While most sports fans have probably noticed this via the proliferation of gambling ads during sports broadcasts, there is far more than marketing going on. The most significant thing going on are casinos and their partners in the various sports leagues developing all sorts of gambling products that make simply picking a winner before a game begins seem quaint.

Things such as micro-betting and in-game betting, which allow people to place scores if not hundreds of bets a game on small things, such as whether the next pitch will be a ball or a strike, or if the next play called will be a pass or a run. These bets, primarily placed via an app on one's cell phone or laptop, are not designed to be big dollar wagers. Rather, they are designed to get sports fans into the habit of placing bets via a process those in the industry refer to as "gamification." As in, making sports betting seem like a game in and of itself, complete with all of the addictive, boredom-killing traits one finds in games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush.

Gambling is already a highly addictive activity — the American Psychiatric Association classified compulsive gambling as a psychological disorder in 1980 — and the easier it is to access, the more widespread addiction is likely to be. When a constant stream of low-dollar, habit-forming bets like we'll soon see due to this "gamification" push are encouraged, there can be little doubt that the rates of gambling addiction will only increase. Indeed, even mild scrutiny of the business plans of the companies entering the sports gambling sector reveal that the idea is less about creating a large new pool of casual gamblers than it is about getting more and more money from people who are already gamblers. These plans basically depend on creating addicts for the endeavor to be maximally profitable.

Much of what the legislature and the two agencies that will be in charge of implementing sports gambling between now and January 1 — the Ohio Lottery Commission and the Ohio Casino Control Commission — will focus on are the wheres and whens of it all, including who gets the gaming licenses and all of that.

But is Ohio also prepared to deal with what happens after January 1? Is Ohio as prepared to deal with the downsides of legalized sports betting — primarily increased rates of gambling addiction — as it is eager to realize the economic benefits? How much effort and money will be put into combatting problem gambling and supporting the existing organizations devoted to that cause? Will Ohio legislators and regulators hold the feet of those companies who seek to make billions off of Ohio gamblers to the fire when it comes to ameliorating the problems they'll create? Or will they simply be required to put a phone number of a gambling addiction hotline in small print at the bottom of their ads and webpages? 

Forgive me if I'm skeptical that such things will be at the forefront of the state's efforts in the coming months, but there is much to suggest that such skepticism is warranted. Ohio is a state, after all, that has been eager to overlook almost any crisis if it means catering to business interests. 

We've seen this when it comes to the energy sector, public education, the banking sector and the healthcare industry. We've seen the state happily downplay and sometimes completely ignore real human suffering and deprivation if it means that there is a buck to be made or an abstract ideology to be validated. How can we expect a state that has overlooked or downplayed an opioid crisis that killed thousands and a pandemic that killed tens of thousands to take the social crisis that is a spike in gambling addiction when that spike inevitably comes?

I'd like to be proven wrong on that score. The state has just under a year to do so. The smart money, however, would be to bet against it.