Support for legal sports betting growing, but concerns remain

Keywords Gambling
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As states across the country legalize sports betting and online sportsbooks flood sports television with celebrity-backed advertisements, Americans are growing more accepting of the practice, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll finds.

Four years after the Supreme Court overturned a law that limited sports gambling mostly to Nevada, 66% now approve of making betting on professional sporting events legal. That’s up from 55% who said the same in 2017, before the Supreme Court decision, and 41% in 1993. Support for legalizing betting on college sports is lower: 49% approve and 50% disapprove.

Betting has been legalized and made available in 30 states, including Indiana, and the District of Columbia so far. In another five states, sports betting has been legalized but is not yet operational. A 54% majority of Americans say the increasing share of states that allow people to bet on sporting events is “neither good nor bad.” The remainder are split over whether it’s good or bad, 23% each.

Despite growing approval, 71% of Americans say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that the increasing availability of sports betting will lead to more people becoming addicted to gambling. Most Americans (64%) don’t know anyone who has had a problem with gambling too much or too often, but 21% say they have a family member with a gambling problem, 14% say they have a close friend with a gambling problem and 4% say they themselves have had a gambling problem.

About a quarter, 24%, of Americans say professional athletes should be allowed to place bets on games in their league if their team is not competing. A 76% majority say this should not be allowed. The NFL suspended Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley for at least a year after he bet on NFL games.

Gambling advertising has become ubiquitous during sports broadcasts. Thirty-seven percent of Americans say they are bothered by those ads compared with 54% for ads for prescription drugs and 25% for beer ads.

The most common way for people to bet on sports is among friends or through an office pool, with 67% of sports bettors doing this in the past five years. About half of bettors say they gamble online using betting or fantasy sports websites and apps (49%), while 40% bet in person at a casino. A much smaller 12% have made bets at stadiums or arenas.

Just 8% of U.S. adults report placing sports bets monthly or more often, and fewer than 2 in 10 Americans, 17%, say they have bet on a professional sporting event in the past five years. Among sports fans, 20% say they have made a bet. That number is basically unchanged from the 21% who said the same in 2017.

The stability in the share of Americans betting on sports since 2017 is consistent with other polling. An SSRS/Luker on Trends survey found 16% of adults ages 21 and older said they had “ever bet on sports” in data from January to April of 2022, hardly changed from between 15 and 16% in results from 2018 to 2021. This February, Marist College found that 36% of adults had ever placed a bet on a pro or college sports game or participated in a pool, dipping from 40% in 2017.

Sports betting is common among avid sports fans: 48% have placed a bet in the past five years, and 32% say they bet once a month or more often, according to the Post-UMD poll.

The poll finds that 62% of sports bettors under 50 have bet online compared with 26% of those 50 and older. Bettors under 50 are also far more likely to have bet at a stadium or arena (17%) than those 50 and older (3%).

According to the Post-UMD poll, 7% of adults ages 21-25 say they placed a bet before they were 21, similar to 11% of all adults who said they bet on sports before turning 21. That suggests the increasing availability of online betting has not led an outsize percentage of young adults to bet before turning 21.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said his group’s internal data showed some uptick in the number of gamblers since 2018 – but not by a large margin. “It means a lot of the people are shifting from gambling illegally to legally,” he said. “Within the betting community, you’re looking at frequency and spend. We suspect that is going up.”

Some of the most populous states in the country, including California and Florida, have yet to introduce gambling. New York went live this year. Several industry analysts noted that gambling operators and states were bringing in healthy amounts of revenue that was in line with projections.

Chris Grove, a co-founding partner of Acies Investment, which focuses on gambling, sports and technology, said legalizing gambling was never going to turn non-sports fans or people who had no interest in gambling into sports bettors.

“The number of people who enter an office pool or put $5 on a game with a friend won’t move,” he said. “But the U.S. is clearly on pace to meet or exceed the performance of more mature gambling markets on an adjusted-GDP-per-capita basis.”

The poll was conducted online May 4-17, 2022, among a random national sample of 1,503 adults by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. The sample was drawn through SSRS’s Opinion Panel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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