Sports Betting Is Ruining More Than Your Bank Account

The betting apps now legal in much of the country are about to sap the Super Bowl of the very thing that makes it so special.

An image of a slot machine with a three footballs
The Atlantic

Everyone likes to think that they are immune to marketing. Deep down you know that investing in crypto won’t make you as brave as one of the Wright brothers, even if Matt Damon says so. But then one January day, you find yourself sitting in your Allbirds, snacking on a bag of socially progressive M&Ms, and, with some resignation, you realize the truth: You’re a gullible, fallible, easily manipulated idiot after all.

This is exactly how I found myself betting on NFL playoff games this winter. In early January, online sports betting became legal in New York, where I live, joining a host of states that have legalized it since 2018, when the Supreme Court rescinded a federal ban on sports wagering. As the sports-betting veil lifted, it was accompanied by a deluge of ads for wagering apps and a shock-and-awe bombardment of promotions that seemed to make no financial sense. No consumer or medium was spared. The sheer ferocity of the campaign became a meme: “STOP SHOWING ME SPORTS BETTING ADS I AM GAY” went one tweet shared hundreds of times.

Not surprisingly, the marketing blitz worked. In just three weeks, Empire State gamblers had placed a record-breaking $1.6 billion in online bets—and yeah, I got suckered into it too. One month later, with the Super Bowl finally here, I’ve been drawn deep into the sports-betting vortex. The apps, while occasionally fun and nerve-racking, are even more confusing and addictive than I could have ever imagined.

The first sportsbook app that got me was Caesars, whose ads have featured the comedian J. B. Smoove, Halle Berry, and virtually every member of the Manning football clan (not just the famous ones). Ahead of the first round of the NFL playoffs, the Caesars app promised a $300 free bet for new users, a pretty typical promo. But in an eye-popping flourish, Caesars also matched up to $3,000 that a new user deposited in the app. Although plenty of seasoned bettors reportedly jumped on this wild offer, this type of whole-hog commitment frightened me, so instead, I threw in the minimum $20 to qualify and immediately put the $300 on the Kansas City Chiefs to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by at least 13 points.

Even though I thought I knew enough about sports to bet on them occasionally, Caesars’ promotional free bet was a bit more complicated than I had expected. When the Chiefs beat the Steelers by 21 points, my winning bet didn’t become actual money I could withdraw from Caesars and spend in the real world. It instead became $573 in “bonus money” that would disappear forever unless I wagered a certain amount of it within seven days. When I plunked down a much more modest bet on the Los Angeles Rams–Arizona Cardinals game that weekend (and lost), my slightly smaller pile of bonus money didn’t become real either. I tried to engage with the app’s support-chat feature to find out why, but no one ever responded.

A day later, still irritated that my bonus bounty remained in bettors’ purgatory, I flung $20 at an NBA game I was already watching. As soon as I did, I reached the magic threshold in the fine print that made all of my theoretical bonus money real. Suddenly, I was a gambler. A shark. A killer. And I quickly did what any other high roller would do: I withdrew all but $50 from the app. Naturally, it didn’t transfer immediately. For the next three days, the winnings sat as a pending transaction before they were sent along to my bank. And up until the hour that the money came through, I could have canceled the withdrawal and kept playing.

Even if you have a semi-firm grasp of gambling terminology—parlays, point spreads, overs, unders, money lines—betting apps introduce a whole new slew of beguiling wordplay. The following weekend, I was lured into trying the BetMGM app for the second round of the NFL playoffs by its hyping of so-called risk-free bets, which means that if you lose, you’ll receive the same amount lost in free bets. (So really it’s more “risk-free” than risk-free.) Then, there are “parlay boost tokens,” which increase the potential payout from a complicated bet that involves multiple outcomes.

Like real sportsbooks, the apps also promote prepackaged bets that are enticing on the surface, but either face long odds in reality or don’t make a ton of sense in general. Ahead of an NBA game between the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, I took a BetMGM wager that offered a higher payout if three of the teams’ stars scored at least 20 points. While Kyrie Irving had 30 and Bradley Beal had 23, I paced in agony as James Harden ended up with just 18, missing two layups and having two more blocked in the fourth quarter alone. Worst of all, the game itself was a nail-biter—the Nets won 119–118—but I struggled to enjoy it.

Although these promotions are meant to generate excitement as more states legalize sports betting, the nature of sports-betting apps also seems geared to get users into the regular habit of placing bets from their couches, their beds, their cars, and the games themselves. Over the course of the month—out of boredom, isolation, or habit—I’m averaging a little more than one bet a day.

Obviously, people will continue to enjoy betting on sports, but I worry that my specific tale of digital woe is only going to become more familiar. According to The Information, sports-betting companies spent $1.2 billion on advertising in 2021. That amount is projected to nearly double in 2022, especially as more states legalize betting and it further integrates with live broadcasts and leagues themselves. Although the NFL has limited the number of sports-betting ads to six per game, with the Super Bowl coming up, we’re quickly approaching the inflection point of sports betting in the U.S., if we haven’t hit it already.

Like the Dallas Cowboys and playoff disappointment, football and sports betting go hand in hand. Even before the rise of sports-betting apps, Super Bowl Sunday was the biggest wagering day of the year. But the relationship is getting pretty intense these days. Last spring, the NFL upped the ante by announcing multiyear partnerships with Caesars, DraftKings, and FanDuel that will further entrench sports betting in the NFL experience. This year, more than 31 million Americans are expected to bet $7.6 billion on this year’s game, a 78 percent jump from 2021. That includes me. Still a mark for a good promotion, I registered for the FanDuel app, which is pitching totally unreasonable $280 returns on $5 Super Bowl bets, along with “risk-free” parlays and oddball prop wagers—like which team will win the opening coin toss or what color Gatorade the winning coach will be doused in.

Unfortunately, as I’ve already learned, keeping track of these potential outcomes removes you from the game. The Super Bowl’s rare power is its monocultural character—even for nonfans who are tuning in for the ads or the halftime show, it’s hard to opt out of what is by far the most-watched event in the country. That is, unless you opt out by going too deep into the mess of it. Super Bowl parties are an American tradition, one that so many of us skipped last year, and yet these apps may narrow the experience of how millions of people watch and enjoy the game.

Though online sports betting will no doubt boost the investment (and the risks) of some viewers, it will also take one of the few communal spectacles we have left and turn it into something more individualistic. Yet again, an act of leisure is getting robbed of its idleness and innocence. At least for now, I’ve come out slightly ahead in my sports-betting endeavors, but I’m already worried I’ve left something behind.