Is legal sports gambling a risky bet for Americans?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Sports betting, a practice that was illegal nearly everywhere in the United States for decades, has exploded into the mainstream over the past four years.

Until recently, sports gambling was effectively banned in every state but Nevada. It still happened, of course, but bets were either placed through friends, bookies or offshore betting sites. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that a law establishing a nationwide ban on commercial sports betting was unconstitutional. That decision cleared states to make their own decisions about whether to allow gambling on sports.

It took less than a month for the first state to begin allowing sports wagers and a flood of states quickly followed suit. Today, more than 30 states and Washington, D.C., permit sports gambling in some form, but the specifics on how and where those bets can be made varies dramatically. Some allow bets to be placed online, for example, while others only allow in-person gambling.

This new legal ground has allowed sports gambling to grow into a massive industry in just a few years. Since the Supreme Court threw out the national ban, Americans have wagered more than $150 billion in total on sporting events, according to a tally compiled by Legal Sports Report. (Disclosure: Yahoo Sports has a relationship with BetMGM.)

There’s still a lot of room for the U.S. sports gambling industry to grow. Voters in California will weigh in on two separate initiatives in November’s election that would lift the state’s ban on sports betting — one that would permit in-person wagers at tribal casinos, another that would allow online betting statewide.

Why there’s debate

The rapid expansion of sports betting has been a boon for sportsbooks, leagues and states that have placed hefty taxes on the burgeoning industry. But not everyone is celebrating gambling’s newfound legitimacy.

Critics argue that the sudden expansion in sports betting will inevitably lead to an explosion of gambling addiction across the country. They point to research suggesting that sports betting can be more addictive than other forms of gambling because of the emotional connection bettors have with the teams. Though only a small percentage of bettors develop a gambling problem, opponents of the trend point to the sheer volume of people now able to participate.

Supporters of legal sports betting counter that these new laws are simply legitimizing a practice that was already happening under the table. They say that having these bets placed out in the open allows states and companies to impose guardrails against problem gambling and offer support to people who develop an addiction. They also say that sports betting represents a major windfall for state and local budgets. According to Legal Sports Report, nearly $1.7 billion in gambling taxes have been collected over the past four years — money that can be used to fund everything from schools to youth sports to anti-addiction programs. One of the initiatives on the ballot in California could produce as much as $500 million a year to combat homelessness if it passes, according to a state government analysis.

Others argue that, whatever the benefits and drawbacks, the decision to gamble or not is a matter of basic freedom that should be left to individuals, not the government.

What’s next

Despite as much as $500 million in spending from groups in favor of legalizing sports betting in California, polls suggest that voters may reject both initiatives to do so in November. Even if they do, it’s likely that the push to expand sports gambling to the Golden State — and elsewhere — will continue in full force.



It’s better for everyone if sports gambling happens out in the open

“Gambling has always been a part of sports, and black-market bookmakers have played a role in some of the worst scandals in athletic history. … But rather than creating more opportunities for such skulduggery, legalized sports betting likely helps ensure the integrity of the games.” — Eric Boehm, Reason

States that ban gambling are giving away huge amounts of desperately needed tax revenue

“There is an opportunity here for the state that could provide new revenue to address major needs that currently are unmet. … Otherwise, we stand to get left behind, leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table.” — Editorial, Tulsa World

Legalizing sports betting may not actually change the number of people who wager on games

“Before we envision a country of rundown addicts selling baby formula to place one last parlay into their phones, we should consider the ubiquity of sports gambling even before the apps showed up. Billions of dollars are bet on the Super Bowl every year. … The point is, people have always bet on sports, and they probably always will, legally or not.” — Jay Caspian Kang, New York Times

With the right controls in place, sports betting can be a positive force

“Clearly there are many fans who would enjoy placing bets on their teams. They should be permitted to do so. … Rigorous enforcement of age restrictions, barring in-game betting, regulating advertising, and creating basic affordability checks can eliminate most of the problems that all too often turn fun into tragedy and despair.” — Richard A. Daynard, Mark A. Gottlieb, and Harry Levant, Boston Globe

Freedom to gamble is a right all Americans should have

“Although it can lead to financial problems for some, sports betting should be legal because people should have the choice to bet if they wish. The U.S. is great because its foundations are liberty and freedom. People are already guaranteed many personal freedoms, and the freedom to gamble with hard-earned money should be the right of any citizen.” — Samuel Freeman, Arkansas Traveler

Legal sports betting is inevitable, but that’s no reason to let rich special interests design the system

“The goal should be to create the most equitable system possible. Rather than allow gaming companies and Native American tribes to rewrite the state Constitution to their liking while the people we’ve elected to protect us from such shenanigans watch meekly from the sidelines.” — Marek Warszawski, Fresno Bee


America’s gambling addiction problem is about to become supersized

“While compulsive and problem gamblers haven’t historically drawn the kind of interest or support that society has bestowed on alcoholics and drug abusers, their numbers are bound to increase as the sports betting boom continues. Money is the substance that problem gamblers abuse — and there are more dealers out there peddling a chance to win some than ever before.” — Timothy L. O'Brien, Bloomberg

The sports betting industry will reap all the benefits while the harms fall on everyday citizens

“Backers are not gambling their political money out of some sense of altruism. They’re hoping to hit the jackpot at great societal cost. That’s the dirty little secret that gambling proponents, and state lawmakers who rely on them for campaign contributions, don’t want to confront: Gambling addiction is already a serious problem nationwide.” — Editorial, Mercury News

It’s never worth abandoning principles for money

“I don’t care who wets their beak from state-sponsored sports gambling, to appropriately use the mafia term. It’s a terrible idea to abandon principle for profit, no matter who profits. Legalized gambling will tempt players to cheat, entice more people to bet money they don’t have, and diminish fans’ faith in the games. Everyone loses.” — Ted Diadiun, Cleveland Plain Dealer

The legal gambling industry will expose exponentially more people to risks than the black market ever did

“To shield a tiny portion of the population who engaged in behavior that might once have been considered immoral (or ‘harmful’ as many prefer to put it now) from the worst consequences of their actions, we have exposed many millions of others to an apparently mitigated version of the same hazards, and enriched powerful corporate interests in the bargain.” — Matthew Walther, The Atlantic

There’s no way to know how the sudden explosion in sports betting will affect younger generations

“Until recently, every generation has grown up with some form of delayed gratification as it pertains to placing legal bets. Now, depending on where you live, you can bet on a game quicker than you can cross the room to get a glass of water.” — Eric Adelson, Washington Post

Predictions of massive tax windfalls may not come true

“Continued activity on the black market could mean the tax dollars generated by sports betting would be more of a trickle than a gusher. Again, we are reminded of the cannabis legalization campaign, which promised that taxing weed would deliver loads of new funding for programs to help youth and prevent substance abuse. In fact, tax revenue has come in lower than expected and the state just lowered tax rates because the legal marketplace is such a mess.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images