In 2021, the International Center for Responsible Gaming announced a $400,000 grant to Ohio’s Bowling Green State University to study sports betting behaviors and the risk factors that lead to gambling problems. Funding for the grant was supported by the American Gaming Association, MGM Resorts International, DraftKings, NASCAR, the PGA and others.
This October, researchers revealed the first round of results of the three-year study.
Principal investigator Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green, shared the results at the 23rd-annual ICRG Conference on Gambling and Addiction in early October, as well as in a paper just published in JAMA Network Open, a section of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“I think the big takeaways we are hoping to provide from our study are clear pictures of the types of people that are most at risk for developing gambling-related problems,” Grubbs told PlayOhio. “By painting a picture of who is at risk, it is our hope that sportsbook operators will be able to set up early warning systems that will allow them to identify players before they develop a major problem.”
Responsible gambling is a big priority in Ohio with sports betting set to launch on Jan. 1, 2023. Grubbs’ research will be a crucial lens into the changing demographics, warning signs and treatment options as the legal Ohio sports betting market takes shape.
Study: Who bets on sports, and who is at risk for gambling problems?
For the study, researchers partnered with YouGov America to gather a sample group of 4,000 Americans. Grubbs says 2,806 of the participants chosen “are matched to details of the American public to provide a randomized snapshot of what Americans are doing in general,” while 1,553 were people who had participated in sports betting in the past year.
“In general,” Grubbs says of the study’s first round of results, “we found that younger men with greater than average income and college degrees are actually the most likely to wager on sports.”
“However, even more than those factors, the single best predictor of gambling on sports was simply living in a state where gambling on sports is legal. In short, access to sports betting — living in a state where you can (legally bet) — makes you much more likely to actually bet on sports.”
The study also found that those who participated in particular gaming activities were more at risk of developing problems.
“We looked at how sports betting predicts problem gambling or symptoms of a gambling addiction,” Grubbs says. “What we found was that people who bet on sporting events, people who participate in daily fantasy sports leagues and people who bet on esports were more likely to be classified as moderate or high-risk gamblers. These people were at greater risk of having gambling-related problems. But, simply participating in normal fantasy sport leagues was not associated with that risk.”
Findings lined up with researchers’ expectations
Grubbs says the initial findings of the study lined up pretty well with what he expected.
“Sports betting is a risky behavior,” he says. “Just like drinking, smoking, or gambling, in general, all come with some risks to health, betting on sports comes with certain risks as well. That doesn’t mean you cannot bet on sports responsibly, but it’s better to think of them as potentially risky rather than think of them as completely benign. When you realize there is risk involved, you can make a plan for how to bet responsibly.”
From here, the researchers will follow the study’s participants over the next two years to see if/how they gamble and check in on factors like the quality of their mental health.
“We are hoping to follow up with these people many times over the next two years to really build a profile of who develops problems, who gambles without problems, who gambles now but not later, and who picks up gambling over the two years,” Grubbs says. “In short, we want to really understand the pathways to and away from sports gambling.”
More research, funding crucial to combatting problem gambling
Overall, Grubbs’ field of study largely focuses on compulsive behavior disorders related to gambling and sexual behaviors. He was drawn to researching compulsive behaviors because, unlike drug and alcohol addiction, there are still so many unknowns when it comes to gambling and sexual compulsion/addiction.
“The challenge of understanding something we still have so many unanswered questions for makes it interesting,” he says.
To find those answers and more adequately address problem gambling, Grubbs says more research is crucial. He feels as though gaming operators and state/federal organizations have done a lot of good in promoting responsible gaming. But Grubbs thinks that funding more research is the biggest thing that can be done to help address gambling problems. Understanding the problem is the key.
“Right now, substance-based addictions get billions of research funding from governmental sources every year,” Grubbs says. “Because of this, we know a great deal about these issues. But, for now, there is very little federal or state-sponsored research funding for problem gambling. This leaves us unprepared for potential issues that may come up as sports betting is legalized across the country.”
“As much as operators and sports betting companies can do to help, without consistent governmental research funding, I’m afraid we will not be able to meet the needs of the country with regards to sports betting.”
With more legalized sports betting, increased gambling problems are likely
Grubbs says he feels like a rise in gambling-related problems is likely as more states legalize sports betting. The sheer accessibility sports betting apps enables makes it almost a certainty. But Grubbs doesn’t think the rise of sports betting will necessarily lead to an all-out epidemic.
“I think that betting from the privacy of your own phone will result in some people developing problems that never otherwise would have,” he says. “I don’t think we are talking about an epidemic where 10% of the population develops a gambling addiction, but I do think we will see slight increases in problem gambling cases.”
In the face of that increase, Grubbs worries that the availability of treatment to those experiencing gambling problems isn’t where it needs to be.
“I think that there is often a great deal of financial backing for problem gambling treatment,” he says. “Ohio, for example, has an incredibly well-developed network of care for problem gambling and there are incredible resources from the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio.”
“However, what we lack is manpower. We simply do not have enough trained therapists who know how to deal with problem gambling. So, though the support is there, we still need more people involved and trained.”
Grubbs also working on Ohio-specific study
Being based in Ohio, Grubbs will have the ability to witness in real-time the “before and after” of legalized gambling, with sports betting launching statewide on Jan. 1, 2023.
Grubbs says he is heading up a study of Ohioans’ gambling behavior between this fall and next fall.
“We are sampling 2,000 Ohioans this November, matched to statewide norms to make sure our sample is representative, to assess current gambling habits,” Grubbs says. “We will conduct a similar study next fall. I am hoping to compare the two data points to see if there has been an increase in gambling in the state.”
Grubbs says he feels as though the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio, Ohio Casino Control Commission and Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services have done a good job preparing the state for the 2023 sports betting launch.
“But, like most things in life,” he adds, “I don’t think we will know how well we’ve prepared until we actually get there.”
Ohio responsible gambling resources
The Ohio Lottery Commission, the Ohio State Racing Commission, the Ohio Casino Control Commission, and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services collaborate on the Ohio for Responsible Gambling initiative, which offers numerous tips and resources online.
The Ohio Casino Control Commission’s Responsible Gambling page of its website offers additional resources.
Many online sportsbook operators on their way to Ohio have been stepping up their promotion of safe and responsible gambling policies as well.