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With popularity of online sports betting, gambling counselors see more young men battling addiction

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — It’s become as much a part of the game as the game itself: Online sportsbooks will let you bet on just about anything before and during the Super Bowl. 

For most people, it may just be an added dimension to a sporting event, but KDKA-TV lead investigator Andy Sheehan is finding that more and more young men appear to be developing gambling addictions, and some accuse these online operators of specifically targeting that population.  

It’s not just who will win or lose. 

“By the time of the game, they’re going to have hundreds of different bets,” longtime gaming writer Gary Rotstein said. 

Online operators let you bet on everything from how many sacks to how long it’ll take to sing the national anthem to how many television cutaways there will be of Taylor Swift.

Rotstein says it’s mostly just for fun.

“The vast majority of people can handle it well … They’re putting down $10 or $20 or $50 on a game in a way that they can handle it,” Rotstein said. 

But to others — especially more and more young men — the accessibility and almost limitless betting options have become addictive.

“It’s like the crack cocaine of gambling,” said gambling addiction counselor Jody Bechtold. 

With a bet on any league, any game, any time as close as the phone in their pocket, more are facing massive debts and stalled careers.  

“The young male sports bettor … This is the new opioid epidemic,” Bechtold said. 

Since its legalization three years ago, sports betting in the state has taken off. Last year, Pennsylvanians legally wagered $7.7 billion on sports — up from $7.2 billion in 2022. Bettors, mostly young men, lost $458 million to sportsbook operators.

The Pennsylvania Problem Gambling Helpline has seen a major spike in young sports bettors asking for help, and Bechtold says her practice has been overwhelmed with requests for treatment from some as young as 18 who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

“People in their late 20s, early 30s are saying, ‘I gotta stop this. This is causing so much devastation. It’s causing problems with work, with family. I owe so much money, how am I going to pay all this back?'” Bechtold said. 

And some critics even say the sportsbooks are actively targeting young men with enticements like in-game betting and free play. One ad is for an instant $200 credit on a $5 bet.

“Absolutely. That is their target population. That is where they’re going to grow their market,” said Mark Gottlieb, Public Health Advocacy Group executive director. 

The Public Health Advocacy Group in Massachusetts has filed a class action suit against the sportsbook DraftKings over a $1,000 sign-up bonus they call “unfair and deceptive,” saying bettors need to make a $5,000 deposit and gamble $25,000 within 90 days to claim it. Gottlieb compares such free play offers to the tactics of drug pushers.  

“The goal of course is similar to the heroin dealer. It’s to get their customer to continue to use the product as much as possible until they can’t not use it because they’ve developed an addiction,” Gottlieb said. 

“I do it in moderation. I do know some people do it too much,” said Pitt student Zach Harmar.

Pitt students like Zach Harmar say they try to enjoy making a $10 bet on their phone but avoid the snares of free play.

“All the promotions, they dress them up to look so amazing and there’s all these different bets where you get money back for free, things like that. They try to make it look very nice but it’s really just getting people addicted.”  

The state took in $165 million from sports betting last year, so sports betting clearly has taken off. However, Pennsylvania hasn’t revised its gaming laws since their inception. 

KDKA-TV reached out to both DraftKings and Fan Duel about this report and heard back from DraftKings after the story aired. 

A spokesperson for DraftKings said: “As a customer-first organization, DraftKings takes consumer protection and responsible gaming seriously.  DraftKings respectfully disagrees with the claims and allegations made by the Public Health Advocacy Institute. The disclosures and explanations provided to customers before they make an initial deposit are detailed, clear, conspicuous and informative.  Multiple examples are provided.  Regrettably, the Institute ignored our multiple attempts to engage in an in-person dialogue to carefully examine their concerns in light of these disclosures and, instead, filed suit.”

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