Sports gambling became legal in Illinois in March 2020. Since then, Illinois residents have bet more and more, hitting $1 billion each in October and November 2022, the most recent months for which figures are available. The Illinois Gaming Board reports $14.5 million in tax revenue for November and more than $100 million in year-to-date 2022 sports betting revenue.
Sports betting in Illinois is aggressively marketed by those businesses that are authorized to take sports betting in Illinois. These “sportsbooks” compete fiercely for players, especially new ones. One of the tools they use is to increase the bet of a new bettor with bonuses, making the player feel like playing with free money. Addiction experts fear that too many become addicted.
Mercedes Kent treats patients with problem gambling at the Gateway Foundation in Springfield. She points out certain conditions that make gambling addiction more likely, and one of them is ease of access. Sports betting can be done online, eliminating the need to physically enter a sports book. The bonuses on offer also make it easier to access. “Free bets with online access in this context are really nothing more than free cocaine delivered to your door,” Kent said in an interview.
At BetMGM you can earn a FreeBet bonus by depositing $10 or more real money into an account. If you lose your first bet, you will receive a FreeBet equal to your loss. If your losing bet was $50 or more, you will receive five FreeBets, each worth 20% of your stake. If you win your first bet, you get nothing extra; FreeBets are only awarded when you lose.
Using FreeBets is more difficult than a cash bet. You must use all of your FreeBets within seven days. During football season, this means you have to bet on next week’s games; If you have five FreeBets, you must bet on five different games, regardless of whether you know enough about that many teams to place an informed bet. Since each of your FreeBets has a theoretical 50% chance of winning, you’ll win two or three on an average day and get back 40 or 60 percent of your original loss minus commissions. BetMGM also reserves the right to impose any restrictions on FreeBet.
Other bonuses have what is called a “playthrough” requirement. During the football season, DraftKings ran a promotion that awarded “bonus funds” equal to 20% of the initial deposit. But this money is only paid out to the bettor in increments of 4% of the actual bets made. For example, if you deposit $1,000, you will receive $200 in bonus funds. If you then bet $100, DraftKings will increase your bet to $104 and reduce your bonus money to $196. To receive the full $200 in bonus funds you would need to wager a total of $5,000 and do so within 90 days.
Stigma is another important factor in addictive behaviors, according to Kent of the Gateway Foundation. “Patients may go to great lengths to hide their alcohol or drug use,” and few will admit to spending all day at the track. Society places less stigma on sports betting because it is perceived as a game of skill and because people are emotionally involved with their favorite teams. Betting can therefore feel like an act of solidarity.
Normalization is the process of making behaviors feel routine and normal, rather than unusual or abnormal. Pervasive advertising in sports broadcasts and sporting events keeps children exposed, leading to normalization and gambling as an integral part of sport is presented as entertainment. DraftKing’s slogan is “Life’s more fun when there’s skin in the game.” Children’s exposure to normalized gambling worries Kent. “Starting gambling early is a huge risk factor for addiction,” says Kent.
The Illinois Department of Human Services determined that approximately 383,000 adult Illinoisans have a gambling problem, and the state has budgeted $10 million for fiscal year 2023 for gambling treatment services, approximately $25 per Illinoisan with a gambling problem. Group treatment sessions can cost $50 or more each and last for months or years. A study (https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/144584.pdf) conducted by Baylor University in 2011 estimated the societal cost of a pathological gambler to be over $9,000 per year. These costs include employment and business costs, illness and suicide, welfare payments, divorce and child neglect, and direct losses from gambling. If this estimate is correct, problem gamblers in Illinois can cost society about twice what the state collects from gambling taxes. So legal sports betting might not be such a good bet for Illinois.
Don Howard is him Illinois Times Intern in the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.