Betting Apps Can Make Anyone A Sports Fan Even Me

Betting Apps Can Make Anyone a Sports Fan. Even Me.

The flight attendant informed us there would be no Wi-Fi. She sounded cheery and calm. I was not. For the 3 hours 10 minutes it would take to reach Des Moines from New York, I would be unable to check the score in the Cleveland Guardians’ game against the San Diego Padres, or in the Washington Nationals’ game against the Seattle Mariners.

To be clear, I do not care about baseball. I do not have ties to those four teams or cities. But, on that particular August evening, I had money riding on the games.

Months after New York joined the states that allow you to wager on sports from your phone, I — a 30-something woman disinterested in both sports and gambling — was reporting on the rise of regulated sports betting in America. I had downloaded three major betting apps to get a feel for the platforms and their promotional bonanzas.

From May to August, I spent two intense pockets of time — 10 days in all — betting. I did not expect to win thousands. Even more, I did not expect to find myself agitated on a plane without internet and yearning to know what might be happening in the top of the ninth.

When we hit the ground in Des Moines, as others reflexively turned to email or Instagram, I fired up the FanDuel and DraftKings apps. I had made more than $260 in transit.

High off that success and eager to celebrate my renewed connectivity, I promptly scrolled through the menu of live games. The Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox were playing. In what had become my trusted scientific method, I watched the odds move for a minute, then tapped on a team, picking the favored Red Sox to win.

Betting Apps Can Make Anyone A Sports Fan Even Me
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Soon I found myself sitting, parked in the airport rental car lot after dark, riveted by a live simulation of the game in the betting app. I cheered aloud, alone, for outs and hits. I knocked the steering wheel during fraught pauses, like when I knew the pitcher had pitched but wasn’t sure what, exactly, had come of it.

I waited till an inning concluded to begin a two-hour drive toward an Iowa casino, where table games and clanging slot machines held no temptation for me. Along the way, friends let me down by phone: The Red Sox had lost in 10 innings, eroding some of my profit that night.

I was heading to the casino for a state gambling commission meeting. I was interested in a recent string of violations. Regulators had admonished sports betting companies, including those with which I had bet, for having let customers wager with credit cards — something illegal in Iowa but permitted in most other states with mobile betting.

Colleagues and I spent much of this year covering how sports betting has proliferated since 2018, when a Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to legalize it. We reported on industry lobbying efforts, and states’ enthusiasm for the new form of tax revenue. We explored the consequences of gambling addiction, as well as the quilt of rules governing betting from place to place, and regulators’ often-limited appetites to punish companies for breaking them.

One in five Americans has bet on sports in the past year, according to research from the Pew Research Center. During the first half of 2022, Americans placed an average of nearly $8 billion a month in legal sports bets, compared with under $1 billion a month three years earlier, according to SportsHandle, a trade publication. Some analysts have predicted that figure could climb to $20 billion a month by 2026.

Critics said the industry manipulated people, luring the inexperienced or vulnerable with a barrage of celebrity ads and the false promise of easy money. Enthusiasts said it had taken illegal betting — with corner bookies, offshore websites or office pools — into safer, regulated territory, deepening sports fans’ loyalties to teams as well as their social connections to one another, and driving up sales of merchandise and tickets to games.

Companies were spending more than they were making in a race to recruit customers. Just how compelling were those offers of supposedly risk-free wagering?

I asked plenty of bettors that question. But I didn’t only want to hear other people’s experiences. I wanted to know, as someone dispassionate about sports and various forms of gambling: Would betting have any effect on me?

With the approval of my editors, I set aside $900 of my own money and became a sports-wagering guinea pig.

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Signing up involved more than I had expected. I shared my Social Security number, linked my checking account and opted into limited marketing alerts. Once my account was live, placing a bet was somewhat inscrutable.

The Caesars app showed a bland list of games organized by sport. There was a grid of information with numbers listed under different column headers: “spread,” “money line,” “total points.” Each box constituted a particular bet.

A friend steeped in sports betting initiated me, defining the terms and types of wagers. “Betting,” my friend said, “makes uninteresting things interesting.”

Indeed, for the stints during which I bet, it made the uninteresting all-absorbing.

For my first official wager, I staked an unsettlingly big amount on the underdog in the Champions League soccer final in May. Based on nothing but a love of Spain, I bet $700 that Real Madrid would beat Liverpool.

The size of my wager was not an entry-level one. But it was driven by the entry-level promotion I had seen in ads featuring a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” character dressed in an emperor’s costume: Bet up to $1,100 — that four-digit figure fluctuated over the months — and get it back if you lose. It was not immediately clear to me that a refund would come in the form of betting credits, not cash.

But that didn’t wind up mattering. My team scored first, prompting me to jump off the couch and screech. I sent a stream of incredulous, proud text messages. Real Madrid held the lead. It was exhilarating — and lucrative.

Caesars paid $2,520 into my account within minutes of the match’s end, making the lazy afternoon feel mightily productive and prompting me to place a rash of new bets: more than a dozen over the next two days.

I embraced smaller stakes: $10 on the Indianapolis 500; $12.50 on the Monaco Grand Prix; $5 on a particular New York Ranger to score a goal and a particular New York Met to hit a home run.

All but one of those bets lost, but that hardly dampened my interest. I was up $1,600 overall, and I was riding high.

Across a few days, I swatted away the occasional, sobering pop-up alert informing me how much time and money I had spent on a gambling app in a single session. Though such push alerts aren’t required in New York or most states, some companies have instituted them, seeking to telegraph responsibility and, perhaps, stave off stricter consumer protection mandates.

The alerts gave me pause — making clear I had been glued to an app for more than an hour at a time — but they hardly slowed me down.

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Betting made sports accessible to me, just as the major leagues that have struck partnerships with betting companies might have hoped. And with bettors skewing heavily male, I fell into meaningful categories for an industry that has looked toward women and Latinos for growth.

In an unlikely turn, I suddenly had command of specific facts, and I had opinions: about Francisco Lindor’s hits for the Mets, Bryce Harper’s performance for the Philadelphia Phillies; about a referee’s decision to invalidate a 3-point basket by Max Strus of the Miami Heat during an National Basketball Association playoff game; about a string of rain delays and how I felt they had affected the momentum of teams that I had been sure would score more than nine runs.

I felt proudly agnostic, with no loyalties to teams or players, and little emotion clouding my judgment. (Though for a time I reported for The Times’s sports section, my focus was investigations: corruption and cheating, not games or athletes.) I would review statistics and past matchups. There was a satisfying air of the scientific to it that drew me in as no other form of gambling had, a sense that studying might offer an edge.

But, just as much, I also embraced irrationality and made picks on whims.

Neither strategy seemed to work much better than the other. Across 110 bets on three platforms, I won 45. I turned a profit on all three apps, making nearly $3,000 in total — taxable income to be reported to the Internal Revenue Service. My smallest wager was $1, my biggest $900. Most often I bet $10 at a time.

One reason I was able to stay on the right side of the profit-and-loss ledger was the size of my early wins, which were enabled by free bets or promotional safety nets, with the promise of a refund — even one in site credit — pushing me to risk more. DraftKings offered me $200 in free bets, in $25 installments. Like Caesars, FanDuel insured my first bet for up to $1,000, moving me to put $900 on the line for the Baltimore Orioles, who delivered.

But I was also disciplined in protecting any meaningful winnings, which I routinely exported from the gambling sites along with what I had first deposited, hardly trusting myself not to eat at the balance if I left it there.

Betting companies have stressed messages of “responsible gambling,” urging consumers to set optional limits on the sums they can deposit and bet. Still, addiction experts said, people with a gambling problem may not have the consistent self-discipline to set and abide by personal limits, or to insulate themselves from financial losses as I did.

Crucially, I was able to disengage when I chose to — even if I felt the pull of the platforms on non-betting days, when I spied a sports broadcast or overheard people talking about a big game.

“You set aside money,” said Dr. Marc Potenza, a psychiatry professor at Yale and director of the university’s division on addictions research. “Some people, when they win that money, they put it back in.”

Dr. Potenza said research indicated that men — who have historically been more interested in strategic forms of gambling, like sports betting — were more prone to developing gambling problems, but that women who did develop them tended to progress more quickly into trouble, a dynamic called telescoping.

This moment of explosive growth for the gambling industry, with few governmental restrictions on marketing promotions, has had shades of trial and error. At industry conferences my colleagues and I attended this year, some representatives from betting companies urged regulators to trust them and offer flexibility so they could, as one Bet MGM employee focused on responsible betting put it, “learn and identify what is harming, what is not harming.”

While my patterns on the sites were intensely concentrated within a few days, sometimes stretching late into the night, they all resulted in my making money overall off the platforms. The companies served me new offers even, and especially, when I slowed my wagering or cashed out my winnings. Sometimes, those offers were effective in drawing me back in.

“You cleaned us out for $1,442,” said Chris Jones, vice president of communications for FanDuel, referring to my initial $900 bet with FanDuel, on the Orioles to beat the Red Sox. “For someone who’s not into it, you did pretty well,” he said, reminding me of the company’s tools to set limits on one’s own betting.

By the end of the four days I spent betting on that app, I had won $1,088.03.

“We want our customers to be engaged, of course,” Mr. Jones said. “But we do not want our customers to be checking their phones at all hours of the night.”

My favorite kind of bet, on which I made hundreds across platforms during the experiment, was a live wager on total runs in baseball: While a game was underway, I bet not on winners and losers but simply whether the combined score would be above or below a certain number.

On several occasions, I found myself rooting, rather perversely, for both teams to stymie each other, to cap the total runs at, say, eight and protect my bet. As it turns out, something less enjoyable than watching a game with a devoted fan of your team’s adversary is watching it with a person rooting against the success of both your team and its adversary.

“No one wants no one to score,” my bettor friend said, calling it against the spirit of sports. “You’re cheering for nothing.”

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The more I bet, the harder it became to keep track of it all. The betting apps didn’t seem to want me doing that anyway. If I wanted to know how much I had won or lost in total, I needed to consult a spreadsheet I made.

On the day I flew to Iowa, I burned through a $1,000 promotion in free bets from FanDuel. I had made my first wager on that app days earlier, and won big. After I transferred out my initial stake and most of my winnings, the company promptly served me a new offer: Deposit more money and we’ll kick in free bets worth half of whatever you deposit, a bonus of up to $1,000.

I bit. To qualify for the maximum credit, I transferred $2,000 into my betting account, intending to park it there only temporarily. Promptly, $1,000 in free credits appeared.

I planned to spend the credit as soon as possible and then transfer my own money back out, as the terms and conditions had assured me I could. My betting spree that afternoon had me rapt by an array of obscure basketball games: Lithuania versus Hungary; Bosnia and Herzegovina versus Serbia. I couldn’t find a livestream, so I resorted to staring at the score on Google, refreshing the search page and watching the numbers tick up. I made $78 betting on the teams’ baskets in the third quarter; I lost $85 doing the same in the fourth.

I felt relieved when the $1,000 in credits was gone. My mind was free to refocus elsewhere, and I had more than $400 in new profit. Again, I initiated a bank transfer, to move my $2,000, plus some winnings, off the site. This time, however, it didn’t work.

Over the next couple of days, FanDuel repeatedly rejected my attempts to withdraw the funds I had deposited but never touched.

I turned to one of the site’s help agents. First, she said she didn’t see any record of my withdrawal attempts. Then she asked if my inquiry related to my Fantasy Football account, which she informed me had $10 in it. I didn’t think I had such an account — I barely understood the concept of Fantasy Football — and I told her as much.

The exchange lasted nearly an hour, and it might have worn down a person less committed to retrieving her cash. The customer service representative ultimately told me that my money was eligible for a “refund but not a withdrawal.” It was a matter of semantics, it seemed, and one that required me to take two different steps to retrieve my full balance of $2,400.28.

Mr. Jones, the FanDuel spokesman, said it was difficult by design to withdraw money after having qualified for such generous promotions, pointing to people who sought to game the system and claim multiple offers, or who might be using the sites to launder money.

“There have to be added steps,” he said. “It has to be difficult; otherwise, people would just be in and out.”

I retrieved the money, after all. But eight minutes after I filed my final, successful withdrawal request, I received a push alert encouraging me to deposit more and cash in on a new promotion, worth up to $50.

“Rebecca,” the message said, “you have an exclusive College Football No Sweat Bet offer!”

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