One of the biggest lessons states with legalized sports betting have learned is how critical online sports betting is. Many states see the vast majority of their total betting handle wagered online. Well over 95% of sports bets can come from phones, tablets, and computers. That’s a boon for states looking for increased tax revenue and user engagement.
But the convenience of betting on a phone has a dark side. It’s reminiscent of South Carolina’s video poker machines in the 1990s. However, Illinois has video gambling terminals that have many of the same problems as South Carolina’s video poker machines from three decades ago. Some may worry that mobile sports betting will be as bad as these forms of gambling.
Although they share some similarities, some differences set sports betting apart from traditional convenience gambling.
What Is Convenience Gambling?
Convenience gambling traditionally refers to specific types of gambling targeted at specific people. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission defined convenience gambling as “the placement of slot machines or video poker terminals in restaurants, bars, drugstores, and other retail businesses meant to attract residents, as opposed to tourists.” We need to break that down because it’s important in understanding the preconceptions about what is and isn’t convenience gambling.
Slot Machines Or Video Poker Terminals
When this definition was written, convenience gambling only referred to slot and video poker machines in public spaces. Each of the eight states that legalized convenience gambling allowed them in public spaces:
- New Mexico
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
Each state’s gambling landscape has changed drastically since the 1990s. But convenience gambling met staunch opposition from citizens and some politicians. In 2000, the US Senate Commerce Committee recommended a federal law banning convenience gambling. State governments took the lead on banning convenience gambling instead, but one thing was clear. Having gambling machines in grocery stores, bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and other public spaces was problematic. Especially without self-restriction options.
Attracting Local Residents
Convenience gambling machines didn’t need new employees to run them. They didn’t direct money into local communities, either. Profits would’ve been split between the businesses hosting the devices and the companies that made them.
However, locals spent billions of dollars on these machines. It was only one form of entertainment that locals could afford to spend money on. While tourists traditionally visited casinos–and supposedly spent money at local businesses, too–convenience gambling relied on existing residents. Locals saw no job creation or community investment from these machines. Combined with stories about problem gambling, it’s unsurprising public opinion shifted against convenience gambling by the end of the 1990s.
Is Sports Betting Convenience Gambling?
Sports betting proponents may feel queasy after reading about convenience gambling. Sports betting wasn’t included in the original convenience gambling definition. However, smartphones have put a potential gaming terminal in every pocket. Gambling options are at home, not just at casinos. At a glance, it seems like convenience gambling has expanded beyond control.
But sports betting is crucially different from traditional convenience gambling machines. Four things made convenience gambling–especially video poker–dangerous for problem gamblers:
- Speed of each hand
- 24/7 availability
- Perception of skill
- Mind-numbing effect
Each hand of video poker can be played quickly. Video poker was available all the time in some places that never closed. Players also believed that they could use skill to get ahead, which is false for video poker. Video poker players could also zone out and keep playing hands without paying much attention. The machines were designed to maximize the hands played, time spent at the machine, and minimize the perception of chance and attention needed to use the machine. That’s what made them so dangerous.
How Does Sports Betting Compare To Convenience Gambling?
Sports betting isn’t quite the same as traditional convenience gambling, but they share some similarities. Sports wagers can go quickly depending on the type of wager bettors choose. Prop bets and live bets can go quickly, but game lines take a couple of hours. Futures bets can take months depending on how early bettors place those wagers. It’s also available 24/7 because sports and leagues across the world are available at our fingertips.
But mobile sports betting differs from convenience gambling in important ways, too. While traditional convenience gambling activities were games of chance, sports betting is a game of skill. It’s still gambling, but a bettor’s personal knowledge can mitigate some of the effects of chance. A bettor’s belief that he could beat the sportsbooks could still lead him to overspend his bankroll. However, he’d be able to get feedback in a way that he wouldn’t on a video poker machine.
Sportsbooks also avoid the hypnotic effects of convenience gambling machines. Picking through bets and lines, then watching the game isn’t a hypnotic experience. It’s engaging, and if bettors utilize statistics to optimize their wagers, it’s difficult. Compared to convenience gambling, it’s harder for bettors to lose themselves in sports betting than in front of a 1990’s video poker machine.
However, the biggest difference between sportsbooks and convenience gambling options are modern self-exclusion options.
Self-Exclusion And Self-Control
Unlike traditional convenience gambling, modern licensed sportsbooks have self-exclusion and gaming control options. Bettors can place themselves on the self-exclusion list to block themselves from licensed sportsbooks. Apps also have options that allow bettors to set betting limits. That way, bettors can create an external control to keep themselves in check. Bettors can block themselves from their sportsbook accounts for a few months, and be stopped at retail sportsbooks, too.
Even modern convenience gambling lacks this option. Illinois has a self-exclusion program that blocks bettors from Illinois sportsbooks and casinos. However, Illinois video gambling terminals do not offer such protections. The best the Illinois Gaming Board can do is a Problem Gambling Registry. People on the registry get regular emails offering resources and support for overcoming gambling addiction.
But that’s pathetic compared to the robust protections offering by locking problem gamblers out of casinos and sportsbook accounts. Self-exclusion isn’t enough by itself, but it’s much better than periodic emails. Convenience gambling is lucrative–there’s no doubt about that. But the tradeoff is little to no protection for problem gamblers. That’s a difficult tradeoff for elected officials campaigning on the promise of better jobs and community investment.
Sports Betting Vs Convenience Gambling
Sports betting is safer than traditional forms of convenience gambling. Even though mobile sports betting takes convenience to an extreme, online sportsbooks have safeguards for bettors. Bettors can close themselves out of their accounts, set limits on the amounts they wager, and place themselves on self-exclusion lists. Traditional convenience gambling options do not allow for those safeguards. They’re not tied to accounts or identities, so there’s no way to keep problem gamblers from using video machines.
However, the traditional definition of convenience gambling is 20-30 years old. The internet has given bettors unprecedented opportunities to bet on sports or, in some states, play at online casinos. Mobile sports betting will only be sustainable if the safeguards put in place to protect problem gamblers are effective. Public opinion turned dramatically on convenience gambling in the 1990s. If states and sportsbooks fail to keep address problem gambling as mobile sports betting expands–or if they fail to convince the public and elected officials that they can–sports betting expansion could come to a grinding halt within a decade.
Sports betting may not fit the traditional mold of convenience gambling. But the onus is on them to learn from the worst parts of convenience gambling to avoid the fate of grocery store video poker.