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Vermont sports betting launch pleases officials, addiction experts remain concerned

Mature man using mobile app for live betting and online gambling and watching a sports match
Hirurg/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Since the state launched online sports betting in January, it has generated almost $2 million in new revenue for the state and racked up tens of thousands of users. However, experts say they are worried about what this means for gambling addiction among Vermonters.

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month in Vermont.

This public education campaign has taken on greater importance with the launching of the state’s online sports betting program back on Jan. 11.

Vermont Public's Bob Kinzel recently sat down with Morning Edition host Jenn Jarecki to provide an update on the betting program and why this form of gambling is considered to be more addictive than others. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: Bob, let's start off by looking at how this online sports betting program has done in its first few months. I mean, what do we know at this stage?

Bob Kinzel: Well Jenn, we now have data from the first seven weeks, and state officials are pleased by the rollout of this program. So, let's look at some of the stats. During this time, roughly $41 million was bet in Vermont and this generated almost $2 million in new revenue for the state, which is more than expected. There are 47,000 active users: 60% are from Vermont — that's about 28,000 people. Forty percent from out of state — that's about 19,000 folks. And I should say this is different from the initial reports that had a larger number of out-of-state participants. Now, this total group of people, in state and out of state, placed almost 2 million bets in the last seven weeks.

Liquor and Lottery Commissioner Wendy Knight thinks these numbers indicate a large pent-up demand for these betting programs.

Wendy Knight: I think the launch is going very well. We have not seen a lot of complaints or issues. We are launched at the right time to generate some good revenue from the get-go. 

More from Vermont Public: Vermont's new sports betting system saw its first Super Bowl — and reported $2 million in wagers

Bob Kinzel: Jenn, it's interesting to note that because out-of-state betters represent 40% of all participants, Commissioner Knight thinks there's great potential for these programs during the solar eclipse weekend in early April, because this is when the final games of the NCAA basketball tournaments will take place, and tens of thousands of visitors are expected in Vermont. So, we'll have to just see how this all turns out. But who thought there might be a link between the solar eclipse and online sports betting?

Jenn Jarecki: When we last talked about sports betting, Bob, weren't we saying you could bet on just about anything it seems like these days?

Bob Kinzel: Absolutely true. And I'm sure there are going to be bets made that have something to do with the solar eclipse itself.

Jenn Jarecki: I wouldn't be surprised.

But Bob, it seems like the professional sports leagues are now fully embracing online betting. But wasn't there a time when these leagues really tried to keep their distance from gambling?

Bob Kinzel: There sure was, Jenn. You know, we had several college basketball scandals in the 1950s and '60s. Then there's the case of baseball player Pete Rose, who's been banned from the hall of fame because he bet on baseball games as a manager of the Cincinnati Reds. But, wow, have times changed. In fact, now some of the sports betting companies are sponsored by the professional sports leagues.

So the question is, why is this happening? Commissioner Knight says the sports leagues realize it's a way to keep people watching an entire game.

Wendy Knight: There's no question that they are embracing online sports wagering because it's driving engagement and interest in the sports themselves, and then watching the games on TV. And it makes it more engaging for people to be watching that game and they have a little wager on what might happen in the game.

Bob Kinzel: Now, Jenn, I should mention that concerns about the possible impact of gambling on these sporting events recently came up in the National Basketball Association. It happened when Rudy Gobert, who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves, was assessed with his sixth foul in the game — that means he fouled out. Well, he turned to one of the referees and accused that person of making the call to influence bets on the game. And that was quite a statement for him to make. Now, the NBA was not at all pleased with this development, they immediately fined Gobert $100,000.

But I think the incident shows people that there's a growing use of sports betting. There could be a lot of money at stake in some of these games, and there are growing concerns that gambling and sports outcomes could somehow get linked.

"There will be people that will develop gambling addictions. There will be people that will have gambling problems. There will be societal impacts."
Gary Mitchell, sports addiction counselor

Jenn Jarecki: As we mentioned at the top, Bob, March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. What kinds of programs does the state have available to provide services for problem gambling?

Bob Kinzel: Well, Vermont's program is run by the Department of Mental Health. And Medical Director Dr. Kelley Klein is in charge of it. And she told me that online sports betting is more addictive than other forms of gambling. Why? You've got cell phones available 24/7. You can place a bet anytime you want to. And Dr. Klein says there's a chemical rush when a person places multiple bets during a game.

Dr. Kelley Klein: If you look at it scientifically, we look at when someone wins or loses, there's a huge dopamine release in their brain, right? And that's where we get addicted, is from dopamine. And so having many, many, many times throughout one sporting event is going to release much more dopamine throughout that time period than just one final score.

Bob Kinzel: Jenn, Dr. Klein told me that roughly 1 in 4 people who engage in online sports betting have a gambling problem. And, about 1 in 20 actually have a gambling addiction.

More from the New England News Collaborative: Impact of sports betting on problem gamblers, and CT revenue, becomes clearer in new report

Jenn Jarecki: What services does the state have for people who feel they may be developing a gambling problem?

Bob Kinzel: Well Jenn, the Department of Mental Health has a problem gambling hotline to provide resources to people. So, if a person calls this number, they will be referred to a local peer counselor, and that hotline number is 1-800-522-4700. It's available 24/7. Folks can always find it on our website. And Dr. Klein says early awareness of a problem is absolutely critical.

Dr. Kelley Klein: And now all of a sudden, they find themselves waking up at 2 a.m. and going, 'I wonder if there's a tennis match in Russia happening right now.' And that's a problem gambling behavior, which tells us again, that the addiction could be forming. And we definitely want people to be aware of those signs and to reach out as soon as they start happening, not when it's become a very difficult-to-manage situation. 

Bob Kinzel: And Jenn, individuals who feel they have a problem gambling can also voluntarily exclude themselves from all of these gambling apps. And this also puts them directly in touch with the state's peer counseling program.

Jenn Jarecki: Bob, do state officials feel that they're allocating sufficient financial resources to deal with a growing number of problem gamblers in Vermont?

Bob Kinzel: They do. About $250,000 has been allocated for this program this year, but not everybody agrees that this is enough money.

Gary Mitchell is an internationally certified licensed sports addiction counselor in Hardwick. He thinks the issue of problem gambling is going to be much larger than state officials expect. And he's very concerned that some gamblers might not be aware that they're developing a serious problem.

Gary Mitchell: Because there will be people that will develop gambling addictions. There will be people that will have gambling problems. There will be societal impacts. It's not a matter of, 'It's not going to happen.' No, it's going to happen. Statistically, it's going to happen. They didn't see it coming. And I think that's where the state can really really help a lot is bringing that awareness to the general public.

A smartphone screen shows the DraftKings app. A message reads "Get a $1,000 deposit bonus!"
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
DraftKings is one of three sportsbook companies Vermonters can use to place online bets. Vermont legalized sports betting on Jan. 11, 2024.

Jenn Jarecki: Do these online sports betting companies have a target demographic that they're advertising to?

Bob Kinzel: Jenn, they definitely do. It's men between the ages of 21 and 40. And addiction counselor Mitchell is concerned about this group of people.

Gary Mitchell: This is kind of a, you know, a wake-up call, because that's usually the population we're least concerned about. In this case, that's probably the population we should be most concerned about. So again, it changes the dynamics of who's at risk. And, again, from an addiction standpoint, it may be something that we're not completely prepared for. 

Bob Kinzel: Jenn, Vermont does have some safeguards in place. You must be 21 to place a bet, and this is different from Rhode Island or New Hampshire where the age is 18 — and they've had some problems there. You also have to send in a photo of yourself and a copy of your driver's license to sign up for any of these gambling apps. And you cannot, under any circumstances, use credit cards.

Jenn Jarecki: And once more, the number for the Vermont problem gambling hotline is 1-800-522-4700.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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