For college basketball fans, the NCAA Basketball tournament is the best time of the year.
But for college students caught up in March Madness, it’s a time that can lend itself to problem gambling.
When the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament tips off March 15, students of legal age in 30 states and the District of Columbia will be able to wager on the tournament.
Factor in television ads and promotions by sports betting operators – which, to be fair, are not targeted at students – and it’s easy to see why gambling on the tournament could be problematic on college campuses.
College students are “generally more susceptible to problems related to gambling for several reasons including their age, their predisposition to take risks and access to funds, often for the first time in their lives,” says Alan Feldman, Distinguished Fellow in Responsible Gaming for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ International Gaming Institute.
“Further, the NCAA Tournament may trigger gambling behavior among students who would otherwise not gamble at all, although we should keep in mind that gambling is readily available 24/7 to any college student in the country,” he added.
“College students, given their age and proximity to college sports, are one of the more vulnerable groups,” says Martin Lycka, Entain SVP for American Regulatory Affairs and Responsible Gambling.
In a recent survey, the American Gaming Association stated that more than 17% of Americans, 0r 45 million, are expected to wager $3.1 billion on tournament. Outside of bracket pools, 20.9 million are expected to wager at retail sportsbooks, online, with bookies, or casually with friends.
According to the International Center for Responsible Gambling, approximately 75 percent of college students gambled within the last year, with 18 percent of students gambling weekly or more often. But only 22 percent of schools have formal policies on gambling.
“The reality is that while most universities have extensive alcohol and/or drug-related policies, most do not have gambling policies,” says Jennifer Shatley, a responsible gaming consultant for UNLV’s International Gaming Institute. “Even if they do, they tend to be quite brief.”
Gaming operators are aware of potential problems among college students and have developed programs to address the issue. Lycka notes that the Entain Foundation US partners with Epic Risk Management for an educational program that focuses on spotting signs of problem gambling among students and how to address them.
“The volume of betting opportunities on offer during March Madness would indicate that the temptation to bet might be higher than usual,” Lycka says. “The onus to make sure customers are duly protected during this period, just like any other time, is on the sports betting industry. The industry has introduced a set of tools and information points on their sites designed to provide for an enjoyable and at the same time safe customer experience.”
American Gaming Association Senior Vice President, Strategic Communications Casey Clark agrees that the gaming industry has a responsibility to make sure that bettors — of every age – are aware of the pitfalls of problem gambling. The AGA’s ‘Have A Game Plan. Bet Responsibly’ public service campaign is supported by gaming operators, sports leagues, and teams.
The organization also has developed the ‘Responsible Marketing Code for Sports Wagering’ that focuses on four tenets: Respecting the Legal Age for Sports Betting, Supporting Responsible Gaming, Controlling Digital Media and Websites, and Monitoring Code Compliance.
“We really want to make sure that this is a sustainable marketplace,” Clark says of sports betting. “It doesn’t do the business any good to not bring people in to treat this with the right kind of perspective and handle it the right way.”
Brianne Doura-Schawohl has worked on responsible gaming initiatives for over a decade, including stints with the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gaming, the National Council on Problem Gambling, and Epic Risk Management. Now the CEO of Doura-Schawohl Consulting, a boutique government relations and consultancy firm, she thinks that college students (and anyone under 25) are especially vulnerable to problem gambling, a risk that’s amplified during March Madness.
“And that’s compounded by the fact that we have four universities that have relationships with a gambling operator that are sending targeting marketing promos to students,” Doura-Schawohl says.
The University of Colorado and the University of Maryland have sponsorship arrangements with PointsBet and Louisiana State University and Michigan State University partner with Caesars Entertainment.
“The increased exposure to the advertising in stadiums, just around campus in general, all of that is a factor in gambling participation,” she adds. “And we know that this is a young, impressionable, and vulnerable group.”
Feldman notes that the structure of the NCAA tournament lends itself to social gambling via its bracketed structure. Office pools have been commonplace “almost since its beginning,” Feldman says.
But as legal sports betting becomes more widespread, so does the risk of problem gambling.
“The excitement and promotion of the tournament mixed with now-fully legal availability of sports betting in many states should be a cause of concern,” Feldman says. “That concern must be shared among campus staff, class or dorm mates, friends, parents, and obviously, gambling operators. It’s critical to know the warning signs and look for them early, before severe problems develop.”
In January 2021, the NCAA and EPIC Risk Management announced a partnership to create a comprehensive awareness program providing student-athletes with resources to address problem gambling.
But Doura-Schawohl thinks more must be done to address problem gambling among general student populations.
“We know that athletes are four times more likely to deal or struggle with a gambling addiction, potentially,” Doura-Schawohl says. “But when it comes to talking to the general student bodies and having support and treatment and understanding of where someone might go if they need help, colleges are not addressing that.”
“It is advisable in my view that the universities further beef up their protection tools and processes by means of further and deeper collaboration with advocates of responsible gambling practices,” Lycka says.
To minimize the risk of problem gambling by students, the AGA’s Clark says that parents need to pay attention to their kids and have conversations with them if they are gambling.
“I think just staying close to them in terms of how are they are spending their time, what do they focus on, what are they talking about, is important,” Clark says. “I think parents need to be pretty well tuned in with what kinds of entertainment their kids are doing, and what they’re doing, and that they’re doing it legally.”
Feldman believes that colleges and universities also should start addressing problem gambling at first-year orientation.
“It should be a topic alongside drugs and alcohol use,” Feldman says. “All three are categorized as substance-use disorders in the medical community. We should be having discussions before anyone gets into trouble, not waiting until the issues are so severe that permanent damage has taken place.”