Remember when we decided that spending too much time on our phones was a bad thing? That immersing ourselves in our iPhones could be unhealthy, or even addictive?
That was a couple of years ago. So riddle me this: Now something that we already know is potentially addictive — sports betting — is available on those phones, accompanied by a media blitz promising a path to easy money. But people raising concerns about that combination seem few and far between. So what happens to the sports betting industry if someone — namely Apple or Google, which have enormous control over what you can do with your phones — decides they do have a problem with that?
Because whether you approve of gambling or not, it seems obvious that making it easily available to anyone with a phone and debit card, with few to no restrictions and a ton of advertising encouraging you to place your bets, is going to lead to problems for some people. This isn’t one of those stories about the unintended consequences we get from tech: It’s right there, on the surface.
“It is an epidemic in the making,” says Felicia Grondin, the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, where online sports betting has been legal since 2018. Since then, she says, it has been easy to understand the impact: Before the summer of 2018, about 3 percent of the calls to her organization’s helpline for problem gamblers were from people who said they had sports betting problems. Now that number is around 17 percent.
New Jersey is the tip of the gambling spear because it’s the state directly responsible for the Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that gave individual states the ability to legalize online sports betting. But a flood of states has followed, egged on by the promise of easy tax money — or the threat that they’ll be losing that money to neighboring states where online betting is legal.
Big, well-capitalized companies — established gambling outfits like MGM Resorts and relative newcomers like DraftKings and FanDuel — are pouring in. They want you to start betting on sports directly from your couch, or your car, or the bar, placing wagers on NFL games or Olympic hockey or the 2023 Rugby World Cup or anything else with a couple of taps. And they’re spending a ton of money to convince you: DraftKings alone spent $1 billion on sales and marketing last year and plans to spend even more in 2022. (Disclosure: Vox Media has a commercial relationship with DraftKings.)
And there’s obviously a market for this. In the runup to legalization, there was a debate about whether sportsbooks would pitch themselves to people who were already illegally betting on sports, or whether they’d bring in casual newcomers. We don’t yet know the answer, but we do know there’s a lot of money to be made: In the first six weeks that legal online sports betting was available in New York, residents wagered $2.5 billion, which includes nearly $500 million worth of Super Bowl bets. This week’s March Madness college basketball tournament should spike those numbers again.
I’ve been following the rise of legal online sports betting for a while — it’s very much a media story because media companies, which used to hold their noses up at sports betting, are now eager to make money from sports betting programming and advertising. And sports betting apps’ arrival happens to coincide with the movement to reassess our relationship with tech in general and phones in particular, which picked up real steam after the 2016 election.
In 2018, for instance, former Apple executive Tony Fadell, who helped create the iPhone, called on phone-makers and app-makers to promote a “healthy, moderate digital life ... before government regulators decide to step in.” Around the same time, activists like former Google employee Tristan Harris were promoting the idea of “time well spent” on phones and devices, and criticizing app-makers like Google and Facebook for becoming dopamine dealers. The New York Times suggested that you should make your phone less compelling by turning the screen gray.
So periodically, when I meet gaming executives and investors salivating at the chance to turn sports betting from a semi-underground pastime into a mainstream activity, I ask them: What happens if Apple or Google decides that sports betting — where every ad is accompanied by a Micro Machine-speed voiceover at the end telling you to get help if you have a betting problem — is something they don’t want happening on their devices?
Or what if they’re okay with sports betting but want to make it a little less frictionless, and require more opt-ins and sign-offs before you place a bet? Or if they simply restrict the number of notifications betting apps can send? (FanDuel, for instance, sends me a heads-up every day, and sometimes it works: An hour before the Super Bowl, I got a pop-up on my iPhone telling me that FanDuel had improved the odds on a bet about whether the first drive of the game would result in a punt, and exhorted me to BET NOW ➡️. I did — and won — and then made two more bets while I was there.)
The answer from the gaming guys has been consistent: They look at me like I’m a moron, and shrug.
But I don’t think it’s a totally idiotic question. Apple, in particular, has been quite clear about the fact that Apple’s App Store is Apple’s App Store, and it’s willing to go to court to keep it that way; ask Fortnite maker Epic Games. Apple App Store edicts range from the whimsical — early on, Apple told developers to stop making fart apps for the iPhone because it already had enough of them — to the moralistic — Steve Jobs was ardent about not letting porn apps onto his App Store, and the company has followed his insistence after his death — and everything in between.
Apple has also made a point about advocating for responsible phone use; shortly after Fadell’s 2018 essay, the company rolled out the equivalent of nutrition labels for its apps, which are supposed to tell you what kind of content you’ll find in the app, whether it will ask you for money, and other good-to-know stuff that many users likely totally ignore.
So I’ve also asked Apple and Google, which do have rules about the way gambling apps are supposed to work, but those rules generally amount to “these things have to be licensed and not scammy.” I got non-responses from them, too.
To be clear: I don’t necessarily think Apple or Google should prevent me from betting on sports. And I don’t think sports betting is necessarily worse than many other vices or risky behaviors I can engage in on my phone right now. Seamless makes it way too easy for me to order more comfort food than I should; Drizzly lets me buy whiskey without putting on pants. I bought dogecoin via Robinhood, minutes before Elon Musk showed up on SNL, and now I’m down 78 percent. And if I lived in California or Michigan, I would probably have weed gummies delivered to my home via Eaze. To say nothing of the time I fritter away on stuff that distracts but doesn’t give me any real pleasure, like doomscrolling and shitposting on Twitter.
Felicia Grondin agrees with me, up to a point. But she thinks people with sports gambling problems are trickier to detect than, say, someone struggling with substances. “It’s a hidden addiction,” she says. “You don’t smell it on someone’s breath; you can’t see it in their behavior until it’s way too late.”
It’s certainly easy enough to get in trouble with this stuff: Ask Calvin Ridley, the Atlanta Falcons player who bet $1,500 on three NFL games last fall, and has now been suspended for at least a year because league rules prohibit players from betting on league games. Ridley’s bets will reportedly end up costing him more than $11 million in lost wages.
Again: I’m happy-ish that I’ve been able to place $10 wagers on NFL games from my bedroom. And when I think about my personal problems with phones, sports betting apps aren’t on the list (top of the list right now: Everyone in my son’s sixth grade class is using Discord to gossip about each other, with predictable results). But it seems obvious that someone, eventually — maybe federal or state regulators, maybe the phone platforms — will want to take a step back and ask, “What have we done and how can we fix it?” I’d bet on it.