With responsible gambling top of mind for the entire sports betting industry, it was certainly fitting that the annual SBC Summit North America kicked off in New York City’s Altman Building with a pair of panel discussions devoted to that very topic, one of which provided particularly poignant insight into why elite athletes are three times more likely to develop gambling addictions than the rest of the population.
“I was able to hide it so well,” said Ryan Tatusko, a former Major League Baseball player and gambling addict who is now a lived experience facilitator with EPIC Risk Management. “From playing a high level of sport early on, I started navigating risks. If I’m injured or hurt, can I go out and play? Risks started to not mean very much to me, so I started to take more and more risks.”
Tatusko, who pitched for the Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals, said he started playing poker at casinos during spring training. But it was when he got hurt and had to spend time away from the team that this hobby became massively problematic, saying he gambled “to get back the feeling of competition.”
“If I can’t compete on the field, I’m going to go compete somewhere else,” he explained.
Meg Popovic, who basically created the position of director of player welfare and performance with the Toronto Maple Leafs after watching her brother, an ex-NHL player, go through the emotional wringer, seconded Tatusko’s thoughts while providing more depth.
Popovic began by saying that what makes athletes great “is an innate competitiveness that probably makes them borderline crazy. They feel a desire to compete with somebody else. It gives them a thrill.”
She then explained the plight of an everyday 18-year-old NHL prospect, saying, “They’re no longer like their peers. You’re making $800,000 a year on an entry-level contract. Probably at the age of 14, you’ve moved away from home to play your sport. Think about yourself when you were 18. I didn’t make a million dollars a year. I didn’t really interact with 35-year-old people; I interacted with my peer group and had time to make my decisions professionally.”
Popovic went on to explain that such a prodigy “is put on a social pedestal” by their peers. And when that prodigy hits any kind of turbulence, their friends’ response is often, “You have the dream life. Try working in a factory. You don’t have any idea what it’s like to have a mortgage.”
That, she said, leads to “an incredible amount of isolation,” which, as Tatusko mentioned, can lead to severe boredom and, in some instances, perilous gambling issues.
Explaining the NHL player’s constant mindset and why they don’t seek help when they might need it, Popovic added, “Everyone’s coming for your job, everyone’s watching you all the time — it can create a sense of paranoia. You’re always playing for another contract and there’s only a window of time in which you can play your sport. Then it’s over. They might not have a team culture where everybody trusts the staff. So if you’re worried about your next contract, are you really going to tell someone that you have a gambling problem? No, you can’t.
“Does the culture of the sport allow for the athlete to have opportunities if they articulate a problem? If it’s very well-known that you can’t articulate your feelings or challenges or problems because it will be a knock against you, you don’t take that risk. Having a young man who’s 19 or 24 come forward and talk and ask for help probably isn’t in their upbringing, it’s not comfortable.”
Adding another layer to Popovic’s explanation, fellow panelist Chris Hangenbrauck of the NCAA said, “Athletes feel like they sometimes have specialized knowledge that makes them more prone to think they can win.”
But more often than not, “that false sense of confidence” leads to unimaginable gambling losses, he added.
Is technology the answer?
Earlier in the day, Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow of responsible gambling at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, hosted a panel on managing player risk through technology in which it was determined that technology was not the solution — or at least not the entire solution — to identify at-risk bettors.
“The human touch is so important,” said Tammi Barlow, director of corporate social responsibility for Rush Street Interactive.
“Technology is one vertical to educate and prevent, but it’s not the answer,” said fellow panelist Bill Pascrell III of Princeton Public Affairs Group.
Effective prevention is the holy grail in the RG/PG world, but Feldman, Barlow, Pascrell, and Keith Whyte, executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling, all conceded that, as of yet, there is “no silver bullet” when it comes to reaching the 95% of non-problematic bettors who might lurch into the 5% that becomes addicted to gambling.
The panelists also agreed that streamlining certain RG/PG components, like publicizing a universal problem gambling hotline (800-GAMBLER) instead of several state numbers and allowing self-exclusion lists to cross state lines, would be highly desirable.
“We need one number,” said Barlow. “I respect all the numbers, but who does it serve? It’s for the protection of people. When you put up 15 or however many jurisdictions, how is that message coming across? It is about how quickly can a person in crisis call the number and get help.”
“I think we can do online gambling more safely than retail,” said Whyte. “We just need to prove that out. The data’s gonna prove that out. This is revenue-positive if done well and right. RG is not just good ethics, it’s good business.”
The lone tension point of the afternoon came when Pascrell talked about his field trips to colleges with industry insiders, which are intended to educate students about the dangers of gambling before they’re of legal age to place a wager. He said he’d gotten some flack for what he considered to be a necessary early intervention tool. Whyte agreed that communicating with college students on this topic was important, but said industry types were the wrong messengers.