Last in a series

In the last of a three-part series, the Courier looks at what can happen when sports betting becomes irresponsible and how to find help.

WATERLOO — An increased number of sports fans may have more than pride at stake when the college and professional football seasons kick off this fall.

At noon on Thursday, Iowa is set to officially become the nation’s 11th state to offer legal sports wagering following a May 2018 Supreme Court decision overturning the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 that limited wagers to inside the state of Nevada.

In addition to placing sports bets at local casinos, including Waterloo’s Isle, Iowans 21 and older will be able to wager on the outcome of sporting events through their cell phones and participate in online daily fantasy sports.

This will be a welcome addition for the majority of gamblers who enjoy the excitement of trying to beat the odds and secure a payout that accompanies an accurate prediction. Yet for some gamblers, the experience may go beyond entertainment with discretionary funds.

According to a recent report released by the Iowa Gambling Treatment Program (IGTP) and University of Northern Iowa Center for Social and Behavioral Research, 23 percent of sports bettors are classified as at-risk gamblers as identified by a Problem Gambling Severity Index. Only 10 percent of all Iowa bettors classified as at-risk or self-reported problem gamblers reported talking about their gambling problems.

“Gambling addiction, specifically, is such a hidden addiction,” said Amanda McCall, a gambling treatment counselor with Pathways Behavioral Services in Waterloo. “With alcohol or drugs, there’s physical health issues that you generally see. With gambling, it’s pretty hidden.”

While gambling addicts exhibit some physical symptoms such as fatigue from late-night sessions at the casino, McCall points out the major problems are financial, social and legal. Pathological gamblers encounter more emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

Suicide rates are higher among gambling addicts than those with substance abuse problems.

“It’s not as up front,” McCall said. “I’ve had spouses come in and say, ‘Well they’ve been gambling for x amount of years and I didn’t know it.’”

Who’s playing?

The IGTP within Iowa’s Department of Health, added questions to its 2018 Gambling Attitudes and Behavior survey in order to gain a better understanding of how sports wagering and fantasy sports impact Iowans in preparation for the 2019 legislative session. Program manager Eric Preuss partnered with Dr. Ki Park of UNI’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research to gather baseline data.

“We always remain neutral on the legislation,” said Preuss, who has worked in the field of addiction since 1987. “We always are prepared to respond as far as what does the data say. … Our concern from a public health perspective is always that there’s positive play, responsible play and messaging.”

Their survey from Sept. 2018 through Jan. 2019 found that 73 percent (approximately 1.7 million) of Iowans have gambled in the past 12 months with 6 percent (approximately 130,000) engaged in sports betting over that period of time. An estimated 358,809 or 15 percent of respondents had bet on sports during their lifetime.

Iowa’s participants in sports betting and fantasy sports are predominately male (88 percent) and young (18-34 years 45 percent) with 52 percent making an annual household income of at least $75,000.

One of the most telling pieces that was revealed from this data is that 99 percent of those involved in sports wagering are already participating in other gambling activities, from bar bets at the pool table to wagers on the golf course to playing the lottery and casino games.

“We don’t see that strong of a correlation with any other gambling behavior outside of the sports wager,” Preuss said.

That correlation may be part of the reason why a larger percentage of sports bettors are at-risk gamblers. Those betting on sports tend to fall into the category of adrenaline or thrill-seeking gamblers.

“You just have to have repeated behavior that triggers your brain,” Park said. “If you play more, you are more likely to be addicted to it. You go to casinos every two or three days, those are behaviors that affect your brain and that creates addiction.”

Responsible gaming

Iowa’s Department of Health uses the acronym CARE to promote responsible gambling.

Consumer protections:

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  • Casinos and licensed vendors must make sure that gamblers have a clear sense of the amount they’re wagering and the payout for a win.

Appropriate age restrictions:

  • There must be ample and adequate age verification in place.

Within Iowa’s legislation regarding online sports betting is the requirement that participants visit a casino and complete a one-time, on-site registration. Casinos hold the sports wagering license and can enter into an agreement with properly licensed partners that provide online wagering.

“It’s important that those companies have controls to ensure that minors are not accessing that,” said Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission administrator Brian Ohorilko. “It’s a series of credit checks or searches with various government databases or private companies that do that kind of work similar to what one might see in an online banking environment.”

Responsible gaming messaging:

  • Individuals shouldn’t view gambling as a long-term money making venture. Responsible gamblers stick to set limits within discretionary income. Chasing losses, wagering amounts exponentially higher than initially anticipated or turning to gambling as a method to pay off debt is a sign of a problem gambler.

“There’s a lot of gambler fallacies,” Preuss said. “Gambling is random every single time so there is no, ‘The longer you gamble, the closer you’re going to get to your next big win.’”


  • Iowa has allowed for those with gambling problems to enter into a self-exclusion program. Individuals can sign up at a treatment provider, casino or online. Participants agree to be banned from entering casinos, and those caught on a gaming floor can be arrested for trespassing. Large winnings while self-excluded are also forfeited. An option to self-exclude for a five-year period was added in 2017 to accompany the lifetime option.

New cell

The ability to place legal sports bets or participate in fantasy sports through cellphone apps is uncharted territory in Iowa. Daily fantasy sports providers such as FanDuel and DraftKings will be eligible to apply for a license directly through the gaming commission, and gamblers won’t have to visit a casino before using their services. In-person registration will be required for the sports betting services provided by casino partners.

Ohorilko noted that online vendors must allow the option for players to be able to set their own limits on wagers, deposits and time. A 24-hour period must pass before those limits can be altered in order to guard against instant impulse bets.

“There really is no harm in setting those limits,” Ohorilko noted.

While online consumers have the ability to set limits not found within brick-and-mortar casinos, there’s also new risk. There’s nothing to prevent a customer who is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs from placing a bet through a cellphone or computer once the initial on-site registration is complete.

“Everyone has their phones within arm’s reach of them it seems like,” McCall said. “It’s going to be easy to sit there and bet as opposed to having to drive to the casino to do your betting or driving to the gas station to pick up a lottery ticket.”

That convenience could lead to an increase in problems for college-aged individuals who demonstrate higher rates of being prone to at-risk or problem gambling than older adults.

“Anything can become an addition — alcohol, drugs, sex, food, porn, whatever it is,” McCall said. “Opening that facet and saying, ‘Here’s another outlet,’ I feel like this is going to be another increase into more addictive behavior.”


While cell phones may make sports gambling more accessible, help is also always an arm’s length away. The 1-800-BETS-OFF phone number remains the best method for individuals with concerns about their gambling or the gambling habits of a loved one to find help.

Calls to this helpline are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with Iowans from Foundation 2 in Cedar Rapids contracted through the state to provide crises counseling services. From there, individuals are referred to professionals such as McCall who specialize in gambling addiction.

“If they’re ready to reach out for services, we can link them to appropriate services,” Preuss said. “We have information and referral specialists available 24/7 just to listen, not to judge, and help walk through what the potential next steps might be.

“I don’t want to underplay the importance of 1-800-BETS-OFF. No matter where are you are, there are no stupid questions. If you’re hurting or you’ve got questions or concerns about someone, give us a call. That’s what we’re here for.”

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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