Sports betting is legal in NC, but at what cost?

Sports betting is legal in NC, but at what cost?

By Jessica Walker

The student-athletes on UNC-Chapel Hill’s baseball team have received negative messages from fans expecting certain performances before. But now that sports betting is legal in North Carolina, as of March 11, the messages and pressure from sports bettors may increase. 

Carter Hicks, the baseball director of player and program development, said that legalized sports betting and access to social media provide an avenue for fans to share their opinions. 

Sometimes, that’s at the expense of the players. 

“They live in this circle that people are betting on. And if things don’t happen the way [bettors] want —  if we don’t win a game, if we don’t have an outcome that someone bet on — our players are going to hear about that,” Hicks said. “And sometimes, it’s not always in the nicest way.” 

UNC-CH cross country and track athlete Michael Spragley said that although betting can make sports more interesting, something should be done about fan comments toward athletes. He said the regulation of these comments should fall on the betting agencies.

Spragley said the betting companies should put out educational campaigns emphasizing the humanity behind athletes to help the average fan realize that they’re betting on real people.

“They see them as dollars, an opportunity to make money,” Spragley said. “But these are human beings, they got hopes and dreams and anxieties and stress.”

On top of being an athlete, Spragley, originally from Chesterfield, Virginia, is now a graduate student at UNC-CH. 

He said sports betting adds pressure onto student-athletes that may even affect their quality of play. 

“As an athlete, I have pressure myself to perform…pressures from coaches, family friends, that’s enough in itself,” he said. “But if you add betting on top of that — you can win a game, and then somebody boos you because you haven’t scored enough points. I feel like that’s a lot to have on an 18-year-old, 19-year-old, 20-year-old.”

Justin, a bettor and UNC-CH senior who asked to remain partially anonymous, admitted that betting on sports has changed his view of certain athletes. He said it’s a professional athlete’s job to perform well and be an asset for their team, so he understands why they may get slack from frustrated bettors. 

But, he doesn’t agree with sending negative messages to student-athletes.

“I’m also friends with people on some sports teams here and I’ve seen and heard some of the hate messages that they’ve got for not performing to where they were supposed to,” he said. “I don’t think you should ever want someone to die, but I think you can be upset if somebody that’s normally the rebound guy suddenly forgets how to rebound and has like one rebound by the end of the game. That’s very frustrating.”

Spragley said the integrity of track races could become problematic if betting on track was a bigger deal. It would be easy to run slower and throw a race if athletes felt the pressures of bets, Spragley said.

And that’s part of the reason why athletes can’t bet on sports, according to NCAA rules.

NCAA President Charlie Baker recently posted a statement urging lawmakers to ban collegiate-level prop betting, where bets are based on the individual accomplishments of individual players. In the statement, he mentioned his concern over prop betting’s effect on the integrity of games and athlete harassment. 

However, Mark Nichols, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno, said prop betting also increases fan engagement. When sports betting initially became legal in Nevada, bettors couldn’t wage on college teams because of fear of athlete corruption or players throwing a game if they had money riding on it, Nichols said.

After leagues realized they could enhance viewership, prop betting was permitted, he said.

While sports betting is expected to lead to more fan engagement, that increased involvement may not always be positive because money is on the line.

“[Athletes] are not there just to entertain. They’re there to reach their goals,” Spragley said. “Just remember that if you’re placing a bet, or even just chewing at a player online, just remember that there is a human.”

Who are the bettors?

James Whelan, professor of psychology at the University of Memphis and the executive director of the Tennessee Institute for Gambling Education and Research (TIGER), said that sports betting reaches a younger audience because of the nature of sports culture in the U.S.

“Right now, the attention is particularly on young men. Why? Well, many young men — not all, but many young men — grow up paying attention to sports,” Whelan said. “It’s a dialogue that they have every day with their friends.”

Since they pay attention to SportsCenter and check box scores often, they feel confident in it, he said. 

“And when you feel confident about something, you’re more likely to engage in it,” Whelan said. “And so sports betting specifically appeals to those people who are fairly invested in knowing things about their sports that they’re interested in.”

Additionally, promotional advertising of a multitude of betting platforms and opportunities in North Carolina has become more intense now that sports wagering is legal, possibly contributing to its new audience of gamblers.

“It’s all over TV. I see it all over my socials. They’re pressing really, really hard to make people in North Carolina gamble, and I mean, it’s definitely working,” Justin said. “I’ve definitely heard more conversations about gambling within the last month than I’ve probably ever heard.”

The opportunity to make money is also drawing people to gambling. Betting in the form of sports is more approachable and understandable than stock trading, for example, and for those who have a passion for certain athletes, teams or sports, Justin said. 

“I think the reason that a lot of people in our generation are doing it is because things are more expensive than ever,” Justin said. “And I think people feel like there’s a lot in the world that they don’t understand or they don’t know how to control. And although the sportsbook always has the higher hand or the better odds, I think more people see it, these days, that they can beat the system. And I think you can.”

One thing Justin said he learned was never to bet money he doesn’t feel comfortable losing. He said it’s important to spend as little of your actual money as possible, which is what happened after UNC-CH’s men’s basketball Sweet 16 loss during March Madness. Justin lost about $100 — but the loss was in bonus bets, or in-app credit that’s only valid in the sportsbook and can be used to make real money.

That tactic is something he’s learned after a couple of years of betting. But it’s a safety practice that isn’t a guarantee for everyone. The issue of overbetting and increased debt was a common concern over betting’s legalization in the state in the first place.

A divided house

North Carolina’s sports wagering bill initially failed in 2022 in the Senate. In May 2023, it was approved in a 38-11 vote. The bill survived 17 failed amendments in the House before finally passing in June 2023. Even the most recent vote was divided with 69 votes in favor and 44 against. 

Rep. Frank Sossamon, R-Granville, voted against the bill over concerns for the families of North Carolina. He said that as a pastor, he’s seen the other side of betting and gambling, including debt, addiction, domestic abuse or high suicide rates. 

“I’ve seen all those negative effects. And I think it’s wrong for North Carolina leadership to make a little money at the social expense of our families,” Sossamon said. “And that’s the reason I’m against gambling and I’m against sports betting. And that’s the reason I did everything under the sun to try to get it not to pass.” 

Sossamon said he tried to encourage safeguards to gambling like requiring credit cards or placing a limit on bets. However, without the safeguards he sought, he said he couldn’t support the bill.

“No amount of money is worth what gambling has the potential to do to a person and how it has a way to transform their thinking,” Sossamon said. “Even the person that they used to be, they no longer are.”

Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-Durham, said he sponsored the bill for multiple reasons, including financial benefit, but agreed that consumer protection and responsible participation are the primary goals, while revenue is secondary. 

He said about $2 million from betting revenue will go toward support for issues with gambling addiction. 

The N.C. Problem Gambling Program will provide support such as education, outreach and treatment services throughout North Carolina. It currently receives $1 million from money raised by the state lottery, but by the next fiscal year, it will receive $3 million a year, according to the North Carolina State Lottery Commission.

The commission also established a Voluntary Self-Exclusion Program that was required by state law to minimize the risk of harm that could come from sports betting or any other type of gaming. 

Hawkins said there are also limits and safeguards on some of the betting apps.

“I wanted to make sure that even down to the platform, people were able [participate] but do so responsibly,” Hawkins said. “And that’s just like any other thing that we participate in. It’s okay to do it, but we don’t want people to do it in excess that would cause them harm.”

The Lottery Commission will help with oversight, and Hawkins said that if the betting companies aren’t responsible actors, then there is no guarantee they will remain in the state. 

“If they can’t be good actors for the people in North Carolina, they don’t deserve to do business,” Hawkins said.

The future of betting in North Carolina

Hawkins said that betting could bring over $100 million to North Carolina based on early indications of interest. He said the revenue will be spent in positive ways.

“The revenue that’s coming in has some real-life applications and opportunity,” Hawkins said. “But then, of course, most importantly, we hope that it will continue to spur economic development.” 

About 50% of the revenue from betting will go to the state’s General Fund — which is the primary fund for state government expenditures — and the other 50% will go toward supporting youth sports programs for facility upgrades and sports equipment for those who can’t afford it, Hawkins said.

“As a state that is growing, and especially a state that’s importing a lot of people from around the country, we sort of need to start moving in the direction of some of our peer states,” Hawkins said. “But most importantly, we have to stop missing out on revenue that’s going to other states.”

Neighboring states Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky have legalized sports betting in person and online, while South Carolina and Georgia haven’t. 

Nichols, the Utah economics professor who has researched betting and gambling nationally, said that now that betting is legal in North Carolina, people may bet more in-state rather than overseas. 

“If it’s already taking place, North Carolina, I think, is being smart,” he said. “‘Well, why are we missing out on that? We might as well legalize it, bring it in-house, and us get that money as opposed to wherever it was going.’” 

In the first week of legalized sports betting, North Carolinians wagered $198 million, according to the Lottery Commission. The state received $42.7 million in gross wagering revenue, which is the total wagers minus winnings. 

While betting may make money for fans and the state, from an athlete’s perspective, betting takes away something valuable from sports, Spragley said. It can affect an athlete’s performance, quality of play and overall experience competing, he said.

Now, fan engagement in sports may just be about entertainment and money, Spragley said: “It might [contribute] to the loss of the heart of the sport, which is just having fun competing.”

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