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Expert discusses the past, present and future of legalized sports betting

Sure bet: UNLV expert on the past, present, and future of legalized sports wagering
UNLV International Gaming Institute executive director and gaming researcher Brett Abarbanel. Credit: Josh Hawkins/UNLV

For many fans, sports betting is most associated with the glare of television screens broadcasting every sporting event imaginable in a glitzy casino in Las Vegas—for decades, one of the only places in the U.S. where spectators could legally place wagers.

But today, we're not alone: Since 2018, federal law changes have prompted 36 states to join Nevada in legalizing bets on some of America's favorite pastimes, and another three could get in the game this year.

As oddsmakers prepare for the Super Bowl, March Madness, and other big-ticket betting events, we turned to premier gambling expert Brett Abarbanel for insight on the industry's history and to answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about its future.

Abarbanel—an internationally recognized researcher on the intersection of gambling with esports, video games, and traditional —is the executive director of UNLV's International Gaming Institute (IGI). The nonprofit academic center offers research, educational programs, and conferences for stakeholders across the global gaming space on topics including betting, responsible gaming, innovation, and regulation.

"Long before sportsbooks existed, bettors around the globe were reaching into their coin purses to place wagers on everything from medieval jousting matches, to tribal lacrosse games, to basketball tournaments being monitored by a mob bookie," Abarbanel said. "To understand the turning tides of today's sports betting landscape, you have to consider the subject in a holistic manner."

Read on for an explainer on the ins and outs of arguments surrounding legalized sports gambling, the role of demographics and technology in wagering, and the ways that Las Vegas is adapting its storied entertainment mecca status to become the intellectual capital of the world for gaming.

Let's talk about the ancient beginnings of sports betting and when the modern-day version of it peaked in popularity.

Sports betting goes back extensively in . Human beings have been spectating combat and competition for millennia, and we as a human race have long had an interest in putting some "skin in the game" and placing wagers on the outcome in whatever form of currency was available at the time.

If you go back a few thousand years, tribal nations in the U.S. would come together for lacrosse games. They would tie their bets together with string so that after the game was complete you could just take the bets away with you and know which wager was yours.

The practice of wagering has only grown as we continue to professionalize sports as a whole. For a long time in the United States, a lot of this was centered around Las Vegas. This was the place to be if you wanted to go to a book—we're famous for our huge sportsbooks and the ability to wager on almost any match that you want.

In 2018, a federal law called PASPA, short for the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, was overturned by the Supreme Court. This had been established in 1992 with the goal of protecting sports—and, in particular, collegiate sports—from the potential corruption that sometimes comes out of gambling markets. It stopped states from allowing sports betting but it grandfathered in states where it already existed, and Nevada really became the only place where people could go to legally place wagers in the regulated way that we see today. When PASPA was struck down, it opened up the doors for many states to consider legalizing sports betting.

Right now, about two-thirds of U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, have some form of legalized sports betting. And that number is changing every day: There are some states with laws that are either actively in consideration or have been tabled by state legislatures for consideration in 2023 or 2024.

Why was legalized sports gambling such a long time coming in the United States?

Sure bet: UNLV expert on the past, present, and future of legalized sports wagering
A sign advertising a sportsbook at a Las Vegas casino. Credit: Josh Hawkins/UNLV

This dates back to the U.S. government's quest to prosecute certain unsavory elements of U.S. history— in particular, the mob. The mob was involved in illegal activities like money laundering, and sports betting was one of the major ways they moved cash across the country. So, the U.S. government passed a law called the Wire Act of 1961, which stopped bettors from placing wagers across state lines using wire communication like a telephone, and thus providing a mechanism to shut down mob activities.

Sports gambling's negative association with the mob was hard to overcome. And when you couple that with the immense love of sports that's so prominent in our culture, it means there was a lot of stigma that was very hard to separate from both betting and sports itself. After PASPA was passed, it took decades of research and state effort, mainly from New Jersey, to convince the powers that be that sports betting was something we can monitor more easily in a regulated setting.

Fast forwarding to today: What have been some popular arguments for or against legalized sports wagering?

You can't think about gambling in a completely positive sense without considering some of the more negative elements that might come into play—and vice versa—because then you'd be ignoring the much broader sense of how people consume gambling as entertainment.

One of the major points we see states arguing in favor of sports betting is that it's already happening and didn't stop existing simply because it wasn't allowed. It also generates tax dollars to support some of the negative externalities connected to gambling, like problem gambling and addiction. Additional discussions have centered on job creation, and the financial prospects of bringing new industry to the state.

A big concern of sports betting is whether it's a major corruptor of the game. Sports are very much viewed as a bastion of society—we have fandom, we love our teams, we do drug testing, we don't want sports to be in any way impure. When states adopt sports betting, they should concurrently generate activity surrounding prevention, harm reduction, and responsible gambling tools.

As sports wagering becomes more mainstream, how does it touch other facets of our lives outside of the game you might be betting on?

It's become so significantly more mainstream that we have betting advertising all over the place. We see it on our billboards, hear it on our radios, and see it on TV during sports matches. As this continues to proliferate, it's becoming a lot more present in our everyday lives. As a result, some of the stigma has been lifted while we simultaneously process the ramifications of a regular presence of gambling imagery in our lives

Sports betting is a pretty significant economic driver, too, especially in Las Vegas. We bring in a ton of people who come to watch the game on the big screens at the books, place bets, and who are a huge part of our tourism industry. Looking more broadly, betting is also a driver of interest in sports events and the overall sports industry itself. These things are inextricably linked.

Sports themselves are changing, with esports growing in popularity. How have esports attracted new demographics to wagering?

If you go back about four decades, you might remember things like the King of Kong where people went to arcades to try for the highest score in Donkey Kong. Or if you go back not quite so far, you'll see the origins of some of the major esports leagues, like the League of Legends Championship Series dating back a little over a decade now. Esports—or competitive video games—is not a particularly old industry. As it's grown amid our increasingly , we've started to see a lot more interest in spectating how people play and compete in major professionalized settings. And with that has also come a parallel betting market.

Esports has been incredibly popular in certain markets. For example, in some of the more mature markets, like Europe, esports has eclipsed certain betting markets. It's larger than rugby and cricket. It hasn't quite eclipsed tennis or soccer, but it's really standing on its own as a betting vertical.

There have been a lot of questions about esports because it's so new. Some of these questions surround integrity issues and, similar to , doping issues. There's not an established oversight organization for all of esports. Instead, there are a few organizations that have partnered to work towards a setting like this—including data organizations, betting companies, and regulatory agencies—to help look for patterns that might be indicative of manipulation of esports.

Credit: University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The demographic of spectators and competitors tends to skew a little bit younger than you might see in other professional sports. For a long time, the average age of retirement for esports competitors was your early 20s, so we're sometimes talking about players in their teens. This raises concerns in betting markets about the potential for underage bettors or the comfort level of betting on children, prompting sportsbooks to practice caution when picking events for trading floors to make sure they're finding the right matches that have enough oversight and constitute a comfortably safe betting product.

Overall, what demographics of people are most likely to engage in sports wagering?

Anyone you see on the street might fit the profile of someone who's betting on sports.

Historically, there was a lot of research showing that sports bettors tended to skew more male, and around the ages of 25 to 45. But as sports betting has become more widespread in the United States, we're seeing it become much more widespread in terms of demographics as well. There are a lot more women who bet on sports than ever was imagined. And part of this might be access. With online sports betting, there's not necessarily the stigma of walking into a casino sportsbook or, say, a shop on the High Street in the U.K., where it's just filled with men and perhaps a thick plume of smoke. Typically, women didn't always feel comfortable going in.

One of the projects IGI is working on now is with the Gaming Society, a media company. One of their major interests is an idea called "Bet On Women," which is a major driver in looking at 1) who is the female sports bettor and what role do they play in the sports betting world, as well as 2) leveraging betting for supporting and boosting the growth of women's sports and doing that in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Given Las Vegas' presence as a pioneer on sports betting, how does the industry's expansion to other locales help or harm our market here?

There have been pros and cons for a place like Las Vegas. Clearly, there's concerns about competition. For such a long time, Las Vegas had a veritable monopoly on sports betting. And now that it's expanded throughout so much of the United States, we don't have that same hold on the market. But one of the things that we do really well as a city is export our knowledge—not just in terms of betting, but in terms of our tourism product and expertise with things like integrated resorts. We've been able to export some of our knowledge on sports betting regulation, harm minimization, and on the industry itself.

For example, IGI has a wide variety of classes on sports betting and regulation that we run through our International Center for Gaming Regulation, and they always sell out even 5 years since PASPA's overturning. They're incredibly popular because people want to know what sports betting is, how to do sports betting right, and how it can exist in jurisdictions all over the United States.

Many of the companies that are just down the street from us also have a presence in a lot of these other states because they're taking everything they know and growing their business into those jurisdictions as well. These aren't operations that are simply located on the Strip or in downtown Las Vegas; they're businesses that can be present in a number of different digital and physical settings all over the United States.

What are your predictions on the future of sports betting?

I would predict that, much like the history of gambling, the history of sports betting will be somewhat cyclical in terms of its popularity. Often, when something is new, we see this incredible novelty effect that will continue to grow. And eventually, there's some sort of scandal that causes the popularity to waver, and there might also be a little or a lot of pushback on the activity itself. And then it will grow again.

Gambling and risk-taking have been part of our human lives for millennia and they're not going away. So even though the popularity of sports betting may ebb and flow, it certainly overall will grow and continue to be a presence in all of our lives.

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