North Carolina’s rapidly snowballing gambling mess

Published June 6, 2024

By Rob Schofield

The physical therapy facility was a beehive of activity at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. In a big and well-lit room, dozens of patients – most of them aging and trying their best to stave off various ravages of time – stretched awkwardly on tables or did their best to make use of exercise machines and various props, as busy therapists and assistants offered encouragement, and pecked away at laptops.

It was a mostly friendly and positive environment in which privacy was relatively minimal and conversations sometimes overlapped.

And so it was that I found myself briefly chatting with a person standing to my left who was seeking advice on the rules of tennis.

It turned out the young man in question – I had the impression he was on staff at the facility, but it wasn’t totally clear – had placed a bet on a French Open match involving a pair of fairly obscure players. As I discerned when he briefly flashed his phone in my direction, the ongoing bet was an “over/under” gamble in which he had wagered on the total number of games that would be played in the match.

The only problem was that he didn’t fully understand how scoring worked in tennis (or know much, if anything, about the players) and so he was looking for input as to whether he was likely to prevail as the match neared its conclusion.

After explaining the scoring system in men’s major championship tennis and opining that his chances looked iffy, I returned to my machine and sighed – thinking: “wow, that didn’t take long” and “boy, P.T. Barnum sure was right.”

On my mind, of course, was the subject of sports gambling and its newfound legality in North Carolina. Ever since Gov. Roy Cooper signed it into law and then officially christened its arrival on March 11 with, as it turned out, a losing bet on Raleigh’s Carolina Hurricanes to win this year’s Stanley Cup, North Carolinians have been shoveling vast sums of cash into the jaws of the nation’s ever-more-voracious gambling furnace.

The state lottery commission reported that residents lost more than $100 million in April alone. That’s about $12.50 per adult. And if one considers that the vast majority of sports gambling involves young men, the average loss per capita is probably closer to $33. That’s around $400 per year. For people like my tennis pal who possess scant idea of what it is they’re betting on and a penchant for doing it at 8:00 am on a Tuesday, the numbers figure to be significantly larger.

A new must-watch documentary by American journalist Josh Rushing for Al Jazeera English (“The Big Gamble: The world of online sports betting in the US”) explores and reviews these facts in grim detail.

The documentary – which, among other things, features the sobering sight of UNC-Chapel Hill students betting on games during the recent NCAA basketball tournaments – can be hard to watch.

In a series of interviews with gambling experts and people battling addiction, one learns how giant corporations like DraftKings and Fan Duel design their phone apps to make them as alluring and addictive as possible (and why corporate pledges about a supposed desire to help “problem gamblers” are baloney).

In one especially heartbreaking segment, an addicted Pennsylvania mother of two explains how DraftKings assigned her a “VIP host” to keep her in action. The “host” even arranged for she and her 12-year-old son to obtain sideline tickets to a Pittsburgh Steelers football game – an arrangement whose true purpose the adolescent son, poignantly, sniffed out.

The program also exposes the fact that, while the sports gambling giants made nearly $11 billion last year, they aim to make vastly more in the world of “I-Gaming” – a euphemism for online casino games like slots and roulette.

Seven states currently allow this kind of online casino gambling, but with fleets of lobbyists always trolling the halls of the North Carolina Legislative Building while corporate PACs fill the campaign coffers of politicians of both parties, it likely won’t be long before a similar push starts here.

Word on the street in Raleigh is that video poker lobbyists are already aiming to make a big score this session. Meanwhile, even modest efforts to rein in the worst of sport betting – see for instance, House Bill 967, which seeks to ban the scourge of “prop bets” in college or amateur sports – remain buried in committee.

Of course, one of the many bitter ironies in North Carolina’s snowballing gambling mess is that it comes at a time in which so many voters – particularly men in the prime gambling demographic – are: a) angry with the Biden administration because of, ahem, the rising cost of living, and b) targeted as likely voters for Donald Trump – a man whose personal fortune is linked inextricably to predatory casino gambling.

Taken together, these facts are enough to confirm that the famous maxim attributed to Barnum — the one about “a sucker being born every minute” — remains tragically on the mark.