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For recovering problem gamblers, a sports betting advertising blitz turns Eagles’ season into a minefield

Sportsbooks are spending big on multimillion-dollar campaigns, tempting some Philly sports fans who say they can’t escape the apps’ allure

TV ads for gambling sites during sports events can be triggering for those recovering from gambling problems.
TV ads for gambling sites during sports events can be triggering for those recovering from gambling problems.Read moreSteve Madden

When Julian Katz placed his last bet in 2013, the gambling world was a lot more complicated. To wager on a big game, Katz had to go through a bookie who held his funds in an offshore bank account, skirting the laws that then banned digital gambling in most of the country, including Pennsylvania.

Today, user-friendly instant sports-betting apps are ubiquitous. Katz has sworn he will never download them — but that’s easier said than done.

Amid an onslaught of advertising from betting apps — dubbed “casinos in your pocket” by gambling recovery experts — Katz said he struggles with temptation whenever he watches a Sixers or Eagles game, or most sports for that matter.

“Around the NFL playoffs, it’s really bad for me,” Katz said. “March Madness, really bad. The advertisements, the marketing that these online casinos do, they throw it in our faces.”

The 36-year-old Philadelphian is hardly alone. A nearly $2 billion-a-year nationwide marketing blitz for sports-betting apps — triggered by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized online gaming and brought it to Pennsylvania — is sparking a crisis for a new generation of people with gambling problems bombarded by TV and internet ads, even billboards.

As the Eagles aim for the Super Bowl, recovery programs in the Philadelphia region are filled with clients struggling to avoid betting apps, according to clinicians. They say most are young men overwhelmed by the ads that interrupt games and pop up constantly on their phones — often for misleading “no sweat bets” that promise lost money back while encouraging more in-app gambling.

“Gambling disorder was recognized as a full-fledged addiction back in 2013, on the same level as heroin and opioid usage,” said Harry Levant, who previously had a gambling problem and is now a therapist with Ethos Treatment working with others in recovery. “When you have nonstop instant access to an addictive product, people are going to get hurt.”

Sports gambling’s legalization has brought an influx of advertising dollars, according to Eric Webber, a senior counselor at Caron Treatment Centers who works with Pennsylvania-based problem gamblers.

Nationwide, the gaming industry spent about $15.5 million on advertising in 2019, according to Webber.

By 2022, the industry was spendingan estimated $1.8 billion on gambling ads nationwide.

“Anyone with a phone, laptop, and a computer — everybody’s being affected by it,” Webber said.

Katz, who built a career as a licensed professional for people with gambling problems, has kept away from betting apps using skills he learned in therapy and by registering himself for Pennsylvania’s self-exclusion gambling registry, barring him from signing up for the apps.

Still, Katz said he struggles when football announcers talk about spreads and over-unders — popular betting outcomes — at breaks.

“Basically what I have to do is try to tune it out as much as I can,” Katz said. “I understand that it’s there, I understand that I’m seeing it, but I just have to process it and accept it and move past it.”

For others like John, a Philadelphia native and South Jersey resident who asked for his last name omitted because of a public-facing sales career, sports-betting apps accelerated a decadelong struggle with addiction and make the ads tough to ignore.

John began struggling with gambling in high school, placing increasingly large bets with his neighborhood bookie. He fell into a risky cycle, maxing out credit cards and taking cash advances that at one point had lost him $40,000 in one month.

A year after John’s first son was born, sports gambling became legal in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. John remembers the day he downloaded his first betting app, and the shock at how easy it was to use.

Immediately John was pulled in to the app’s user-friendly interface and seemingly endless options for bets — how many rebounds Joel Embiid would nab, for example, or when Doc Rivers would call a timeout. Even more engrossing was that the app linked to his credit card, allowing him to lose track of how much money he gambled.

Then John downloaded others, which caught his attention with flashy promos.

With a new family to take care of, John realized his risky behavior had to end and sought treatment last year. Today, he’s over three months without a bet. The apps are deleted from his phone.

But the pressure to gamble remains, as John, a die-hard Philly sports fan, roots for his teams.

Recently John watched a Sixers game on TV where the anchors began discussing odds at halftime. And when he went to an Eagles game at Lincoln Financial Field with his wife and friends, he got invited into the FanDuel Lounge, a two-story, all-inclusive section of the stadium sponsored by the betting app. While there aren’t gambling kiosks in the section, members are encouraged to bet on their phones.

“It’s not easy,” John said.

Among recovery center colleagues, Webber said talk veers toward the amount of gambling commercials on television, even on the morning news. That’s unsurprising given that major media companies have a stake in the industry.

The cable network ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., launched a major deal with DraftKings last year in a move to capture the “younger, under-35 sports audience.” The Fox Corp., owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has launched its own sportsbook, FoxBet, and has a stake in FanDuel, while outlets like Sports Illustrated have licensed their names to sportsbooks.

The Inquirer has gotten involved, partnering with the sports media company the Action Network and delivering betting odds directly to the website.

Jennifer Levitt, a certified gambling counselor with the Philadelphia-based Livengrin Foundation, said that around three-quarters of her clients were betting on sports or online casinos during the pandemic, when the shutdown of physical casinos coincided with the industry’s rapid launch.

Levitt was surprised when she learned how much Pennsylvania made from sports gambling taxes, but a recent New York Times report on the industry’s advertising efforts left her dumbfounded. Caesar’s Sportsbook had signed multimillion-dollar deals with a handful of universities to advertise in their stadiums, on-campus meccas frequented by men in their early 20s, one of the groups most susceptible to gambling addiction.

“Once upon a time, you could see cigarette ads on TV, and in magazines and newspapers, and they regulated that because they found it was a known addiction,” Levitt said. “But [betting] companies won’t come out and say that, because they don’t want people to stop gambling.”

With gambling companies showing no sign of slowing their spending, advocates are hoping that lawmakers can address the industry’s advertising blitz.

In Massachusetts, where Levant is studying for a doctorate at Northeastern University, the Philadelphia-based counselor recently helped draft legislation that would include sports gambling as a form of deceptive advertising — specifically when ads mention “no sweat” and risk-free bets.

These promotions entice gamblers to sign up by promising to return their money should they lose. But in reality, Levant said, users don’t see cash returned. Instead, they’re given in-app credits to continue gambling.

“If a gambler is sweating a bet in the first place, he has a problem,” Levant said.

And should the legislation pass, Levant said, gamblers would be able to take legal action against companies running these promotions.

Still, Levant sees federal intervention as one of the most likely ways states like Pennsylvania can rein in deceptive ads. State-level restrictions are sparse, apart from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board requirement that ads include a toll-free number for addiction treatment.

Meanwhile, betting ads continue to permeate everyday life for gamblers in recovery.

“Pretty funny, right?” John said in a message accompanied with a screenshot from his phone. It was an app he uses to track the amount of time he’s been free from gambling. A marker read “90 days.” Above it, a betting app advertisement, offering $1,000 in no-sweat bets.