Ethicality in Marketing - Sports Gambling
October 11, 2022
By: Frank Liu
My first real exposure to the practice of sports gambling was in my junior year of high school, through my friend Noah. After seeing others gamble on various digital platforms, he’d started betting a dollar or two on fourth-quarter scoring in NBA games. “It gives me such a rush,” he’d say. Soon, however, the negligible sums of money he’d wager would double, and keep doubling - eventually, sports betting grew to take up a noticeable portion of Noah’s spending and free time. Furthermore, Noah’s fascination with gambling influenced others to explore the activity, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t interested myself.
Though sports gambling never developed into anything close to a real issue for Noah (yet), what’s interesting is the level of exposure he had to the practice as a junior in high school. Sports gambling has long been labeled as sinful and degenerate, alongside activities like poker, clubbing, and the like - despite this, suggestible teenagers like Noah are being marketed towards. As global digitalization pushes the sports betting industry to new heights (with an expected 167 billion dollar growth by 2029), it’s crucial to consider the ethicality of targeted promotion in the sports gambling industry.
Framing the Question
Sports gambling, in its most basic form, is the act of placing a bet on the outcome of a sporting event. Companies generate revenue by structuring bets so that the combined winning odds on both sides add up to over 100%, earning the house a small profit regardless of the outcome. Sports gambling has benefitted dramatically from the Internet’s globalization of sports; companies also generate a significant amount of their revenue from online websites and mobile apps. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s decision in May of 2018 to legalize sports gambling has pushed the industry forward in the United States.
Example of Sportsbooks
It’s important to understand that the debate surrounding the ethicality of sports gambling marketing does not lie with whether or not sports gambling itself is ethical - rather, the subject of evaluation is the promotion of the activity. In this instance, the idea of framing, in which some facts are highlighted in media content at the expense of others, encourages ethical discussion. Studying framing is crucial because the way a topic is presented may affect how different audiences view it. These concerns are intensified when the messaging is about an activity where participation presents an innate risk - and sports gambling very obviously presents potentially harmful outcomes, including addiction, financial hardship, and an increased likelihood of drug abuse or mental health issues.
The “Aggressive” Characteristics of Sports Gambling Marketing
In current media, sports gambling is often presented as fun, harmless, entertaining, and socially acceptable. This positive framing can have potentially profound negative consequences when presented to vulnerable audiences, like those who have a history of addiction, or susceptible youth populations (like Noah). A study published by the University of Bristol last October found that disguised gambling marketing and adverts were nearly four times more appealing to children than adults - additionally, half of the population of children are exposed to such advertising weekly, and a quarter encounters it daily.
For the inexperienced and uneducated, ignorance is dangerous - yet, little attempt is made to spread awareness of the risks of sports gambling alongside promotional content. Even when gambling risks are included in an advert’s content, they are not highlighted and are overshadowed by messages that emphasize good results. In the portrayal of sports betting, two ethical issues can be specifically identified:
An overemphasis on the skill and knowledge of the gambler, with a lack of emphasis on the role that luck, could play in the outcome, and
An overemphasis on the likelihood of winning, with a lack of emphasis on the risk (and potentially life-changing effects) of losing.
A Fanduel ad that explicitly uses “risk-free” in its promotional material, spreading a false narrative around sports betting.
The ethical concerns in the sports gambling industry are, however, forgotten when considering the economic prosperity companies have been experiencing. Investment firms estimate that by 2025, the United States sports gambling industry will generate between $7 billion and $8 billion in annual revenue - and as technology continues to improve, increased accessibility will expand the industry’s reach further. It’s not only the betting service companies that benefit - state governments, sports leagues, and media companies all experience growth through increased interest, viewership, and interactions through touchpoints. As such, stakeholders may turn a blind eye to the dangers of exploitative marketing in sports gambling.
Frank Liu is part of the Fall 2022 Content Committee. He is a Freshman at NYU Stern looking to pursue Finance (unsurprisingly) and Data Science.