The Denver Broncos game was in full swing, but for Weinberg second-year Liam*, the real action was not on the field but rather in the numbers across his computer screen. He had placed a $50 bet that Tim Patrick, the Broncos’ wide receiver, would catch at least eight passes during the game.
Seven catches in and Liam* was on the edge of his seat, eager for the next play. The ball was thrown, soaring toward its target, and Patrick reached his arms out. Liam’s* heart began to race and a smile spread across his face.
Patrick made the catch, and Liam* won $800. This sense of success, the rush of adrenaline and the excitement of the win was addictive — Liam* craved this feeling.
Engaging in sports betting is not uncommon for many college-aged students. Approximately 75% of college students gambled during the past year (legally or illegally), with about 18% gambling weekly or more frequently, according to the International Center for Responsible Gambling.
“Before I cracked the code, I was losing all my little 16, 17-year-old savings,” Liam* says. “I know the effect that it can have, and I know for pretty much every person out there that gambles, or for a lot of people that struggle with it, it causes a lot of problems.”
Gambling opportunities, previously available in only a few states, multiplied following the 2018 Supreme Court decision to legalize sports betting. The expansion of internet gambling and of sportsbooks, a place or website where a gambler can wager on various sports competitions, have intricately linked sports to gambling.
With a minimum age requirement of 21 years old to bet on sports in Illinois (18 in some states), not all college students are eligible to use licensed sportsbooks like FanDuel and DraftKings. Nineteen-year-old Liam* places his wagers through offshore sites — websites that do not have local licenses but operate legally in other countries. In contrast to domestically licensed online bookmakers, these offshore websites are largely unregulated.
Over the past year, Liam* has consistently placed substantial wagers on an offshore site called Bovada. In December 2022, Liam* risked approximately $75,000 across 598 individual bets. Three hundred and fifteen of them resulted in winnings. With a win rate of 52.68% that month, he profited around $2,000 — an average month for him.
Not all months are quite as successful, however. The week leading up to his major win with the Broncos resulted in a setback of almost $3,000.
“I still was doing everything the same, but at the end of the day, I can’t control these NBA players or these NFL players,” he says. “They’re gonna play how they play, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Liam* was first introduced to online sports betting in high school, and at first, it seemed like a relatively harmless pastime.
“It’s like the classic gambling fallacy. You start off with $5, $10, $20 bets, you see your friends risking more and you get more ballsy,” Liam* says. “It’s kind of a mix of chasing your losses and trying to get it back.”
Northwestern psychology professor Robin Nusslock explained that when individuals become addicted to a behavior like gambling, their brain’s reward system, centered around the release of dopamine, undergoes a significant shift. Over time, the brain rewires so that the individual experiences less positive satisfaction from anything other than the addictive behavior.
“Even in the face of negative consequences, they’re prioritizing the reward that comes from the addictive behavior, more so than the consequences that come along with that particular behavior,” Nusslock says.
With sports betting’s potential for fast money and instant gratification, it’s unsurprising that many young adults and teenagers are immersed in it. It’s not only easily accessible — all that’s needed is a phone and internet connection — but socially acceptable and widely promoted.
The sports gambling industry is dominated by four licensed sportsbooks: FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM and Caesars, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements. They entice new gamblers with “risk-free” bets or bonuses for their first wagers.
As of November 2022, at least eight universities’ athletic departments have partnered with online sports-betting companies, according to The New York Times. These partnerships allow sportsbooks to advertise directly to students on campus, at athletic events and in students’ email inboxes.
In contrast to other industries selling addictive products, such as tobacco, there are no advertising rules specific to the sports betting industry at a federal level. This lack of oversight and regulation is particularly concerning for college-aged students who are susceptible to addiction.
While some students like Liam* treat sports gambling as a part-time job and dedicate a significant amount of time to researching bets with the goal of financial gain, others bet small amounts, seeing it as a harmless addition to the viewing experience. Communication third-year Caleb* bets purely for entertainment’s sake, putting $10 or $20 down as a way to deepen his engagement.
Caleb* bets by setting a budget each season and tracking his wins and losses.
“My mindset is that once I put a bet down, that money is gone, and if I win it back, it’s a bonus,” Caleb* says. “Watching the game just to watch the game is fun, but it’s not as fun as when you have a team to root for. You cheer the whole time, you get invested and you feel like you have been a fan of that team for a while just because you have the money on it.”
To bypass age restrictions, underage bettors often turn to illegal intermediaries, known as bookies and agents. The bookie acts as a middleman between bettors and the agent, who has direct contact with the sportsbook. The agent is responsible for accepting bets from the bettors and placing them with the sportsbook, making money through the “vig” or “juice,” which is a fee charged by sportsbooks for taking a bet.
Weinberg second-year Bodhi* used to work as a bookie for many of his friends at Northwestern, but stopped due to the overwhelming workload and associated risks.
“It sounds like the perfect job, and it is if you really trust the people you’re working with because you can’t lose,” Bodhi* says. “If the people on your book lose money that week, then you get 15% [the standard “juice” fee] of it. And if they win, then all you’re doing is transferring money but you’re not taking any of it out of your own pot.”
A major problem in the illicit betting world is people not paying what they owe. Because these bets are not made through a registered sportsbook, the entire system operates outside the law, and there is no legal recourse for collecting debts.
Bodhi* encountered this issue with one of his bettors who had fallen behind on paying what was owed.
“I told him the truth that he was scumming me. And I was like ‘I realize this is shitty for you, but right now, I have a guy asking me for $2,000, and it’s not coming out of my own pocket, so you’re just fucking me,’” Bodhi* says. “He just felt bad enough and he probably wanted to bet again with me in the future, so he paid.”
Weinberg third-year James* initially approached betting as a leisure activity with friends but quickly began to optimize his strategy. James* now places substantial bets of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, determined to beat the odds.
“It’s life-changing,” he says. “A few of us are under the guise that while it is taxing and tiring and stressful, it’s very much worth it.”
James* devotes extensive time to researching and analyzing his bets, yet he says he often grapples with whether the opportunity cost is high enough. He and his friends always come back to the conclusion that as a college student, there is no other job that provides the financial benefits of sports betting.
“I wouldn’t say I have any particular luck,” James* says. “I couldn’t tell you who’s gonna win any game in particular, but I can analyze the markets and tell you where I think a line [point spread for a game] is over-adjusted, and given this, optimally wager on that.”
For Liam*, sports betting is about finding an edge over the oddsmakers (who set the lines according to probability) through extensive research, analysis and a little bit of luck. He advises people interested in betting to never gamble more than they can and to never expect to win bets based on previous trends.
“That’s how they get you every time, and that’s why so many people lose,” Liam* says. “People think they know sports better than these billion-dollar gambling companies, but they just don’t at the end of the day.”
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.