Two people watching a hockey game on TV are seen from behind
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People who bet on professional sports games are at higher risk of developing problem gambling compared to other types of gamblers, according to a new University of Guelph study.

Sport gambling itself is not to blame, but the personalities and habits of sports gamblers put them at higher risk of problems.

The study, published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, is one of the first to examine what distinguishes sports bettors from non-sports bettors in their problem gambling risk. It also comes as Canada is considering overhauling its gambling laws to allow U.S.- style, single-game betting.

Currently, Canadians can participate only in provincial sports lotteries in which they must select the outcomes of at least three sporting events as part of a parlay format. But little research has been done on who these bettors are and whether they are at higher risk of problem gambling than other gamblers.

Psychology professor Dr. Harvey Marmurek, along with Alysha Cooper and Katrina Olfert, master’s students in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, completed an analysis to determine the predictors of problem gambling among sports bettors and how they differ from other gamblers.

Dr. Harvey Marmurek

“We found that sports gamblers represent a unique cohort of gamblers,” said Marmurek. “They differ on practically everything we measured – their motivations for gambling, their impulsivity, their beliefs about luck. And overall, sports bettors are at a greater risk of problem gambling than non-sports bettors.”

The team surveyed 1,280 self-identified gamblers in Ontario, 596 of whom had placed bets on a sporting event in the last year. All were asked about their gambling habits and attitudes towards betting. They were also asked to score themselves on several known markers for problem gambling, such as gambling more than one can afford to lose, risking larger amounts of money to get the same excitement, and feeling that gambling has caused financial, health or relationship problems.

Sports bettors were more likely to be young men. They were also more involved in gambling than non-sports gamblers, had more positive attitudes about gambling, and were more likely to believe in the illusion of control and to overestimate their chances of winning.

Alysha Cooper

“Sports fans in general tend to be loyal to their game or team,” said Cooper. “So perhaps it’s not surprising we found that sports gamblers are more motivated to bet to demonstrate their knowledge of the game or for intellectual challenge or because of the excitement and connection to others that it brings.”

But the researchers also concluded that sports bettors are not at greater risk of problem gambling because they bet on sports. Rather, their heightened risk for problem gambling may stem from their being more likely to be impulsive and to keep betting when they were feeling good, to believe in luck and perseverance and the power of superstitions, and to be unsure whether they were making money from gambling.

“All of these things are known predictors for problem gambling,” said Cooper.

Marmurek said their findings suggest that if proposed changes to Canadian gambling laws clear the Senate and more forms of sports gambling become available, it may not necessarily result in more problem gamblers.

But more research is needed to understand how sports lottery gamblers might differ from single-bet gamblers.

“If we are going to have single-bet gambling in Canada and if we allow betting to take place in venues other than at an approved lottery retailer, we will need more research about these gamblers as well as which preventive methods and interventions may be needed for this unique group of gamblers.”

The research was funded by Gambling Research Exchange Ontario.


Dr. Harvey Marmurek