Sports gambling has changed drastically from the days of placing a bet at a Las Vegas casino or finding a neighborhood bookmaker taking wagers on the weekend’s games. Consider this: Within the next few years, nearly all Americans will have access to legalized sports betting — with tens of millions of people placing bets on everything from their favorite college team to how many interceptions an NFL quarterback will throw this week.
So who are these people gambling a few dollars here and there, or risking thousands every week? And what does the explosion of sports gambling and fantasy sports mean for the games?
Enter Stephen Shapiro, a sport and entertainment management professor at the University of South Carolina. Shapiro calls himself a consumer behavior researcher, and one of his areas of research looks at complementary activities associated with a core product. That includes betting on sports.
Shapiro, teamed with researchers Brendan Dwyer of Virginia Commonwealth University and Joris Drayer of Temple, began researching fantasy sports before gambling became more mainstream and legalized in many states. Before 2018, casinos were some of the only places in the country where people could legally bet. Now, more than 30 states allow sports betting, with North Carolina the latest state to legalize it starting in January 2024. The most common way to bet on sports now is through an online, mobile sports book such as DraftKings or BetMGM. These sites allow people in states where gambling is legal to set up an account and place wagers with just a few clicks.
“Once more states began legalizing sport gambling,” Shapiro says, “we shifted our research towards this activity: How is sport gambling going to affect consumption of sport? Will there be changes? What type of person decides to gamble or play fantasy sport, and will that impact their fandom?”
What he has learned: Fans are still fans. Even for people who participate in fantasy sports and gambling, traditional fandom is not really affected; people still have their favorite teams and players. Instead, their research has found, the growth in gambling and gamblers has actually enhanced overall sports consumption, meaning fans spend more time watching more games.
“You're watching multiple games at one time instead of just one game,” Shapiro says. “You're paying attention to players that are not just on your team, but players that are on other teams. And so, from a sport business perspective, leagues love it. A sport fan is going to consume more sport if they are gambling. And they are going to care about more teams and players than if they were not gambling.”
Shapiro, Dwyer, and Drayer have also studied characteristics of those who gamble, how much money they wager, and how the increase of gambling can change how people consume sports.
Their research breaks gamblers into three categories, with a fourth group assigned to non-betters. The first group, which they call the All-In, includes young, highly educated men who gamble frequently on mainstream and niche sports for a number of reasons, including self-esteem and socialization. They tend to be extroverts who are competitive, impulsive and good with numbers. The All-Ins watch an average of 22.38 hours of sports per week.
The Casuals are sport betters who tend to be middle-aged men, moderately educated, who primarily gamble for excitement and money. They usually wager only on mainstream sports and are conscientious and show moderately high levels of competitiveness, impulsiveness and number sense. The Casuals watch an average of 16.9 hours of broadcast sports each week.
Sporadic betters are a group of mostly older men who rarely gamble and only on mainstream sports. They gamble for money and excitement and are more introverted than the other betting segments. They are less impulsive, less competitive and less interested in numbers. This group watches an average of 13 hours of sports per week.
Non-betters are a group of middle-aged people that more closely represents the general sports fan. They are less educated and have a lower household income than the other groups, and this group is nearly 50 percent female, much higher than the other groups. This group watches an average of 9.18 hours of sports a week.
“From a betting platform and league perspective, we concluded you shouldn't treat all sport gamblers as the same type of consumer,” he says. “There are everyday gamblers and there are once-in-a-while gamblers. And those are different consumers in terms of their interest in gambling and how it might affect their sport consumption.”
Shapiro says he hasn't yet specifically studied gambling addiction, but says the topic has been considered within his research because it can change the understanding of how gamblers behave. Someone with a gambling addiction will act differently than other types of gamblers, he says.
Shapiro says his next step is understanding how betting changes more nuanced sport consumption habits.
“What I mean by that is, ‘OK, your gambling activity results in you watching more sports, but are you watching complete games? Do you care so much about the outcome of an individual game?’ When we talk about gambling now, it's not just traditional gambling where I bet on the South Carolina-Clemson game and the result is I win or I lose,” he says. “Now I can gamble on the score at the end of each quarter. I can gamble on whether an individual player is going to score a touchdown in the first quarter. I can gamble on if someone's going to hit a home run. So do these type of in-game wagers change how we consume sport? Interest can shift to watching pieces of games or multiple games simultaneously versus the traditional method of sitting down and watching a complete game with the focus on the final score.”