clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Big game, big worries? Gambling addiction grows with Illinois’ booming sports betting industry — ‘It’s in your face all the time’

The number of Illinoisans seeking help for problem gambling has almost doubled since legislators approved a massive gambling expansion in 2019. Experts expect that number to keep growing.

A man who requested that he only be identified as Anthony stands by a window in a high-rise condo near Soldier Field on Friday.  The Tinley Park man is a recovering sports gambling addict.
A man who requested that he only be identified as Anthony stands by a window in a high-rise condo near Soldier Field on Friday. The Tinley Park man is a recovering sports gambling addict.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Thousands of football fans will be placing their first legal Super Bowl bets in Illinois this weekend, and for most, a little action will make the big game just a bit more entertaining.

But, for some, it might open the door to regular betting, adding a quick dopamine hit to the regular season viewing experience. Maybe they’ll have to start budgeting for a new habit. Maybe they’ll have to start borrowing for it.

And, for a select few, it will get worse.

It’s already gotten worse for hundreds of people statewide since Illinois legislators approved a massive gaming expansion a year and a half ago, introducing legal sports wagering to a state that’s already packed with more places to gamble than Las Vegas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made matters even worse, according to Luke, a Chicago-area problem gambler who was able to get out of the game nine years ago. Economic uncertainty and the general malaise of the quarantine lifestyle make gambling all the more enticing.

“It used to be that there was a stigma, and gambling was taboo. It was seedy,” said Luke, who asked that his full name not be used. “Now, you can do it on your phone. The companies that are doing it are publicly traded Fortune 500 companies.”

A man who asked that he only be identified as Anthony reads news about the Super Bowl on his phone Friday.
A man who asked that he only be identified as Anthony reads news about the Super Bowl on his phone Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Calls to the state’s gambling disorder hotline more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, when 13,258 people reached out either there or online for information on a problem that experts say is out of sight but front of mind for a growing number of bettors and their families. The Illinois Department of Human Services, which aims to connect problem gamblers with counseling resources, calls that a “dramatic increase.”

In 2019, about 580 people received treatment for gambling disorders through state-sponsored programs across Illinois. That figure jumped past 1,000 in 2020, and experts say it doesn’t even cut the deck as only an estimated 3% of problem gamblers acknowledge they have a problem, and even fewer seek treatment.

Hundreds more took the more drastic step of banning themselves from casinos and the smartphone betting apps that have them hooked. About 13,500 people were enrolled in the self-exclusion program maintained by regulators at the Illinois Gaming Board in mid-2019, but that number has since shot past 14,000.

Many of those gamblers cite their temptations as coming from the state’s 10 casinos, three horse racing tracks and 7,233 bars, restaurants, gas stations and VFW halls that also house slot machines.

But since mobile sports betting launched last summer, Illinoisans can now gamble 24/7 from the comfort of home — and they’ve already lost more than $101 million doing so, according to Gaming Board revenue figures.

Blackhawks analyst Eddie Olczyk placed Illinois first legal sports bet in March 2019. Gamblers across the state have wagered more than $1.4 billion since then — and lost $101 million.
Blackhawks analyst Eddie Olczyk placed Illinois first legal sports bet in March 2019. Gamblers across the state have wagered more than $1.4 billion since then — and lost $101 million.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As the billion-dollar industry keeps growing, addiction counselors say they’re hearing more and more from young people glued to the sports betting apps whose ads saturate Illinois airwaves and billboards.

“It’s in your face all the time,” said Dr. Teresa Garate of the Gateway Foundation, a network of 16 addiction treatment centers statewide. “It’s becoming a part of everyday life. Everyone accepts it, but it’s a serious trigger for some.”

That’s the case for Anthony, a 36-year-old recovering problem gambler from southwest suburban Tinley Park, who said he often finds himself changing the station as sports talk radio hosts dissect the latest betting lines.

“It’ll just be too much, it’s too close,” Anthony said. “Even though I don’t think it’ll lead me down there, I know better than to let my mind start thinking like that.”

A recovering sports gambling addict reads his favorite passages from ‘A Day at a Time’ a book by Gamblers Anonymous last month.
Anthony reads his favorite passages from ‘A Day at a Time’ a book by Gamblers Anonymous.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Elizabeth Thielen, a senior director at Nicasa Behavioral Health Services, said she’s seen yearly increases of people seeking help for gambling disorders across Chicago’s north suburbs, but a “real burst” of clients has sought them out in the past nine months.

“The ages we’re seeing are trending younger, and I think that’s directly related to sports betting,” Thielen said. “At the same time, I feel hopeful because you have young people showing a surprising level of insight to find help.”

Way Back Inn executive director Anita Pindiur is pictured outside the Maywood facility in 2019.
Way Back Inn executive director Anita Pindiur is pictured outside the Maywood facility in 2019.
Sun-Times file

While there’s been an influx of new problem gamblers, the potential for relapse is an equal concern for Dr. Anita Pindiur, executive director of the Way Back Inn, a Maywood treatment center. About 10 former patients have already returned to the Way Back Inn for counseling this football season alone.

“Sometimes, we forget how quickly it can happen,” Pindiur said. “These things are advertised in a way that they’re fun and entertaining, and they should be. But often there is no set of limits or recognition of the limits until we get our credit-card bill, or somebody points it out.”

Besides financial ruin, experts say people who suffer from gambling addiction are more likely to suffer from substance abuse issues, turn to crime or even attempt suicide.

“I was losing everything,” said Patrick, a 35-year-old Niles man who’s 13 months removed from his last bet. “I’d have a paycheck on a Friday afternoon and it would be gone by Friday night. My relationships with my family and whoever I was dating, it just got out of control. I was lying, I was stealing, I was doing all these crazy things.”

As sports betting has been brought out of the shadows into everyday life, counselors say their challenge now is removing the stigma around seeking treatment for addiction — and they say they’re making progress through increased awareness. That’s been boosted with the help of $7 million set aside in the state’s gambling expansion law in grants for treatment centers, which have used a lot of that money to bolster advertising.

The Way Back Inn is one of only a handful of addiction treatment centers in Illinois that provide a gambling-specific program.
The Way Back Inn is one of only a handful of addiction treatment centers in Illinois that provide a gambling-specific program.
Sun-Times file

“One of the biggest barriers to treatment is stigma, especially for gambling,” said Garate, from the Gateway Foundation. “People don’t see it as a real addiction. It is, and help is out there.”

Just how many people need help is unclear. Experts generally estimate that between 2% and 5% of the population deal with gambling disorder, which would project to about 635,000 people across Illinois, including about 136,000 in Chicago.

But there’s been no comprehensive study of the problem in Illinois since 1999, well before video slots dotted the walls at thousands of establishments across the state and sportsbooks were accessible anywhere that had a cellphone signal.

“You have to believe those numbers are different now,” Thielen said.

The state Department of Human Services is out to find out just how much they’ve shifted with the onslaught of gambling options. The agency launched a $500,000 study last fall surveying treatment providers, problem gamblers and others to gauge the prevalence of addiction, especially among populations considered vulnerable or marginalized due to race, culture, economic or social disparity.

“We want to know what’s the challenge, and what should we look for,” said David Jones, who directs the department’s Substance Use Prevention and Recovery Division. “Then, you can start to bring more evidence-based solutions on a size consistent with the scale of the challenge.”