Betting on the Super Bowl: Is it really just a harmless pastime?

‘The Super Bowl is the flagship of gambling,’ says psychiatrist Tim Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

Who will win the opening coin toss for Super Bowl LVII? How long will the National Anthem last? Which of the artists performing at halftime will take the stage first? What color Gatorade will be dumped on the winning team’s coach?

These are some of the many bets that can be placed on Sunday’s big game.

“The Super Bowl is the flagship of gambling,” says psychiatrist Tim Fong, MD, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

More than 50 million Americans are expected to place some kind of wager on the game, to the tune of around $16 billion, according to the American Gaming Association.

These figures include everything from bets on specific plays and yardage totals to sizable wagers on the game’s outcome.

While most game-day bets are just part of the fun, gambling can become a devastating addiction for some people.

With more ways to legally bet on the Super Bowl than ever before, and increasing acceptance — if not outright endorsement — of the practice by sports commentators and institutions including the NFL, it’s important to note that gambling isn’t harmless entertainment for everyone, Dr. Fong says.

“Nobody becomes ‘addicted’ from the very first time they take a substance or gamble, but it does raise concern about these men and women who are most vulnerable to develop an addiction,” he says. “Those are the ones that we want to make sure are either protected or well informed that what they’re doing could potentially be problematic.”

The appeal of sports betting

Human beings are naturally wired for things that bring us reward and pleasure, Dr. Fong says, and gambling has the potential to do both. You can win money just for guessing right.

When it comes to gambling on the Super Bowl, you don’t even have to like the teams or care about football. That’s why Super Bowl squares are so popular — participants simply get two random numbers and they instantly have a stake in the game.

“It’s fun and it brings people together — that’s the power of games,” says Dr. Fong, who specializes in addiction psychiatry. “That’s why the Super Bowl is such an interesting day, because it’s everything: It’s games, it’s gambling, it’s friends, family; it’s competition, sports, food — it’s everything that Americans love.”

Evolution of gambling

It’s the “evolution of gambling” that piques Dr. Fong’s concern: the convergence of technology, pop culture and gaming. Not only is gambling more mainstream, there are more bets available to make and more ways to make them — as easy as a few clicks on a laptop or smartphone.

"Gambling, at its best, brings people together. Gambling, at its worst, unfortunately, is a really potent and powerful addiction."

Dr. Tim Fong, co-director of the UCLA gambling studies program

“Twenty years ago, that was impossible to do,” Dr. Fong says. “You’d have to have a bookie. You’d have to drive to Vegas. You couldn’t do this spontaneously or impulsively. So that’s the evolution of gambling: going from the backwoods, dark casinos into Westside homes, on your smartphone, in front of everyone and sharing with everyone.”

As the nation navigates this ever-changing terrain, how much education and regulation is appropriate, Dr. Fong wonders.

Who develops a gambling addiction?

People most vulnerable to a disordered relationship with gambling are those with a family history of gambling addiction; those with a personal history of other addictive disorders; people with untreated depression, anxiety and ADHD; and people who are very young, Dr. Fong says.

Parents should consider allowing their children to place bets as akin to allowing them to have cigarettes or alcohol, he says.

‘The Super Bowl is the flagship of gambling,’ says psychiatrist Tim Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

“Gambling for money is an adult form of entertainment,” he says.

That’s key to remember when looking for signs that you or a loved one may be developing a problematic relationship with gambling.

“When gambling is purely harmless and recreational, it doesn’t create problems,” Dr. Fong says. “Think about going to the movies. That’s another form of entertainment. There’s no harm in going to the movies. Even if it’s a terrible movie that we don’t like, we just lost a few hours and a few bucks. There’s no lasting damage.”

However, someone who is gambling on a regular basis and experiencing problems in their life — financial, interpersonal or emotional in the form of increased stress — may want to seek help, Dr. Fong says.

“Gambling, at its best, brings people together,” he says. “Gambling, at its worst, unfortunately, is a really potent and powerful addiction.”

If you or someone you know may have a gambling problem, call 1-800-GAMBLER.

Learn more about the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.