Student-athlete gambling research suggests challenging future

In 1998, men's and women's basketball and football student-athletes from across the country provided a window into their gambling activities through a University of Michigan study conducted by friend and colleague Ann Vollano and myself (The extent and nature of gambling among college students, Cross and Vollano, 1998). 

Prior to the study, data about student-athlete gambling was essentially non-existent.  Our research garnered national media attention and prompted the NCAA to conduct its own studies which advanced this initial work.  Twenty years later, the 1998 research provides an insightful point of comparison with the NCAA's 2016 gambling study (Trends in NCAA student-athlete gambling behaviors and attitudes, 2017) and possible future trends. 

Positive trends

Specific types of gambling among male student-athletes have declined in nearly every case (except the purchase of lottery tickets.)

Type of Gambling Activity
Wagering on sports
37 %
24.3 %
Playing cards for money
39.1 %
22.9 %
Wagering in a casino
48.5 %
18.6 %
Dice games
18.5 %
7.7 %
Wagering on horses, dogs
13.5 %
6.3 %
Commercial Bingo
8.0 %
5.0 %
Lottery tickets
27.8 %
36.4 %

The percentage of male Division I student-athletes who gambled in the prior 12 months declined significantly as well, although half the population still wagers:

71 %
48 %

The trends above make sense - the lottery is more prevalent than it was 20 years ago with some jackpots exceeding $500 million.  The popularity of bingo, horse and dog racing as well as dice games has waned.  The poker boom has receded.  And the NCAA's long-standing educational efforts are having an impact on sports wagering. 

But not all of the news is positive. 

Neutral and Negative Trends 

Wagering activity below $50 was unchanged but the percentage of athletes making large wagers drifted upwards and internet gambling has grown exponentially.

Percentage who wagered less than $10
32.5 %
33.0 %

Percentage of male athletes who wagered more than $50
20 %
21 %

Percentage of males who wagered more than $500 at one time
1.5 %
4 %

Percentage of male student athletes who wagered via the internet
Less than 1 %
Approximately 33.0 %

Keep in mind, the most recent NCAA numbers are nearly 4 years old. Since 2016 sports wagering has become legal in many states with the number of internet-based tools and phone-based apps exploding.  The 2016 numbers most certainly under-report the activities of 2019 and it’s reasonable to expect the amounts wagered will increase due to the simplicity of wagering with a credit card. 

The Future

If you accept the premise that student-athlete wagering is correlated with societal gambling practices, college sports faces a daunting situation.  Consider the following trends that have emerged since 2016:
  • legalization of sports wagering, 
  • significant emergence of internet wagering options from legalization,
  • increased media coverage and commentary on sports wagering in light of legalization, including point spreads on college football games, over/under, etc.
  • general societal acceptance of gambling, and
  • a tsunami of technology and data, which can be facilitated by artificial intelligence, makes the exploitation of information for wagering purposes both irresistible and fiscally prudent for those who choose to gamble. 

The potential for manipulation that impacts the integrity of contests is real.  For decades the NCAA has advocated a zero tolerance policy towards wagering on sports sponsored by the Association.  But with new opportunities for wagering emerging, it seems unlikely wagering on sports will decrease further when the rate of decline over the past 20 years has been less than 1% annually. 

Intercollegiate athletics leadership needs to utilize the same legislative and technology-based tools that are available to gamblers to eliminate avenues for possible contest manipulation.  Legal options through state houses and court houses will be important.  But the more fruitful approaches will be technology and policy based.   

Standardized data tracking and ownership at the conference level along with consistent injury reporting are easy first steps.  When everyone has the same information, insider intelligence that can be exploited for gambling is reduced.  Publicly available data should track team, student-athlete and referee performance.  There isn't agreement about this approach, but it's needed - secrecy in the information age doesn't work well.  Additionally, some institutions have already taken steps to limit faculty and staff gambling.  

Interesting policy questions will also emerge from the economic pressures facing higher education and college athletics.  The decreasing number of traditional-age college studentsa re-invigoration of trade occupations, an unwillingness of today’s families to assume large amounts of student loan debt and softening game attendance will rationalize gambling access in a manner similar to the expansion of alcohol sales at college sporting events.  Alcohol availability is a revenue opportunity wrapped in the language of  "enhanced fan experience" and "decreased incidents".  "Enhanced fan experience" and "reduced risk of contest manipulation" will provide similar linguistic justification for institutions to pursue the financial opportunities of legal wagering and associated businesses (e.g. sponsorship) despite its moral murkiness. 

How long will it take to get meaningful tools in place to protect contest integrity? Or for institutions to take a permissive approach regarding wagering?  I don't know the answer to either question, but if there is an over/under on the amount of time it will take to see either occur, I'll bet the over.


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