Published: March 28, 2021

Sports gambling has soared during the pandemic and continues to climb

A growing number of Americans are trying their luck at online sports gambling this year, with the 2021 Super Bowl and NCAA March Madness drawing billions more dollars in wagers than last year's games.

Gamblers placed $4.3 billion in bets on Super Bowl LV, marking "the largest single-event legal handle in American sports betting history," the American Gaming Association estimated. In sports betting, a "handle" refers to the total amount of money wagered by bettors. About 7.6 million people placed bets on the game through platforms like FanDuel and DraftKings, a 63% increase from 2020. 

Meanwhile, more than 47 million Americans have placed bets on March Madness, the association said. The number of online bets on the tournament has tripled since 2019.

Two trends are driving this growth, experts say. First, more states are legalizing sports betting. Second, online sportsbooks have become more popular during the coronavirus pandemic which has forced hundreds of millions of people to remain at home.

"The pandemic had a lot to do with Americans not going to physical locations anymore," said Casey Clark, a senior vice president at the gaming association. "You weren't going to in-person sporting events and you weren't going to brick-and-mortar sportsbooks [where gamblers can wager on various competitions]"

Supreme Court ruling opens floodgates

Another game changer was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2018 that struck down a federal law barring gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports. The decision gave states the go-ahead to legalize betting on sports. Many jurisdictions were quick to take advantage. 

Lawmakers in Arkansas, New Hampshire, Indiana and elsewhere spent 2019 crafting and passing sports betting laws. Those laws took effect in 2020, Clark said, launching the sports gambling explosion playing out today. All told, sports betting is now legal in 25 states, while another 13 — including California, Massachusetts and Ohio — are considering similar legislation.

"More than 100 million people live in a state where gambling is now legal," Clark said. "Less than three years ago, that was only in Nevada."

DraftKings, FanDuel and other online betting platforms have become some of the biggest winners in the sports-betting explosion. DraftKings generated $614 million in revenue in 2020 and expects to cash in a cool $1 billion this year. FanDuel's parent company Flutter Entertainment said its 2020 betting revenue was $896 million, an 81% spike from 2019.

"This momentum has continued into 2021, including an exceptional performance during Super Bowl week that included FanDuel's sportsbook app being the third most downloaded app in the United States on game day, behind just TikTok and Robinhood," FanDuel CEO Matt King said in a statement earlier this month.

Sports leagues are also capitalizing on the sports betting explosion by selling official team data to betting companies. The NBA for example has a six-year contract with Sportradar that is reportedly worth more than $250 million. Such contracts could easily swell to billions once more states legalize sports gambling.

Risk of addiction

If more states legalize sports betting, the potential for people to become compulsive gamblers could grow as well — a reality that Clark said the industry is trying to address. 

Indeed some sports betting companies are now offering tools that automatically block gamblers from using their sites too often. Online gambling platform Unibet has teamed up with U.K.-based Gamban to offer blocking software that allows users to effectively ban themselves from gambling sites across multiple devices, to help curb compulsive behavior. The software bars thousands of licensed and unlicensed gambling sites and is constantly updated to add new ones as they appear.

Any danger of addiction doesn't worry Indiana resident Isaac Puff, however, who began sports betting on DraftKings just before the pandemic started. The 36-year-old Puff said he budgets $200 a month for sports gambling and only bets more if he wins money from previous wagers.

Puff said his new sports gambling hobby has been thrilling so far, noting that he won $10,000 this year after betting $2,000 on the less-favored Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. Puff said he tried betting on a whim last year just to see if he could win and has been surprised at the outcome.

"Last year, I put in total about $2,000 and I walked away with $20,000," he said. 

Puff said the secret to his gambling wins has been heavy research and not always picking the obvious choice. 

"I have the tendency to bet on the underdog if I think they have a chance," Puff said. "To me, betting is all about data. It's all about analyzing numbers and trends."

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