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Addiction to Fantasy Sports Becoming a Reality We Must Address

Addiction to Fantasy Sports Becoming a Reality We Must Address

Trolaro, Daniel, MS

                Each year, more and more Americans are becoming involved in fantasy sports contests.  The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that over 41 million people played fantasy sports in the US and Canada in 2014.   This number has more than doubled since 2007 when just under 20 million people participated.  While several fantasy leagues have little or no money involved and last the entire sport season, there is a growing trend that is quite disturbing: daily fantasy challenges with varying stakes and levels of participation.  For those dealing with problem gamblers, this trend is both alarming and disturbing for several reasons.

First, the Federal government does not view fantasy sports as a form of gambling.  In 2006, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act “carved out” fantasy sports from the definition of gambling.  That was passed by Congress and signed into law later that year.  What is interesting is that fantasy sports were exempted from the Act for online banking transactions in the same way as online lotteries and horse racing.  The view at the time was that the participant in fantasy sports games relies primarily on general knowledge, research, or skill.  Further, fantasy sports has an outcome determined primarily by statistics compiled by an athlete and is therefore not considered gambling since the element of skill is present and the final score of the actual contest is not the primary determinant in winning or losing.  Since the Act was passed in 2006, we have seen the emergence of Daily Fantasy Sites (DFS) incorporating more frequent interaction and attention to the world and concept of fantasy sports.  (One could even argue that the DFS acts as the bookmaker collecting payment from each side, taking its share, and then distributing the winnings.)  Of course, there remains the element of chance and unforeseen risk since one does not truly know how a player will perform on any given day.   Endless hours of research can go into picking the correct lineup but even with that said, there is so much variability around a player’s performance, there always exists the element of chance.

Second, the rise in DAILY fantasy challenges instead of season long fantasy can create a problem very quickly among several demographic profiles but especially for those struggling with or in recovery from addiction.  This can best be understood by the continual reinforcement of the activity leading to the habit and the reshaping of the brain also known as neuroplasticity.  In other words, the brain creates pathways in support of the habit.  The more we continue to go back to that item of enjoyment, the stronger the pathways become and the harder it becomes to “reshape” the brain or change the “path of destruction.”  The pleasure centers of the brain can then only find joy or excitement in that habit which could lead to an increase in the frequency, duration, or amount of the item providing the pleasure.  Anytime a desire for enjoyment turns into a demand on our life then our habit is becoming an addiction.  The habit of having some good clean fun in the spare time can quickly turn into preoccupation.  Fantasy sports, while currently not considered gambling, can quickly take a toll just like other addictions.  It can wear down our physical, emotional, or behavioral well-being, destroy relationships and lead to isolation.    Additionally, daily fantasy sports can become a trigger or precursor to sports or other forms of gambling or even day trading…..The daily fantasy participant is day trading athletes instead of stocks based upon past performance and future projections in hopes of profit while achieving an exhilarating high and rush along the way.

The New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling engages people of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities on a daily basis as we spread the word of education, awareness, and hope throughout the state.  The commonality in fantasy sports we have found in New Jersey is at the high school and college level primarily when speaking with males who are involved in athletics.  We have seen a 17 year old student in a North Jersey high school picking his lineup on his smart phone while in biology class for a chance at $1,000 head to head against another person online.  We have also spoken to a 20 year old college student in South Jersey isolated in his dorm room with his laptop for an entire weekend picking lineups for his Monday matchup for $500 against a classmate.  In both instances, it is not about the money rather it is about the action, preoccupation, and isolation that the fantasy sports can provide. This sounds like gambling to me and the fantasy trend is growing!  When you couple that with legislation to try to bring sports gambling to New Jersey, the increase in technology and the fact that professional sports associations are joining forces with the daily fantasy sites, this is an industry ready to explode in the Garden State and around the country.

Lastly, in 2014, results of a study published in the journal ‘Addictive Behaviors’ found that fantasy sports participants were more likely to engage in other forms of sports betting than non-fantasy players.  It is also certainly no surprise that the websites of some of the biggest daily fantasy names on the market have designed their interface in similar fashion to Vegas or online sportsbooks.  This creates a visual that the fantasy sports fan will find familiar when they “graduate” to the world of sports gambling down the line.  Additionally, many of the daily fantasy websites allow the participants to play from their laptops and mobile devices.  Daily fantasy sports games may very well serve as the “gateway drug” to online sports gambling in the years to come and given the demographics of the typical fantasy sport player (single males between 16-34), this is an emerging activity that legislators, researchers and clinicians need to pay close attention to while thinking through the potential risks.

Program Specialist at The Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ, Inc.