Will Apple or Google slow down sports betting on your phone?


Remember when we decided spending too much time on our phones was a bad thing? That diving into our iPhones could be unhealthy, even addictive?

It was a few years ago. So guess this: Now something we already know to be potentially addictive – sports betting – is available on these phones, along with a media blitz promising a path to easy money. But people who worry about this combination seem rare. So what happens to the sports betting industry if someone – namely Apple or Google, who have enormous control over what you can do with your phones – decides they have a problem with it?

Because whether you approve of the game or not, it seems obvious that making it easily accessible to anyone with a phone and a debit card, with little to no restrictions and a ton of ads encouraging you to place your bets, will cause problems for some people. It’s not one of those stories about unintended consequences we get from technology: it’s just there, on the surface.

“It’s an epidemic in the making,” says Felicia Grondin, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, where online sports betting has been legal since 2018. Since then, she says, it’s easy to understand the impact : Prior to the summer of 2018, about 3% of calls to his organization’s compulsive gambler hotline came from people who said they had problems with sports betting. Now that number is around 17%.

New Jersey is the tip of the gambling spear, as it was the state directly responsible for the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that gave every state the ability to legalize online sports betting. But a flood of states followed, driven by the promise of easy tax money — or the threat that they will lose that money to neighboring states where online betting is legal.

Big, well-capitalized companies — established gaming companies like MGM Resorts and newcomers like DraftKings and FanDuel — are flocking. They want you to start betting on sports right from your couch, car, or the bar, by placing NFL bets. matches or olympic hockey or rugby world cup 2023 or anything else with just a few clicks. And they’re spending a ton of money to convince you: DraftKings alone spent $1 billion on sales and marketing last year and plans to spend even more in 2022. (Disclosure: Vox Media has a business relationship with DraftKings.)

And there is obviously a market for that. In the run-up to legalization, there has been a debate over whether sports betting would present itself to people who were already betting on sports illegally, or whether it would attract casual newcomers. We don’t know the answer yet, but we do know there’s a lot of money to be had: in the first six weeks that legal online sports betting was available in New York, residents bet 2.5 billion dollars, including nearly $500 million from Super Bowl bets. This week’s March Madness college basketball tournament is expected to boost those numbers even further.

I’ve been following the rise of legal online sports betting for some time – it’s really a media story because media companies, who used to be wary of sports betting, are now eager to make money money through sports betting programming and advertising. And the arrival of sports betting apps coincides with the movement to reassess our relationship with technology in general and phones in particular, which gained momentum after the 2016 election.

In 2018, for example, former Apple executive Tony Fadell, who helped create the iPhone, called on phone makers and app makers to promote a “healthy and moderate digital life… before government regulators decide to intervene.” Around the same time, activists like former Google employee Tristan Harris were promoting the idea of ​​“time well spent” on phones and devices, and criticizing app makers like Google and Facebook for have become dopamine dealers. The New York Times suggested that you should make your phone less attractive by making the screen gray.

So periodically, when I meet with gaming executives and investors who are salivating at the thought of turning sports betting from a semi-hidden pastime into a mainstream activity, I ask them: what’s going on? it if Apple or Google decide that sports betting – where every ad is accompanied by a Micro Machine speed voiceover at the end telling you to get help if you have a betting problem – will something they don’t want to happen on their devices?

Or what if they are fine with sports betting but want to make it a little less fluid and require more opt-ins and signatures before placing a bet? Or if they simply limit the number of notifications betting apps can send? (FanDuel, for example, sends me a warning every day, and sometimes it works: an hour before the Super Bowl, I received a pop-up on my iPhone telling me that FanDuel had improved the odds of a bet on the fact that the game’s first practice would result in a punt, and urged me to BET NOW ➡️. I did – and won – and then made two more bets while I was there.)

The response from the guys in the game was consistent: they look at me like I’m a jerk and shrug their shoulders.

But I don’t think that’s a totally dumb question. Apple, in particular, has been pretty clear that Apple’s App Store is Apple’s App Store, and it’s willing to go to court to keep it that way; ask fortnite manufacturer Epic Games. Apple’s App Store edicts range from whimsical – early on Apple told developers to stop making fart apps for the iPhone because it had enough of them already – to moralistic – Steve Jobs was adamant about not allowing porn apps on his App Store, and the company followed his insistence after his death — and everything in between.

Apple has also insisted on promoting responsible phone use. Shortly after Fadell’s 2018 trial, the company rolled out the equivalent of nutrition labels for its apps, which are supposed to tell you what kind of content you’ll find in the app, whether it’ll ask you money and other good-to-know things that many users are probably completely unaware of.

So I also asked Apple and Google, who have rules on how gaming apps are supposed to work, but those rules usually boil down to “these things must be allowed and not fraudulent”. I also had non-responses from them.

To be clear: I don’t necessarily think Apple or Google should stop me from betting on sports. And I don’t think sports betting is necessarily any worse than many other vices or risky behaviors I may be engaging in on my phone right now. Seamlessly, it’s too easy for me to order more comfort food than I should; Drizzly lets me buy whiskey without pants. I bought dogecoin through Robinhood, minutes before Elon Musk appeared on SNL, and now I’m down 78%. And if I lived in California or Michigan, I’d probably get weed gummies delivered to my house through Eaze. Not to mention the time I waste on things that distract me but don’t give me real pleasure, like doomscrolling and shitposting on Twitter.

Felicia Grondin agrees with me, up to a point. But she thinks people with sports gambling problems are harder to detect than, say, someone struggling with substances. “It’s a hidden addiction,” she says. “You don’t smell it on someone’s breath; you can’t see it in their behavior until it’s too late.

It’s certainly easy enough to get in trouble with this stuff: Ask Calvin Ridley, the Atlanta Falcons player who bet $1,500 on three NFL games last fall, and has now been suspended for at least a year because league rules prohibit players from betting on league games. . Ridley’s bets would end up costing him over $11 million in lost wages.

Again: I’m glad I was able to place $10 bets on NFL games from my bedroom. And when I think of my personal issues with phones, sports betting apps aren’t on the list (top of the list right now: everyone in my son’s sixth grade uses Discord to chat with each other on others, with predictable results). But it seems obvious that someone, eventually – maybe the federal or state regulators, maybe the phone platforms – will want to step back and ask, “What did we do and how can we fix it? ?” I would bet on it.


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