Capital Region

House money: Advocates worry gambling addictions will rise after legalization of mobile sports betting

Steve and Kelly Delaney in their Ballston Spa home on Saturday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Steve and Kelly Delaney in their Ballston Spa home on Saturday.

Steven Delaney knew he had a problem when he won an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles to see the Brooklyn Nets play the Clippers.

The prize was for a “free” contest he’d been entered into by spending at least $500 in a month on sports betting in 2018. It suddenly hit Delaney that if he told his wife, Kelly, about winning the contest, she’d know how much Delaney had been spending on gambling, and she’d see how out of control her husband’s habit had become.

“That’s when I realized there was something wrong with what I was doing,” said Delaney, a 37-year-old Ballston Spa resident.

Delaney is one of 4.3% of adult residents in New York who are having problems related to their gambling, according to the New York Council on Problem Gambling. That percentage, representing more than 600,000 New Yorkers, is a number that people battling addiction like Delaney and affected others like Kelly, as well as prevention specialists and clinicians say will grow since mobile sports betting became legal in New York last month.

In many ways, Delaney’s experience mirrors the overall image of sports betting in the state. As New York announced its big win in tax revenue from the billions of dollars spent in the early days of legal mobile sports betting, the underbelly is the real impact that legal mobile sports betting will have on the landscape of gambling addiction in New York. Even more troubling is that young people may be especially susceptible to developing gambling addictions because of how easy it is to place a bet on a phone, prevention specialists say.

Yet there is reason for hope. Technology is a double-edged sword, so while it makes access to gambling even easier, that same internet frontier gives Delaney and others with gambling addictions platforms to post podcasts to help cope, opening up a meaningful dialogue that once stayed buried.

NUMBERS AND GAMING

New York’s first month of mobile sports betting amassed more money on mobile sports wagers than any other state’s first month of legal mobile sports betting, according to an announcement from Gov. Kathy Hochul. That nearly $2 billion in wagers in the first month climbed to $2.45 billion following the Super Bowl, which, to be sure, was a time buoyed by the popular NFL playoffs and a flurry of betting deals.

In that first month, more than 1.76 million unique accounts made more than 187 million transactions in New York, according to the announcement.

The National Council on Problem Gambling has found that mobile sports betting legalization typically syncs with an increase in betting. After a review of more than 140 studies and reports related to sports betting and gambling addiction, the organization concluded “sports gambling grows explosively at the same time that mobile and online technologies evolve to create seemingly unlimited types of wagering opportunities.”

The calls for help increase, too. For example, in New Jersey, where online sports betting has been legal since 2018, helpline calls where sports gambling was referenced as the primary issue grew from between 1% and 5%, prior to legalization, to nearly 11% of calls for the period ending Oct. 31, 2019, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

New York is already seeing an uptick in calls for help, according to Brandy Richards, team leader of the Northeast Problem Gambling Resource Center. From January 2021 to January 2022, calls to the Office of Addiction Services and Supports Statewide Helpline (1-877-8-HOPENY) increased 46%, Richards said.

STEVE’S STORY

Behind those numbers are people like Delaney. The Long Island native’s addiction problems date to his early teenage years. He said he started drinking alcohol and smoking pot after his parents separated when he was 13. Those substances eventually transitioned to ecstasy and cocaine and – finally – heroin.

He left DeVry College after one semester and for a time worked at a restaurant, where the routine became collect tips, buy drugs for the next day, get high, go to work high, repeat.

When Delaney was 20, some of his friends told his parents about his substance abuse. He quit. He went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He went to SUNY Cortland.

Then he started drinking again. Soon, he was doing lines of coke. His relationship with his girlfriend at the time went downhill.

“That brought up a lot of old feelings that I have of feeling inadequate and just made my addiction really bad,” Delaney said. “I started using cocaine every single day.”

After two years and multiple overdoses – finally sick of feeling terrible all the time – Delaney came home and entered Narcotics Anonymous again. He’s now been drug and alcohol free for nearly 13 years.

But Delaney has only been out of the grips of active addiction since May. That’s because casual fantasy sports betting with friends turned into a compulsion in his early 30s. It started in 2017 when he and Kelly, 36, and their two children, now 4 and 7, were living with Delaney’s family in Long Island. They wanted to buy their own place and as they began the process of finding a new home, Delaney, who makes good money as a truck driver, started to worry.

“Those feelings started to come up where it was like, ‘Am I doing enough for my family?’ ‘Am I even worth having my family?’ ‘Do I deserve to have my wife, Kelly?’”

That’s when casual fantasy sports became an obsession.

“I was just chasing this money and hoping that gaining some type of large win would be fulfilling enough or show that I was a success enough and that I deserve to have the people in my life,” he said.

Instead, the betting became a secret – a secret so deep that Delaney couldn’t even tell Kelly when he won.

“Even when I would win larger amounts, I would try to win more. And once I would lose that, now I start to freak out,” Delaney said. “Then I’m losing thousands more and I’m just trying to get back to zero before my life implodes,” Delaney said.

When he and Kelly were looking into a buying home, Delaney’s credit score was unusually low. That’s how Kelly found the credit cards her husband had opened and saw charges from betting sites repeated on statements.

Kelly, who is now studying to be a licensed mental health therapist in part because she’s seen the value of mental health care in learning to process her own experience as an affected other to Delaney’s addictions, said her focus at the time was escaping Long Island, starting a new life in a new home. She gave Delaney another chance.

Initially, it worked. They moved to Ballston Spa and started to settle into their new life. But then the water heater broke. The fence needed to be repaired.

“I could see all these things, all these big expenses coming up, and so it was once again if I can’t afford this, is she going to leave?” Delaney said. “It was the worst decision that I could have made, but I tried again to win a large sum of money.”

He borrowed from his 401k. He maxed out credit cards.

“It’s almost like a drug. It’s an adrenaline rush that you want to chase. But the thing I found similar was this inability to stop when everything in me was telling me to stop,” Delaney said. “Every rational part of you is telling you this is either going to kill you or it’s going to destroy your life.”

Kelly eventually found an email from a daily fantasy operator that made her realize her husband was betting again. She took the kids and went to Long Island for a few days. She thought about leaving Delaney. But then Kelly realized that she and her husband could get through it together.

“I was like how can you hold onto this big secret, but at the same time I was kicking myself because I had seen so many changes in him in the last year after we moved into our house. He seemed more stressed, more irritable. He wasn’t sleeping as much. So it was almost like maybe I didn’t want to see something happening,” Kelly said. “Maybe I might have known something was going on, but I didn’t address it. This really forced me to look at myself and realize the part that I played in this, which isn’t always easy.”

Delaney placed his last bet on May 2.

KIDS ARE AT HEIGHTENED RISK

In New York state, many kids are exposed to gambling early on. In fact, 39% of kids ages 12 to 17 gamble over the course of a year, according to a 2015 report by the New York Council on Problem Gambling. Prevention specialists, clinicians and people with lived experience like Delaney worry that mobile sports betting could significantly increase these somewhat dated numbers, opening the floodgates to addiction in general, and putting young people at increased risk.

Calls and messages to superintendents of several school districts in Montgomery, Fulton, and Saratoga counties were not returned during the holiday week, or resulted in responses saying that mobile gambling among students wasn’t a known problem.

But advocates fear it may be a matter of time. A main reason for the concern about young people is that mobile sports betting makes gambling more accessible – even though you have to be 21 to legally bet on sports in New York. In addition, experts worry that mobile sports betting can feel more like a game than a reality, hooking young people whose developing brains are not yet equipped to make fully rational decisions.

“With mobile sports betting, it’s like having a casino in your pocket,” said Richards, with the Northeast Problem Gambling Resource Center. “You could do it at the dinner table, you can do it at the dentist’s office. So the temptation is there.”

The advertising blitzes on social media have also been relentless.

“From the current clients that I’m working with, they have expressed their concerns. It has become a struggle to manage being triggered by the intense advertising marketing of that campaign. It’s in your face and it does take some steps to separate yourself,” said Helen Lynch, LCSW-R, whose caseload includes clients referred from the Northeast Problem Gambling Resource Center. “So I’m concerned, especially with our younger population who are definitely more connected to their phones and to electronics.”

Lynch also said the fact that there is no cash involved with mobile betting makes it feel less real for her clients.

“I’ve had clients talk about how it doesn’t even feel real in the moment because you’re not actually touching your money. It’s clicking buttons, and the next thing they know their accounts are zero,” Lynch said.

That untethering from reality can make betting feel more like playing video games, which makes for an all-too-easy transition from playing for fun to playing for keeps, said Richards.

All of these risk factors can take their toll on undeveloped brains.

Stelianos Canallatos, a prevention specialist at the New York Council on Problem Gambling, said brains can become dependent on the rush of gambling in the same way they can become dependent on substances.

“Because even though there is not a “chemical” involved, the brain gets so attached to that high, that adrenaline, that dopamine explosion of the excitement that something could happen. It’s not even whether they win or lose at that point. It’s the excitement, the rush,” Canallatos said. “So if youth are experiencing that explosion of dopamine as their brains are still developing, they are going to make the connection of ‘this feels good. When I’m not happy, I should do this to feel better.’”

That’s why the New York Council on Problem Gambling focuses on prevention.

“When there is more accessibility, there is a higher probability of more problems. So for instance, if I’m trying to slim down, if I’ve got Twinkies and coffee cakes sitting on my counter, they are more accessible,” Canallatos said.

He said his work focuses on education efforts to let people know that gambling can be a problem and to try to change environments so gambling isn’t as present. This could be as simple as encouraging adults to not hold raffles at community events, Canallatos said.

“My main point is to try to reduce the amount of exposure that youth has to gambling,” he said.

Canallatos said gambling is a common part of many cultures, making it that much more difficult for people to see it as a problem.

Compounding the issue is the fact that gambling addiction can be less obvious than other types of addiction.

“There aren’t really a lot of outward signs,” Richards said. “If I had an alcohol problem and I showed up to work after drinking you would notice me slurring my words. But if I have a problem with gambling, I could have just blown my paycheck or spent my rent money, and you wouldn’t necessarily know that.”

TALKING HELPS

New York state taxes mobile sports betting at a rate of 51%. In the first month of mobile sports betting, the state collected $70.6 million in tax revenue, according to the governor’s release. In the first fiscal year of mobile sports betting, 1% of the tax revenue will go to the state’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports, which will focus on increasing public awareness about how to prevent underage gambling, the signs of problem gambling, and where to find treatment, according to a spokesperson for the department. In subsequent years, the agency will get $6 million a year from mobile sports betting tax revenue, the spokesperson said.

This funding will help support organizations like the Northeast Problem Gambling Resource Center. The center connects people with individualized treatment that involves clinicians like Lynch talking with clients about everything from how to stop gambling to how to maintain relationships.

Treatment can include elements like referrals to Gamblers Anonymous, peer-to-peer mentoring and even supports geared toward veterans.

But, in addition to more traditional types of treatment, Delaney and many others have turned to podcasting.

“GA didn’t work so much for me, so I started doing podcasting, which really helped me to hear other people’s stories and not feel alone,” said Delaney, who produces the “Fantasy or Reality? The GPP” podcast. His wife, Kelly, produces the “I, Butterfly; A Podcast for Affected Others,” which is geared toward spouses, family members and others who have been impacted by someone’s gambling.

Brian Hatch is a leader in the gambling addiction podcast space. He developed a casino gambling addiction at 18. A series of ups and downs – including spending a $4,000 check that his grandfather had given him to pay for community college – eventually resulted in bankruptcy and gambling debts nearing $100,000.

Always interested in improv and stand-up comedy, Hatch decided to start his own podcast 6 months after placing his final bet at the Bellagio in Las Vegas in July 2014. Hatch, 39, is now coming up on his 300th episode of “All In: The Addicted Gambler’s Podcast,” on which he interviews people with lived experience as well as prevention and treatment experts.

“There have been times in the past where I wanted to stop doing it, but I’m sure if I stopped I would have looked for another outlet, and that would have been gambling,” Hatch said. “It’s my number one thing that has kept me from gambling. And I think a lot of other people have started podcasts for the same reason.”

On the podcast, which he says gets about 500 to 1,000 downloads per episode, Hatch and his guests drill into the nitty gritty of gambling addiction and recovery. Hatch also discusses problems like the fact that financial support for gambling addiction assistance comes from the very industry that enables it, as well as policies he’d like to see implemented, including limits on gambling that can be done via credit card.

“An hourlong episode is filled with details,” Hatch said. “It’s sort of a warm introduction. If you don’t want to call the 800 number right away, you can listen to the podcast and see what other people have done.”

Lynch said an outlet like podcasting can provide great benefit for people with gambling addiction.

“The access to people is so profound,” she said. “A lot of clients have also expressed an interest [in podcasting] because of the positivity of being able to connect.”

Delaney said Hatch helped him start his own podcast. And after worrying all his life about people rejecting him, podcasting has allowed Delaney to feel accepted by others and to accept them, as well.

Delaney and Kelly have two young children, and while the parents keep conversations age appropriate, they don’t conceal much from their kids.

“The more open you are the better,” Delaney said.

Podcasting is very much part of that.

“We don’t hide anything. We talk about going to see our therapists. So we’re kind of normalizing it from a young age. It’s OK to be open about your feelings,” Delaney said.

Kelly said she hopes their children will talk to them if they are ever in trouble.

“We hope that if they do end up having their own addictions that they feel comfortable coming to us,” she said. “It’s important for us to make sure that our kids realize that they have support behind them.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Saratoga County, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

2 Comments
niskyperson February 28, 2022
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wait a second, if the state can charge 51% tax (arbitrarily – who came up with that number) – can an individual who loses money take a deduction at a 51% equivalent dollar value? that does not seem fair.

niskyperson February 28, 2022
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so the state makes more than the bookie? what type of racket is that?