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The recent surge in sports gambling ads could be harmful, some gambling experts say

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The rituals of an annual Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby office pool are a distant memory for many sports fans. In much of the U.S., betting is now as easy as opening an app on your phone. The surge in sports betting has come with a surge in ads, with sportsbooks spending billions on TV commercials and billboards. And now some experts are worried the glut of advertisements could be harmful. NPR's Joe Hernandez has been doing some reporting on this. Hey, Joe.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: Start with just the why. Why have sports betting apps and ads seemed to take off so much in recent years?

HERNANDEZ: Right. Well, in 2018, the Supreme Court overturned a law prohibiting sports betting outside of Nevada, allowing any state to legalize it, and many have. Now 35 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized sports betting, and more could be on the way. So these companies are dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising. They're getting celebrities. They're offering promotions like risk-free bets or bonus bets. And sports betting right now is regulated at a state level, but there's not a lot going on. At a minimum, most of them are requiring some messages about gambling addiction resources. But there's no federal rules on sports gambling ads.

KELLY: OK, so no federal rules. And these concerns about gambling addictions, this is an age-old problem, of course. What's the new worry here?

HERNANDEZ: Well, the worry is just that people can't escape them. I mean, one group that's worried about is young people. So depending on the state, people under 21 or 18 who are prohibited legally from gambling. The other group is people with gambling problems or who are at risk of developing one. I talked to Vin Bickler. He is in recovery from a gambling problem and now answers to help line at the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. And he says he receives calls from people of all ages trying to stop betting on sports and online casinos with this barrage of ads.

VIN BICKLER: The advertising is just like the old beer ads and the cigarette ads that were on TV for years. It's the same situation, people being sucked into thinking that it's glamorous, thinking they're going to win, and they don't win.

HERNANDEZ: The National Problem Gambling Helpline Network got 270,000 inquiries last year, which was a 45% jump over the previous year. So some gambling addiction experts are calling for stricter regulation, things like not appealing to kids and other limits.

KELLY: Let me guess what the sports betting industry has to say about these calls for more regulation. They don't like it?

HERNANDEZ: They don't think they need it. I spoke to Casey Clark. He's senior vice president for the American Gaming Association, and he says the industry is capable of regulating itself.

CASEY CLARK: I don't think the federal government has a role to play in regulating this, and I think it would become challenging on a lot of levels.

HERNANDEZ: So the association has a set of voluntary standards that sportsbooks can follow when they're advertising, but, of course, they're voluntary. And some critics say there's precedent for regulation. The tobacco industry, for example, has its ads regulated by the U.S. government. And other countries regulate sports betting ads. Italy imposed a blanket ban on gambling ads, and the U.K. has blocked celebrities from appearing in ads, just to name a few.

KELLY: NPR's Joe Hernandez. Thank you, Joe.

HERNANDEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.