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Sports betting surges in Oregon as experts caution against the risks of digital gambling

The DraftKings app as it appears in Oregon on February 7, 2023. The product has become one of the Lottery's most popular products in recent years.
OPB Staff
The DraftKings app as it appears in Oregon on February 7, 2023. The product has become one of the Lottery's most popular products in recent years.

It’s a new, lucrative revenue stream for a state heavily reliant on Lottery dollars, but critics argue it’s hooking a younger generation on a particularly dangerous form of gambling.

The Super Bowl was in Las Vegas for the first time on Sunday, and, as expected, it was a record-setting day for sportsbooks.

Sports betting, in general, has become a more mainstream part of American culture in recent years. Many stadiums even have on-site sportsbooks so fans can gamble on the game, at the game.

In Oregon, sports betting has quickly become one of the state Lottery’s most popular products since it first became legal in 2019, with the number of players increasing by 43% from 2022 to 2023.

Oregonians wagered more than $565 million on sports betting during the last fiscal year. That’s more than all the money spent on Powerball, Mega Millions, Keno and Scratch-it tickets combined. Bettors wagered an average of $5,603 total during the previous fiscal year, according to Oregon Lottery data.

It’s a new, lucrative revenue stream for a state heavily reliant on Lottery dollars, but critics argue it’s hooking a younger generation on a particularly dangerous form of gambling.

Amid a national trend, Oregon has a unique betting model

In Oregon, Lottery dollars make up the second-largest source of revenue outside the general fund.

Of the $565 million placed on bets last year, the state took home $55 million after prizes and other payouts. DraftKings, the sole sportsbook in the state, takes a 49% cut of the total revenue.

That’s a tiny fraction in the Lottery’s overall $1.67 billion net revenue, which is still dominated by video slot machines. But sportsbook revenue increased 72% in one year, according to a state audit of the Lottery’s finances, and has seen surging popularity each year.

And it appeals to a different type of player compared to other Lottery games — sports bettors tend to be younger, more affluent, more racially diverse and overwhelmingly male, according to Lottery data.

In fact, 88% of sports bettors in the state are under the age of 55, while that group comprises just 64% of all Lottery players.

Jeff Marotta, an associate professor at Oregon Health & Science University, has studied gambling addictions for years. He said the digital format of sports betting is attractive to young players that have grown up online.

“What this did is offer a new kind of product that is much more attractive to a younger audience, who are very comfortable engaging in transactions over the internet,” Marotta said.

Oregon, unlike many states, only offers sports betting online.

For experts and counselors on gambling addictions, that ease of access is concerning. With other lottery games like video slot machines, players have to walk or drive to a location and pay in cash.

But with DraftKings, bettors now have a sportsbook in their pockets at all times. Online gambling spiked in Oregon during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people could not leave their homes, according to a 2021 Oregon Health Authority study.


Marotta said those who gamble online are at a greater risk of developing problematic behaviors; it allows them to bet at any time of day and there is no need to use cash.

“Folks who are engaging in internet gambling — which here in Oregon we’re talking about sports betting primarily — are at much higher risk for developing gambling-related problems,” he said.

Melanie Mesaros, a Lottery spokesperson, said the agency advertises different controls players can use in both emails and in the DraftKings app.

Players can set time and wager limits on the app, or voluntarily lock themselves out of their account for a couple days, or for a year or longer. Lottery data shows about 6% of players have used these tools to some degree.

It’s unclear how many Oregonians are struggling with sports betting addictions. Experts say it can take several years for gambling addictions to fully manifest.

“Given that we’re only a few years into this legalized realm, we’re still kind of in that sine wave of people experiencing consequences extreme enough to recognize that support might be needed,” said Brian Ward, a certified gambling recovery mentor in Gresham.

Not for the first time

The Oregon Lottery has long had an interest in some form of legal sports gambling. In 1989, the Lottery introduced Sports Action, an in-person lottery for bets on NFL games, with the money collected used to fund intercollegiate athletics in Oregon.

The Lottery even held a pep rally in downtown Portland — complete with cheerleaders and a marching band — to promote the new game, with staff on hand to explain point spreads to would-be bettors. Even after the U.S. Congress outlawed sports betting in much of the country in 1992, Oregon was one of only a handful of states to offer any sports gambling product.

Prior to the Legislature banning it in 2005, it was the only state-sponsored sports betting product in the country.

It bore little resemblance to how DraftKings and the Lottery operate today. Players picked games on a piece of paper and submitted the slips in person, similar to Keno. The more games one guessed correctly, the higher the payout.

Sports Action was controversial from the start. The NCAA refused to use Portland’s Rose Garden for its basketball tournaments as long as the state had a sports lottery, and the NFL said Oregon would never be considered for an expansion team. Since then perception of gambling in Oregon — and across the country — has fundamentally changed, with leagues rushing to attract gambling dollars.

Marotta said the legalization of sports betting has softened attitudes toward gambling as a whole. Sports leagues, television companies and state legislators once saw it as taboo, but it’s now become the source of millions of dollars for all of those parties.

“Gambling, especially sports betting, has become a much more normalized feature within our culture,” Marotta said.

One player’s experience

Damian Altamirano’s experience with sports gambling started in an unexpected place — online video games.

A die-hard sports fan, the Molalla resident for many years played in tournaments for the Madden NFL video game series, which offered large cash prizes to winners. Players, he said, were encouraged to purchase “packs,” which offered additional digital football players to make one’s team better and increase chances of winning.

“You might spend $100 on a pack, and you might get something really good that nobody else got or you might get essentially nothing,” Altamirano said. “It feels like you’re kind of being conditioned to sports bet.”

After seeing one of the many advertisements for sports betting apps, he began playing as a way to potentially make some extra money. He never gambled on sports before, but it soon turned from a hobby into something of a part-time job.

Altamirano said he spends between two to three hours a night researching upcoming bets, and regularly wagers hundreds or thousands of dollars on individual bets, up to $10,000 on one Super Bowl game.

He said the digital sportsbook makes it easy to lose track of how much you’re spending, and it’s even easier to get sucked in and make increasingly risky bets.

“You almost take for granted how much money you’re risking,” Altamirano said. “The money doesn’t necessarily even feel real.”

One of the largest downsides for him is that he no longer watches sports that often. Having money on the line made the games far too stressful and emotional.

“I used to be what you would call a pure sports fan, like I would watch any sports in general,” he said. “Since I started betting, I don’t look at it the same way. You can’t get into it the same way — you don’t have any skin in the game.”

Could there be betting on collegiate sports?

There have been efforts in recent years to legalize betting on collegiate sports in Oregon, one of the few states to outlaw collegiate gambling entirely. Proponents argue legalizing college betting and opening up the market to other sportsbooks could unlock more dollars for the Lottery.

State Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, chairs the House’s Gambling Regulation Committee and said he expects gambling on college sports will eventually be legal throughout Oregon. But he said it likely won’t happen for a few years, as it’s a contentious issue between the state and the tribal casinos, the only entities that offer such bets in the state.

“If we were to expand that to college betting, we would indeed be moving revenue that’s now in those casinos and more would be coming to the state,” Lively said. “We’re not in a position to want to do that at this point.”

Lively said he also believes that online gambling will become the norm, and that there’s an increasing need for legislators to step in and regulate where necessary. He expects it will become a bigger focus during the 2025 Legislative session.

“Even though it’s a very small percentage of our total gaming revenues, it’s becoming more important. And as it grows faster, we’ll be more and more concerned with what the controls are,” he said.

Lottery spokesperson Melanie Mesaros said the agency currently has no plans to offer more online products.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.