Arizona sees gambling addiction surge after sports betting is legalized

Gambling Arizona
Posted at 9:30 PM, Apr 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 15:34:40-04

PHOENIX — Sports betting is impossible to avoid in Arizona. The constant commercials, billboards, and targeted mobile ads are designed to get you signed up and gambling — and it is working, too.

Arizonans wagered more than $563 million in January alone. While the March numbers have not been released yet, they are expected to be even higher due to the NCAA basketball tournaments.

Every advertisement makes sports betting look like a fun, harmless activity but that is not the reality for millions of Americans.

The "National Council for Problem Gambling" estimates at least a million Americans have a gambling addiction.

In their recent report reviewing sports wagering and addiction, the experts concluded:" The rate of gambling problems among sports bettors is at least twice as high as among gamblers in general. When sports gambling is conducted online, the rate of problems is even higher, with one study of online sports gamblers indicating that 16% met clinical criteria for gambling disorder and another 13% showed some signs of gambling problems."

"What may have been, for most people, a very fun, entertaining activity has suddenly taken a dark turn - and they find themselves in financial trouble, personal trouble, even health-related issues," said Elise Mikkelsen, Director of the Arizona Division of Problem Gambling.

"It ruins relationships, it ruins lives, and it ruins our bank accounts."

Nikash is a junior at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

His goal is to "become an NBA [beat] writer."

Every day the 21-year-old is not only following the league's games — he is betting on them.

"I probably spend a lot more time cooking up parlays than studying in the books," said Nikash. "And it's unfortunate. It's like, 'Sorry, Mom and Dad.'"

While Nikash has a job and has a relatively small "unit" for each bet, $5, he acknowledges that "addiction" manifests in more ways than just time.

"It's consumed my life in a way...Like I could be spending that time working out and doing homework, anything else," said Nikash.

Studies have found young men are particularly susceptible to developing a gambling disorder.

"It definitely is an age group that are at higher risk, and we see the prevalence that supports that," said Mikkelsen. "So we know that's a group we need to be able to reach out to."

"A lot of kids our age, we're very impulsive," said Nikash. "I would say about 30% of my friends consistently gamble on a day-to-day basis."

Nikash says he has seen this impact other students.

"They get really sad, stressed, depressed."

He adds, "My friends that are under 21, they have to report to a bookie, and most of the time end up ghosting the bookie or they don't have the money."

"They haven't lost a wife yet, a job yet, a house yet, a car yet."

Rick Benson has seen all the ways gambling addiction can ruin lives.

He is a self-proclaimed "recovering gambler" who founded the Algamus Gambling Treatment Center in Prescott.

"We are now seeing many young gamblers and they're all gambling on their smartphones," said Benson. 

Benson shared a story about when he realized the impact mobile sports betting was having on gambling disorders.

"I had three different families, parents, from three different states...ask me...'Can you please assist my son to enter and complete your treatment program during semester break'?" recalled Benson.

"[The] parents did not want them to suspend their college education, but felt that they were in vital need of gambling treatment." 

Both Benson and Mikkelsen are not advocating for a ban on all gambling and sports betting.

"I'm not an anti-gambling person. I believe that 95% of people in our society gamble under control, in safety and socially, and they have every right to do that," said Benson.

"What we know statistically is that the vast majority of people can gamble without having problems," said Mikkelsen. "There's a small minority that run into issues. "

Mikkelsen's small team oversees a help-line and 'Next Step' texting number. They work to get problem gamblers the resources needed to help them kick the addictive and destructive habit.

"In a typical year, we pay out more than a million dollars in treatment service fees," said Mikkelsen. "Anyone is able to come and receive services, both problem gamblers and what we call 'persons affected by problem gamblers.'"

The services are oftentimes covered.

"A lot of the persons who are looking for counseling services have very much reached a breaking point, financially," said Mikkelsen. "So, if you're not able to pay, we do subsidize those counseling services."

Most of the time, people are calling the helpline at their lowest point, but all the experts encourage people to seek help and intervention before hitting "rock bottom."

"A lot of times what we hear from the problem gambler is that they've reached a point where they are losing their home, they're losing their job, one of their family members has uncovered their debt, or their behavior has become apparent to someone else, and they're losing that relationship," said Mikkelsen, who notes that the office does not collect or share personal information.

"We were anticipating some increases"

When you consider the number of gamblers across Arizona, the state's helpline does not receive a high volume of calls.

In March 2021, they took 20 problem gambling calls, received 25 texts, and had four people sign up for motivational messaging services.

A year later though, the calls have more than tripled, the texts have doubled, and the motivational messaging was up to 13 people.

The trend is not likely to end anytime soon as sports betting continues to soar in popularity.

"People get themselves into enormous health, physical and financial desperation," said Mikkelsen. "Among all of the addictions, [gambling] has the highest rate of suicide."

The good news is Arizona already has an Office of Problem Gambling with a budget of more than $2 million.

"There are many states that do not have any resources available," said Mikkelsen.

All of that funding though is currently coming from casinos and the lottery.

None of the half-a-billion dollars wagered in January is going back towards treating the newest gambling addicts.

"It creates a moral, social, and ethical responsibility for the state to return some percentage of those revenue dollars for the purpose of information, education and treatment of the gambling disorder," said Benson.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Gaming said, "There would need to be a change in statute in order to allocate funds from sports betting revenues to the Division of Problem Gambling."

He also pointed out that a 2016 study from the National Council of Problem Gambling found Arizona ranked 17th out of 50 states when it came to funding problem gambling services.

Currently, up to 10% of sports betting revenues can be used as reimbursement to the Department of Gaming for the regulation of sports betting, while the remaining monies are transferred to the state general fund.

In January, the state received about $1.9 million in taxes from legalized sports betting. The state levies an 8% tax on retail wagers and 10% on mobile app bets.

Warning signs: "You have to be on the lookout for certain behaviors"

"It's just so easy to get wrapped up in a bet because it's everywhere - like every five seconds on a commercial," said Nikash. "They do a really good job of reeling you in."

Experts say there are usually signs that loved ones can look out for to help a problem gambler.

"We typically see people withdraw from family and friends," said Mikkelsen. "If the disappointment is heavier than just their team not winning, that can be a big signal that other things are going on...If they're borrowing more money, if valuables are missing, if they're cashing in on savings accounts, investments, insurance accounts -- those can all be key indicators."

Benson has other suggestions, too.

"If there's abnormal talk about gambling - like point spreads, betting lines, sportsbook websites, that's a potential red flag," said Benson. "If there's unaccounted-for dollars, too many or too little. That certainly represents a red flag."

The key, Benson says, is moderation and setting clear parameters.

"Not only have a financial budget but have a time budget," he said. "How long am I going to play today? And then how long will I play on Wednesday after I take tomorrow off and don't play at all? It starts with realizing that gambling is a true addiction."


If you, or someone you know, is in need of problem gambling services -- visit the Arizona Department of Gambling.

You can also text NEXTSTEP to 53342, or call 1-800-NEXT-STEP.

The sports betting companies and casinos also have self-exclusion measures in place.

There are also national resources through the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Call: 1-800-522-4700Chat:


Text: 1-800-522-4700