November 22, 2015 | The New York Times
For Addicts, Fantasy Sites Can Lead to Ruinous Path
AUBURN, Ala. — A giant cardboard picture, tattered by time, rests against a wall in Joshua Adams’s home. It shows a radiant young woman with an Auburn University corsage hugging the university’s mascot, a tiger. She is Auburn’s homecoming queen — and Mr. Adams’s mother.
The university dominates this city of 60,000, with football its spiritual center. And as Mr. Adams will attest, sports competition extends beyond the field. “Betting for me started when I was 13 years old,” he said, adding that bookies were never hard to find.
Years later, Mr. Adams relished joining his college pals in Atlanta, where they would throw a modest sum of money into a pot and select their fantasy football teams for a season-long competition. “It was one of the most fun days of the year,” he said. “People were getting married and having kids, and this was the one time we would all come together.”
By then, Mr. Adams knew he had a gambling problem, but games with a single payout after the season did not seem to him like gambling. It was very different, though, when the action became daily, offering quick payouts, hundreds of bets each day and six-figure cash prizes. Mr. Adams called it “a game changer” — and counselors say they are seeing people like Mr. Adams and are expecting many more.
“It would be akin to an alcoholic finding out about a whole new street of bars that he never knew about — exciting, great bars,” he said. “For an addict, it wasn’t what I needed.” Mr. Adams said he had lost $20,000 in daily fantasy games and tens of thousands more in illegal sports bets. His life, consumed by gambling, disintegrated to where he considered suicide.
Mr. Adams’s story, and others like it, have been largely absent from the cacophony of voices debating whether fantasy sports — an unregulated multibillion-dollar industry financed by media companies, hedge funds and professional sports organizations — constitutes gambling.
The fantasy companies say their daily games are not gambling, contending that the games involve more skill than luck. “Our product is all about entertainment value,” said Matt King, chief financial officer of FanDuel, one of the largest daily fantasy sports providers.
Increasingly, that view is coming under attack, notably by New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman. Two weeks ago, Mr. Schneiderman ordered FanDuel and its major competitor, DraftKings, to stop accepting bets from New Yorkers because their games constituted illegal gambling under state law. Both companies are contesting that order in court.
For people like Mr. Adams, now in his mid-30s, this battle is about more than just the letter of the law. In the unregulated world of fantasy sports, it is also about the absence of safeguards to protect problem gamblers and younger adults.
“Absolutely it is gambling,” said Mr. Adams, who holds a master’s degree in rural sociology and considers himself a child of privilege. “I wish I never would have gotten back into playing fantasy sports, because for me, and I think for compulsive gamblers, it leads us right back into a destructive state.”
Fantasy games appeal to the demographic most likely to develop gambling problems — young men, who researchers say are more prone to taking risks. FanDuel readily admits that it targets millennials.
Fantasy contests have become so popular, and their advertisements so ubiquitous, that gambling counselors say young children are now playing with their fathers or, in some cases, by themselves. Neva Pryor, who counsels gamblers in New Jersey, said that at a recent conference, teachers were saying that on Monday mornings, “all the students talk about is fantasy sports.”
Most people can play daily fantasy or casino games without a problem. “I know there are people that can do it normally,” Mr. Adams said, but he is not one of them. He also acknowledges that he ultimately bears responsibility for his addiction.
Yet gambling counselors say they could more easily help people like Mr. Adams if fantasy companies did not portray their games as involving mostly skill. That alone is a risk for addiction, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
“The perception of skill has led many, many people down a very dark path,” he said.
The difference between regulated and unregulated betting is evident in the websites of casinos and fantasy companies.
Because online betting is legal in New Jersey, the Borgata casino can offer Pick the Pros, where players must select winning football teams for a shot at $200,000. Borgata’s home page includes the note, “Gambling Problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER.” That number connects to a help hotline.
With problem gamblers, the Borgata said, “We believe it is our responsibility to offer information and assistance.”
In contrast, fantasy players may bet thousands of dollars a day, yet neither FanDuel nor DraftKings mentions 1-800-GAMBLER on its website. “We have consistently urged them to list our help line and website,” Mr. Whyte said. Mr. Adams said his first step toward breaking his addiction had occurred when he saw the 1-800 number — but it was not on a fantasy sports site.
In the wake of the New York attorney general’s legal challenge, DraftKings changed its website a week ago to warn that playing fantasy sports could be a “stress-inducer.” But the word “gambling” does not appear, nor does the help line. Instead, the company refers players to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a research group funded in part by the casino industry.
That group “is not a consumer protection advocate,” Mr. Whyte said. “They do good research and are a fine group, but they don’t provide direct services to problem gamblers like we do.”
FanDuel said in a statement: “In any nascent, disruptive industry, important questions are often raised about how the industry should operate. Fantasy sports is no different, and we are reviewing our policies and practices to ensure consumers have a positive experience on our site.” The company said it already had a process by which players could opt out of games.
DraftKings issued a statement saying “we are continuously optimizing our site to ensure our product is best in class and this includes consumer protections.”
Players who bet excessively are usually the last to recognize it, underscoring the need, counselors say, for fantasy sites to list warning signs, such as lying about time or money lost to betting.
Mr. Adams said he routinely lied to get money — for example, telling his parents he needed a new roof. “I don’t know how many roofs I’ve put on my house,” he said.
Problem gamblers also deceive themselves, believing their luck will turn.
“What’s interesting about daily fantasy, the way the marketing works, is that you have new winners every day or every weekend,” said Daniel Trolaro, who educates people on compulsive gambling. “So for the problem gambler who thinks that he or she is simply one bet away from winning back and solving their problems, they have ample opportunity on a daily basis to do that.”
Even gamblers who have decided to stop playing fantasy sports have trouble breaking away.
Jennifer Alfert, a certified gambling counselor in Boca Raton, Fla., said a client who had quit gambling confided that, in September, DraftKings had offered to let him play for free if he signed up a friend — which he did, and he won $35.
“Rather than wait for a relapse,” Ms. Alfert said, “I opted to intervene.” So in October, she said, she asked her client, whom she identified only by his first name, Matt, to ask DraftKings to block his access.
“I no longer wish to be able to bet,” Matt told the company in an email. “Additionally I would like the balance of my winnings in the form of a check to a cause to help gamblers.”
Instead of acting promptly upon his request, DraftKings emailed him promotional materials that included statements like: “You Scored Big! Your invite is inside: Claim your FREE Entry” and “We’ve selected you for this! Your shot at winning $100K tonight.”
Matt has yet to receive his money, Ms. Alfert said.
On Thursday, Massachusetts joined Nevada and New York in seeking to corral fantasy betting. But while Nevada and New York have banned daily fantasy games, Massachusetts opted to regulate it by proposing safeguards.
The attorney general, Maura Healey, said in a statement that the regulations were intended to protect minors and to ensure fair competition and truthful advertising.
Massachusetts will no longer allow anyone under age 21 to play daily fantasy sports. Operators say they accept only players who are 18 or older, but players as young as 14 are playing daily fantasy, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. The Times interviewed a player who began betting at 15.
The council’s director, Neva Pryor, said fantasy sites should require players to prove their age with a driver’s license. “There’s no age control, really,” Ms. Pryor said. “You can simply open an account in your name, check a box, and put in whatever age you want to put in.” Parents have opened accounts for children.
Massachusetts also wants to limit how daily fantasy companies entice college students. DraftKings offers a fantasy college basketball competition and a chance to win a share of $1 million as the “Fantasy College Football World Champion.”
Under the state’s proposal, operators could no longer offer contests involving colleges.
Daily fantasy companies have until Jan. 22 to comment on the proposal. Both DraftKings and FanDuel have said they prefer Ms. Healey’s approach to Mr. Schneiderman’s.
FanDuel said Massachusetts’s approach “makes a tremendous amount of sense.” DraftKings offered a more tempered response. “While we do have some concerns with the draft regulations, we intend to work closely with the Attorney General’s office to ensure we are operating in the best interest of our customers,” the company said.
A Gambler’s Way Back
One day last week, Mr. Adams rolled up his sleeve to show a tattoo of a bar code and a date in May 2014. He wanted a reminder of the day he began to reclaim his life — his last bet.
It was on a tennis match, not that he knew much about tennis, nor about Japanese basketball. He bet on that, too. The bar code is a reminder of how much money he has lost.
Breaking his addiction required 25 days in a rehabilitation center and continuing meetings at Gamblers Anonymous. The final step of recovery is to help other gamblers, and that is why he is telling his story, of the people he hurt, of the lost days he can never recover.
“In Gamblers Anonymous, we talk about prison, insanity or death,” he said. “The three aren’t mutually exclusive. I think I was definitely on my way to all three of those places.”
In his early stages of recovery, he stopped watching sports, but he has started watching again. He confesses to some anxiety when he sees fantasy advertising, which he describes as having reached a “grotesque” level.
“That’s one thing that bothers me — when they say this year FanDuel is paying out over $200 million,” he said. “They leave out what they’re taking in. They don’t say that there are going to be more losers than winners.”
He added: “That’s dishonest.”