Only about one in five major public universities has policies in place to restrict sports betting or educate students about potential perils. A handful have sports betting platforms as corporate sponsors. Those companies have purchased the right to promote their brands at stadia and on university sports websites to students, many of whom are underage for legal betting.
That’s a concern for betting-addiction experts who cite years of research showing that college students are among the highest risk group for gambling addiction.
“Gambling on Campus” is a four-month investigation into a high-stakes balancing act for universities, one that requires officials to weigh the risks of legal sports betting to students against the financial rewards of those betting deals.
The investigation also explores a lack of transparency in relationships between universities and sports betting companies. A majority of public universities with betting partners shield their agreements from the public. By working through sports marketing companies that are private, they skirt public records laws.
The project includes five text stories, a video report, and several graphics. It was produced by students at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. More than a dozen student journalists participated in the project working from Maryland and on assignment in Boulder, Colorado.
That’s despite the aggressive expansion of sports gambling and abundant advertising at some college campuses — on scoreboards and banners at athletic events, on academic buildings and even in campus emails.
The Povich and Howard centers asked 145 Division I public universities in the states where sports betting is legal to share their campus policies addressing gambling. The centers could only confirm that 23% had published sports betting policies.
Mary Drexler, program director for the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said young adults “are at a higher risk … for developing a problem” with gambling.
“We would like to see more colleges and universities, if they don’t have a policy, [to] develop a policy,” Drexler said.
Among the universities that responded and have addressed gambling, bans on betting are rare.
Purdue University prohibits betting on Purdue sports. Stony Brook University in New York advises students that they may not gamble for money or other valuables on university property or in university facilities except as part of an authorized fundraising activity, essentially banning on-campus wagering.
Other policies don’t address differences between sports bets placed on or off campus. Some only address state law, while some prohibit gambling by student-athletes, based on NCAA policy.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said college students’ vulnerability to sports betting could be linked to a variety of factors, including interest in sports, belief in one’s own skill, and the underdevelopment of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps control impulsive behavior but isn’t fully developed until age 25.
Stelianos Canallatos, prevention manager for the New York Council on Problem Gambling, said he would advise colleges to prohibit gambling entirely since the legal age for gambling in most states is 21 and surveys show a majority of students at four-year universities are 21 and younger.
In studies conducted from 2007 to 2014, researchers found that 75% to 80% of college students had gambled in the past year. Opportunities to bet have expanded since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to sports betting in 2018.
The ruling of the Supreme Court left it to each state to decide whether to allow legal bets on sports events. According to the American Gambling Association, sports betting is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
The growth in betting has been explosive. Bettors wagered more than $57 billion on sports in 2021, according to the American Gambling Association, and college sports draw a big share of gamblers’ money. For example, in Colorado, bettors wagered more than $170 million on college basketball in February and March 2022, when conference and national tournaments are played.
Sportsbooks, which take in bets and pay out winnings, have marketed their platforms heavily and made deals with universities across the country.
Michigan State University and Louisiana State University have deals with Caesars Sportsbook, and the University of Maryland and University of Colorado Boulder have deals with PointsBet.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has a contract with DraftKings that includes an on-campus gaming innovation studio bearing the company’s name.
The four schools partnered with PointsBet and Caesars have agreements that go beyond ads in stadiums and on broadcasts. A campus-wide email campaign from Caesars targeted anyone on LSU Athletics’ email list, offering free bets for an initial wager. PointsBet has a banner ad that has shown up on the Maryland Athletics website’s homepage, one displaying a hook offering $500 in free bets.
The University of Colorado Boulder released details of an agreement negotiated with the sportsbook PointsBet in response to a public information request from the Povich and Howard centers. It included a $30 referral fee — since discontinued — to be paid to the university when someone used Colorado’s promo code to sign up, deposited money, and placed a bet.
In November, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut,, wrote a letter to Caesars CEO Tom Reeg criticizing Caesars’ advertising on college campuses.
“I call on you to end this disgraceful practice in order to protect students and prevent the irreparable harm that will be caused by Caesars’ marketing practices and college partnerships,” Blumenthal wrote.
The American Gambling Association, an industry lobbying group, publishes a “Responsible Marketing Code for Sports Wagering,” which member companies agree to follow.
The code says, “Sports wagering advertisements should not be placed in media outlets (including social media) that appeal primarily to those below the legal age for sports wagering, nor should they be displayed at an event venue where most of the audience at many of the events at the venue is reasonably expected to be below the legal age for sports wagering.”
The code also says sports betting should not be advertised or promoted on campus.
Neither Caesars nor PointsBet is a member of the AGA. Both companies have advertised during games — Caesars at LSU and Michigan State, PointsBet at the University of Maryland, and Colorado.
Tom McMillen, a former Maryland congressman who played basketball at the University of Maryland and in the NBA, told the Povich and Howard centers that he sees gambling as a danger to college athletics.
He said there is a “100% probability” that a major sports betting scandal will occur one day.
There’s already evidence that, despite an NCAA prohibition, college athletes bet on sports. A 2017 study showed that 24% of NCAA male athletes bet on sports and 13% reported in-game betting, a type of bet that is more susceptible to what the NCAA calls “spot-fixing,” in which a particular play, not the entire game, is fixed to satisfy betting odds.
At Purdue, faculty, students, and staff have been banned from betting on Purdue sports teams since 2019, though sports betting is legal in Indiana.
Former Purdue University President Mitch Daniels acknowledged enforcement is difficult. But in a November email to the Povich and Howard centers, he said the policy “seems to have been accepted university-wide.”
“No complaints. No allegations. No enforcement actions,” wrote Daniels, who stepped down in December. “We hope it stays that way.”
McMillen doubts it will.
“When it happens, when you do have a scandal, the president of the university will be flayed across the [newspaper],” McMillen said. “A gambling scandal … will subsume everything else good about the university.”
Victoria Ifatusin contributed to this story.
This story was produced by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. The Povich Center was established with a gift from the Povich family. The Howard Center is supported by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.
Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.