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Sports Betting Apps Are So Easy To Use It’s Terrifying

a sportsbook
Shannon Finney/Getty Images

I was a moron who didn’t read the terms and conditions of a gambling app I downloaded yesterday, and for a few hours I was forced to go full Uncut Gems mode on four completely random college basketball games. Luckily, I went 2-2 and thus escaped with only minor losses. But the very stupid, very stressful experience opened the eyes of an otherwise non-gambler to the unsettling fact that sports broadcasts (and sports media as a whole) have surrendered to a single-minded monster that wants to swallow all your money as quickly as possible.

It started, as trouble often does, with Defector Deputy Editor Barry Petchesky. Barry is, by a significant margin, the most enthusiastic gambler in this site’s New York contingent, and he was extremely excited when the state legalized online sports betting earlier this month. By his own account, he’s made quite a nice profit, and he quickly took to alerting the rest of us to a big promo that could be taken advantage of—$3,000 in bonus money to new sign-ups, subject to a bunch of technicalities that includes matching that amount with a deposit of the same value.

I was a completely naive gambler, experienced only in Super Bowl squares, NCAA brackets, and one season of NFL Sunday daily games. But I liked the idea of taking free money from the company that runs some of the most annoying and ubiquitous commercials on TV, so I gave it a shot. Where I was a fool, however, is that I didn’t realize it was against the rules to use the bonus money to bet, for example, both sides of an NBA over/under in an attempt to guarantee myself around $1500. (If I had been smarter, another Defector writer and I would have each done one side of the bet, with an agreement for the winner to split with the loser. Perhaps someone else can learn from my mistakes.)

So they voided my bet and took away my bonus money. But, fool that I was, before they did so, I used a large chunk of the profit I assumed I would soon receive to place a few more bets on SEC and ACC basketball. PLEASE don’t do this! Do not ever bet future winnings instead of present ones. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, they say! As a result of my impatience, greed and stupidity, I had a very real, very significant amount of my own money riding on these games, and I suffered just a small amount of damage only because Alabama couldn’t make free throws down the stretch, and LSU barely covered.

I’m struggling to say what I want to say without sounding preachy, but after years now of gradually absorbing more and more desperate appeals to get on my phone and gamble while watching sports, the empty, naked cash-grab that the experience proved to be was horrifying to this newbie. It was shockingly easy to give thousands of my own dollars over to this app, just by logging into my PayPal account. I was expecting a call from my bank at any minute asking, “What the fuck? Are you OK? Blink twice if someone has a gun to your head right now! Did you blink?” but instead all I got was one easily ignored pop-up in the app amounting to, basically, “Be careful!”

And while the app itself could be a little clunky and slow at times (it was the Caesars one, for transparency’s sake), the frictionless way that I was able to give away my savings on there felt extraordinarily dangerous. Once the money was in my account, I could put up hundreds of dollars in less time than I’ve ever ordered a pizza, or even pulled up a movie to stream. In my very first time ever using the app, it took me six minutes to place four bets, and that was with a bit of strategic consideration on my part. I literally cannot think of a faster way for the average person to spend large sums of money, and now it’s just a few taps away for Americans with a smart phone in a growing number of states.

I don’t believe sports gambling should be illegal, but I wish it would chill out just a bit, in the same way that I think cigarettes should be available to purchase but shouldn’t be advertised where kids can see. I’m disturbed by every other sports outlet, from ESPN to The Athletic, getting in on the scheme, taking a piece of the action from the casinos under the guise of giving their readers and viewers sound, friendly advice. I’m sick of the sitcom actors at every TV timeout lying to me about how fun betting is and how much cash is just waiting for me, a few taps away, if I register now. More simply, I’m exhausted by the endless exhortations to spend, win! spend, win! whenever I just want to think about some dang hockey.

If you do derive pleasure from betting on sports, I’m sorry if it seems like I’m being hard on you. It’s cool if the adrenaline rush is a feature to you, not a bug, and it’s even cooler if you’re part of the very small percentage of gamblers who can be profitable in the long run. Lord knows I have my own silly interests and ways of spending money, from vintage t-shirts to vinyl records. But I do not appreciate how a thing I love—sports—has become impossible to experience without interference from this soulless machinery. The suddenness with which I could have surrendered the equivalent of a month’s rent, almost by accident, only deepened that dread. And I know all the companies behind these apps won’t rest until the gambling process is even more efficient and widespread. The act of placing a bet is by no means an evil one, but if sports are increasingly going to be leveraged as an entry point from which casinos can dig into our wallets, it will only become harder to enjoy them on their own terms.