If roughly 10% of young adults plunk down sports bets at least once a week, is that a stark red flag of future addiction or a healthy green light for the state’s legal gambling enterprise? It may be in the eye of the beholder.

One year into legalized sports gambling and growing concern about its impact on the young, a new CommonWealth Beacon/GBH News poll (toplines, crosstabs) doesn't paint a clear-cut apocalyptic picture.

Of the 30% of 18- to 29-year olds who say they have placed a sports bet in the last year, most say they only occasionally bet and generally place bets for less than $20. Yet about a fifth of those who bet in the last year said they bet more than once a week, and another fifth said they did so about once a week.

“Certainly, it could be worse, but it can most certainly always be better,” said Marlene Warner, CEO of the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, which helps identify and address problem gambling.

“Right or wrong, I have job security because there are people who make the choice to gamble, and gambling takes people to places that they don't want to go to,” Warner said. “Most people can gamble in safety, and we put a lot of measures in place to keep them there. But there will always be vulnerable people for whom gambling becomes an at-risk behavior, and then problematic, and then maybe all the way to the disordered level. And so the goal is to keep the products as safe as we can.”

Warner joined Attorney General Andrea Campbell last week to announce a coalition of state officials, gambling support groups, and sports teams dedicated to addressing the perils of youth gambling. The coalition is particularly worried about advertising targeting those too young to legally place bets, hoping to counter pro-sports betting messaging with the help of well-known athletes and an educational curriculum.

Charts showing how often men, women, white people and non-white people place sports bets. The most frequent bettors are men and non-white people.
Steve Koczela MassINC Polling Group

Warner said the poll of 1,002 Massachusetts residents, conducted by the MassINC Polling Group from March 21-29 squares with demographic trends across the country on sports betting.

The biggest split isn’t on age — 30- to 45-year-olds report more betting than the younger group — but gender. Men said they had placed sports bets at more than twice the rate of women across all age brackets (35% vs. 14%). Non-white respondents and men between 18 and 29 reported the highest frequency of sports betting, with a quarter of those who placed sports bets in those groups saying they bet more than once a week.

The gender divide held across most forms gambling, according to the poll. More men said they played Keno, purchased Mega Million or Powerball tickets, placed a bet in a casino, or bet on horse racing. Women narrowly edged men out in just one gaming vice: 69% of women and 66% of men said they have purchased scratch or lottery tickets.

A table of how popular different betting types are by demographic. Scratch tickets are most popular overall, with particular appeal among women, white people, and those over 30 years old.
Steve Koczela MassINC Polling Group

Notwithstanding the flashing lights and ringing bells, casinos are not necessarily a big winner with young millennials and older Gen Z-ers. Only a quarter of those 18-29 placed a bet in casinos over the last year, but 30% have placed a sports bet. Respondents aged 30 and older did both in roughly the same proportion.

Though Massachusetts restricts casino and sports gambling to those 21 and older, 18 is the minimum age for gambling in neighboring Rhode Island and New Hampshire, meaning poll respondents aged 18 to 20 could have gambled legally after a quick jaunt across the border.

Poll results suggest not many members of the younger demographic availed themselves of the sports betting option before it became legal. Just 25% of the young adult age bracket said they placed sports bets before it was legalized in Massachusetts. More older respondents said they had bet on sports prior to legalization, with almost half of those over 44 years old saying they had placed such bets.

Bar charts showing 50% of men admitted betting on sports before it was legal, compared to 22% of women.
Steve Koczela MassINC Polling Group

It follows that the younger group also reported the most change in wagering habits once sports betting was legalized. Some 47% of those in the 18-29 age range that placed bets said they bet more now, as opposed to 40% or less in the other age brackets.

“It takes a while to observe that kind of thing when you're legalizing any vice,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. “You think about marijuana legalization, where the question there is, ‘is it going to make more people use marijuana, or is it going to make people use it more safely, or will it replace other illegal drugs?’ All those same questions really are present when it comes to sports betting.”

A common critique of gambling — from betting on the ponies to wishing on a Powerball — is that it disproportionately banks on lower-income, less educated players. Sports betting scrambles that equation. Those making over $150,000 a year were the most likely (35%) to say they placed a sports bet in the last year. When ranked by educational attainment, people with bachelor’s degrees were most likely to place bets (26%), while those with advanced degrees were least (22%).

Most players indicated they bet less than $20 on average across income brackets, and pluralities of each income bracket estimated that the largest bet they placed was between $100 and $500.

“I think that's the hard part,” Warner said. “I just feel like $20 to a cash-strapped, on-scholarship college student in downtown Boston is different than $20 to somebody who's working a full-time job and has some discretionary income.”

The poll also explored interest in expanding the state’s dominant gambling enterprise: the Lottery. The latest UMass Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences study found that survey respondents in 2021 and 2022 reported spending the largest proportion of money they wager (42%) on the Lottery, followed by casinos at 21%.

“It is interesting that respondents reported spending a substantial amount on sports betting (16%), although only daily fantasy sports (DFS) was legal in Massachusetts at the time of the survey,” the authors noted.

The for-profit casinos and sports betting products are generally taxed either 20% or 25% of gross gambling revenue. According to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the state has collected about $1.7 billion in taxes and assessments from casinos since they opened, starting in 2015, and $118.6 million from sports betting since its launch in 2023.

After billions of Lottery winnings and operating costs are paid out, the remaining profit is directed back into local aid to the tune of more than $1 billion year over year. But the state treasurer, the governor, and the House have said there’s room for boosting that revenue even more.

The boom in sports betting apps has become central to the ongoing push to sell Lottery tickets online.

Because there has been a surge in online sports betting and workaround lottery services that let a person order a lottery ticket online that someone will then purchase at a brick-and-mortar shop, Lottery officials say they need to move online as well to reach a more tech-savvy gaming population eager to gamble from the comfort of their phones.

“When you’re the number one operator in your business environment, do you sit on your laurels and let other newbies come in and step all over your business? That’s where we’re at,” state Treasurer Deb Goldberg said at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event last fall. “Sports betting, online daily fantasy sports, is online now. We’ve got Jackpocket online delivering lottery tickets. Mass. state Lottery is not available online. Strategically, there is no logic to me whatsoever, given they’re all for-profit, they’re not giving money back to the local communities.”

But the younger players are also — as elected officials and gaming officials alike note — more likely to fall into long-term habits that could put their finances, health, and social well-being at risk.

Campbell has been outspoken about the need for more attention focused on youth gambling. The attorney general “doesn’t oppose the online lottery but believes it needs to be done safely and responsibly,” spokeswoman Molly McGlynn said Monday. The attorney general’s office is still looking for information on the types of games being proposed, how they would be marketed to consumers, and how addictive elements would be mitigated, McGlynn said.

The office “has been right out of the gate demanding responsible conduct from sports gaming operators,” McGlynn said, and “must demand that at least equally from the state.”

Half of respondents to the CommonWealth Beacon/GBH News poll said they favor a proposal that would allow the Lottery to sell its products online to customers aged 18 and over.

The poll found a substantial age and gender split on the question, with 63% of men between 30 and 44 and 60% of 18- to 29-year-old men at least somewhat favoring the move. Women, by contrast, lagged men by more than 10 percentage points in both age ranges. Respondents over 60 were decidedly more ambivalent, opposing online Lottery by 47% to 40%.

How Massachusetts would respond to the online lottery, Warner said, would depend on the ultimate pitch. Gov. Maura Healey’s budget once again includes an online lottery provision, with the House budget set to be unveiled on Wednesday. Senators have been lukewarm on the idea for years, but appeared more open to it after the last budget cycle.

If it’s a matter of reaching players where they’re at — on their phones — that can up the general gambling risk. A 2022 study published in International Gambling Studies determined that more frequent and higher betting amounts, as well as regularly playing multiple games, raise the chance of gambling-related harms.

Based on data from other states, Warner said, there doesn’t seem to be a one-to-one relationship between sports betting enthusiasts and online Lottery fans, even though there is some demographic overlap in age and gender.

“When you see one place increase its exposure and its access to people who are interested in gambling as a pastime, then the others want to be included,” Warner said. “So I don't know that there's a ton of overlap in terms of players, but I think that there's an interest in wanting to continue to bring revenue in multiple areas.”

This story was originally published by CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.