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Home ยป More than a game: Booming sports gambling industry brings increased calls for help across Pennsylvania – TribLIVE

More than a game: Booming sports gambling industry brings increased calls for help across Pennsylvania – TribLIVE

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Brandon knew he “pretty much hit rock bottom” last year when he picked up the phone to find help in fighting his decade-long gambling addiction.
The 32-year-old Irwin man has spent years trying to break free from the addiction he said largely started when he first visited Rivers Casino Pittsburgh after his 21st birthday. Despite attempts to stop, he said his addiction continued to grow as new forms of gambling, such as fantasy sports and online casinos, were legalized.
“During this whole period, it was just a huge secret,” said Brandon, who spoke to the Tribune-Review on the condition his last name not be used. “No one knew. My family had no idea what was going on. They thought I just liked to work. I had three jobs. They didn’t understand why I had three jobs. I had my bill money and then I had my gambling money, and no one knew about it.
“I felt like it was a self-centered disease at the time because nothing mattered. Lying was natural. As long as I could get that high and that rush, gambling was all that mattered.”
In June, he dialed 1-800-GAMBLER, the number for Pennsylvania’s 24-hour gambling addiction hotline. A call taker referred him to Jennifer Macioce, a certified gambling counselor who runs a private practice in Monroeville. After speaking with Brandon, Macioce referred him to Sage’s Army, an addiction recovery center with locations in Hempfield and Irwin. He now attends weekly sessions.
The middle of this month marked 90 days since Brandon last gambled.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 2 million Americans, or about 1% of the adult population, are estimated to meet the criteria for severe gambling problems each year. Another 4 million to 6 million people are considered to have mild or moderate gambling problems.
In Pennsylvania, thousands of people each year seek help for gambling addiction through the multistate hotline. The number has continued to increase since the legalization of internet gambling and sports betting, said Josh Ercole, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania. The hotline is operated by the Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gambling. The association runs the Center of Recovery, which manages calls for 12 to 15 states, including Pennsylvania.
Last year alone, 2,090 people in Pennsylvania called for help. Of those, 407 were related to internet gambling, 220 to sports and 345 to casinos, according to an annual report from the Council on Compulsive Gambling. That number is almost double the roughly 1,100 people who called seeking help in 2020. Of calls that year, 250 were related to internet gambling, 64 to sports and 172 to casinos.
Those numbers were exacerbated, Ercole said, by the covid-19 pandemic, which led to stay-at-home orders and left many people without work.
“You have new types of gambling that are widely popular, and then six months later the world shuts down. … You’re looking at, ‘Oh, I can still play casino games without having to go to the casino that’s closed? OK, I’ll log in here,’ ” Ercole said. “What we saw there was this kind of really interesting shift.”
By March 2020, people who would traditionally go to the casino began setting up online accounts. New users looking to fill their time began popping up on online platforms.
“Within a period of two or three weeks, we saw accounts like doubling and tripling across the state,” Ercole said. “It was crazy just how fast it happened. As you can imagine, a few months later we started to see helpline calls increase.”
Growing industry
Calls to the hotline traditionally have correlated with the growth of the state’s gambling industry, which took off in 2006 when Pennsylvania’s first casino, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, opened in Luzerne County.
After that, others began popping up. By 2009, Hollywood Casino at the Meadows — originally named The Meadows Racetrack and Casino — opened in Washington County, followed by Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Today, there are 16 casinos across the state, including Live! Casino Pittsburgh, which opened in 2020 at the Westmoreland Mall in Hempfield. The state’s newest casino, Hollywood Casino Morgantown, opened last year in Berks County.
By 2017, the state’s gambling industry saw another spike in interest after Pennsylvania became the fourth state after Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware to permit online betting.
A year later, Pennsylvania opened its first legal sportsbook after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prevented most states from legalizing sports betting. The decision to overturn the law came after New Jersey officials challenged the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Until then, Nevada was the only state allowed to accept wagers on the outcomes of games.
Pennsylvania, where sportsbooks took $6.5 billion in wagers last year, now has 13 retail sportsbooks, two off-track betting parlors that accept bets on other sports and more than six online betting apps available to consumers, according to Play Pennsylvania, an independent website covering legal and regulated gambling in the state. Sports betting is legal in 30 states plus Washington, D.C., according to the American Gaming Association.
That growth also brought an increase in calls for help.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling’s review of more than 140 studies, the rate of gambling problems among sports bettors is at least twice that of gamblers in general. With online sports betting, the problem is even higher. One study indicates that 16% of gamblers meet clinical criteria for gambling disorder. Another 13% showed some signs of gambling problems.
In addition, the council’s Safer Sports Betting Initiative found that adults who currently bet on sports at least once in the past year are twice as likely to report problematic behaviors as other gamblers. Mobile wagering also has been shown to be associated with increased gambling problems.
“It’s more accessible,” Macioce, who runs the private Monroeville practice, said of online gambling. “People don’t see you go in there. You can do it anytime, anywhere.”

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For Brandon, online gambling and fantasy sports largely hindered his recovery, he said.
By 2016, Brandon had self-excluded from the casino — meaning he was prohibited from going to casinos in person and collecting winnings — when he saw advertisements for fantasy sports. After creating an account with DraftKings, Brandon said he was sucked back into the same winning-losing cycle of the casino.
This time, he couldn’t control his gambling.
“It was at a point where I just started gambling all my money,” he said. “I was working two jobs, and I gambled all of the paychecks. That’s when, like, the online casinos really hit hard on the commercials during the pandemic. I never gambled that much in my life and actually started to call off work. I was calling off work. I was sick. I could be sick and not eat for three or four days.”
Finding help
Today, Brandon works with Troy Jones, a certified recovery specialist at Sage’s Army who is recovering from a drug and alcohol addiction. Together, they work through a recovery plan and set goals.
“For a while when Brandon was coming in, he was really, really struggling,” Jones said.
As he works through his recovery, Brandon said he remains self-excluded from casinos. He avoids gas stations and grocery stores that have video gaming terminals. For a while, he said, he avoided watching football games because the number of gambling commercials increased.
Nielsen Consumer Research found that online gambling operators spent $725 million on television advertising in 2021, up from $292 million the year before, according to Barron’s. That accounted for 1% of the total television ad market and triple what cereal companies spent, but far behind the $7.9 billion the auto industry dropped, the financial news site reported.
Online gambling companies spent less than $11 million on television advertising in local markets at the beginning of 2019. That could grow to more than $587 million by 2024, Nielsen reported last year.
Caesars Sportsbook, FanDuel and DraftKings all paid for pricey commercials during February’s Super Bowl — the single largest sports betting event in the United States.
The American Gaming Association estimated $7.6 billion would be wagered on the game, though PlayUSA.com estimated just $1 billion of that would be bet through legal online and retail sportsbooks. Pennsylvania sportsbooks handled a record $68 million in bets on the game, according to the state Gaming Control Board.
March Madness, the college basketball championship tournament, started March 15 and will conclude with the Final Four on April 2. The championship game will be played April 4. In all, the 67 games are expected to generate more than $3 billion in wagers — including brackets and office pools.
The Gaming Control Board did not have figures available for the amount wagered through the state’s legal sportsbooks so far during the tournament.
For Brandon, there is hope. He is seeing progress.
“I actually have money again,” he said. “I don’t see myself ever wanting to be in that position again. It’s just not a good feeling. Now, I feel like it’s a choice.”
Macioce said she has seen a spike since 2018 in those seeking services. She attributes it to the ease of online gambling.
Macioce now works with 15 people struggling with a gambling addiction, the majority of whom were referred to her through the hotline.
With each call, Macioce follows the same checklist before tailoring treatment to an individual. She starts by conducting an assessment looking for co-occurring mental health problems or addictions. She then works to identify a person’s triggers while educating them about the disease. From there, Macioce could refer someone to Gamblers Anonymous or addiction recovery centers. She also provides resources for family members of the person she is helping.
“Some are forced into treatment, others come willingly. Some get really scared by what has happened,” said Macioce, who also is the director of integrative care and deaf services at Milestone Centers in Pittsburgh.
Similarly, Jerica Yanik, residential program supervisor and certified gambling counselor at ARC Manor in Kittanning, said the facility has seen an increase in those seeking help over the past few years. In all, the facility sees between eight and 10 people, which is “more of an influx of what we’ve seen in quite awhile,” she said.
Yanik said the majority of people seeking help have co-occurring problems with drugs and alcohol.
Cheryl Hanaway, a counselor at Oasis Counseling in New Castle, currently sees about four clients for gambling addictions. Both Hanaway and Yanik noted the prominence of gambling within today’s society with video gaming terminals located in convenience and grocery stores.
“I want people to recognize how difficult gambling really is,” Hanaway said. “People think that addiction is just a simple, ‘Why don’t they quit?’ … The temptation is everywhere. You’re driving down the road, and there’s a billboard. You’re watching TV, and there’s an ad. You’re on your phone, and there’s popups. You need the education to understand how much manipulation is drawing people into casinos and drawing people into games.
“The way that gambling works on a person’s brain, it has the same effects as drugs and alcohol.”
Gamblers Anonymous
Every Monday, a group of 12 to 15 people gather at the Sage’s Army office, tucked into a strip mall along Route 30 in Hempfield. They all are recovering from gambling addictions.
The weekly Gamblers Anonymous meeting, run by Sam, 74, of Westmoreland County, allows members to work through the GA book, answer questions and tell personal stories.
“It’s a room where they can come express their feelings with people who have the same problem,” said Sam, who spoke to the Trib on condition his last name not be used. “I keep telling everyone, ‘You’re actually good people. You have to keep that in mind. You’re not a bad person because you’ve got a sickness.’ ”
As a former gambling addict, Sam, who used to live near Harrisburg, is an ideal candidate to run a GA chapter. For years, Sam spent a large chunk of money on lottery tickets and took monthly trips to Atlantic City, where he wagered thousands of dollars from accounts shared with his wife, as well as money from his mother’s accounts, over which he had power of attorney.
In 1998, Sam’s wife discovered how much money he had lost through gambling after a check bounced when she tried to buy food at Sam’s Club.
“She called me at the bowling alley, and I knew I was done,” Sam said. “I was caught. I couldn’t lie to her anymore. On the way home, I was looking to see which tree or bridge I wanted to hit, but I didn’t. I made it home, and I started telling her the truth.”
Sam explained the situation to his wife, who gave him 90 days to get back on track.
In November 1998, Sam attended his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Camp Hill.
“The first 30 days are the hardest,” he said. “Still, do I think about gambling? Yeah. Wife and I had a lot of good times gambling together. I still remember the sounds of the casino, the slot machines going off all the time. That’s not something I’ll ever get out of my mind … (but) I don’t want to gamble. I don’t want to get caught.”
It has been almost 24 years since Sam gambled.
As the number of people seeking help for gambling addictions increases, Pennsylvania is taking steps to help connect people with necessary resources. For years, casinos have been required to post the 1-800-GAMBLER number on advertisements. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board also offers responsible gaming guidelines.
Jack Horner, spokesman for Rivers Pittsburgh, said the facility prohibits gaming floor access to people who are self-excluded. They also enforce online self-exclusion.
“We take problem gaming very seriously and make every effort to support the PGCB in statewide initiatives, promoting awareness and resources across our gaming floor,” he said.
Live! Casino Pittsburgh follows similar protocols. Both facilities train staff members to recognize signs of problem gambling.
“It’s an important issue,” said Mike Keelon, regulatory compliance manager at Live! Casino. “The state recognizes (problem gambling is) a legitimate concern. It’s an important issue.”
General Manager Sean Sullivan noted the state has “done a great job of stepping up and saying, ‘We acknowledge gambling’s not for everyone and we’re here to assist.’ ”
Sam said the hardest part is walking through the door for the first time seeking help.
“First meeting, I was the third one to speak, and I broke down like a young baby,” he said. “My life was ruined, I thought.”
Once he realized there wasn’t any more pressure to hide anything, things began to change, he said.
“I love the life I have now,” Sam said. “Don’t have to worry about the phone calls or what comes in the mail, who’s going to knock on the door. I don’t have to get the bills and put one in my pocket before I take it in the house. I don’t have to hide nothing anymore. I have no guilt about what’s coming because I’m not gambling.”
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .
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