In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the spigot to the $165 billion U.S. sports betting industry by allowing states to legalize online sports gambling as legislatures pressed for ways to close budget gaps.
Revenue from taxes from online betting has flowed into the treasuries of 22 states, including Georgia’s neighbor Tennessee, which has made approximately $80 million in sports betting tax revenue since November 2020.
There has not been so much as a drip into the Georgia treasury from sports betting. Is it time to legalize online gambling in Georgia and get in on the bonanza? Many think it is.
According to a statewide poll released this month, 45.6% of likely voters surveyed favored making online betting on professional sports legal in the state and 42.6% opposed with 11.8 answering “don’t know.”
On the question of casino gambling in Georgia, 59.7% support, 29.1% oppose, and 11.3% answered “don’t know.”
The Georgia Recorder is one of more than 100 news outlets that are part of the Georgia News Collaborative that commissioned this poll from the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. The statewide poll surveyed 1,030 likely voters and contains a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Legalizing gambling — beyond the state lottery — would require amending the state constitution. Two-thirds of each legislative chamber would have to vote to put it on the 2023 ballot.
Charles Hodges, one of the poll respondents who is a professor of finance at the Richards College of Business at the University of West Georgia, says it makes little sense for the state to ignore the revenue when plenty of residents already find ways to gamble on college and professional games across state lines.
“I don’t support gambling, in general, in Georgia, but I was supporting sports gambling because it’s so easy to do,” Hodges said. “A whole lot of people here are doing sports gambling across state lines and at least the state can capture some of that revenue.”
Hodges, 64, said gambling on Draft Kings, for instance, is done through the computer and it is fairly easy to do for Georgians, especially if you are near the state line.
“I don’t gamble much, if I did gamble it would more likely be more on college football,” said Hodges, who is a Florida State fan.
“If you are using a VPN (virtual private network), or a home network, that home network shows I’m located in Nebraska,” Hodges said. “There are a lot of people that are gambling using their phone and computers. Tax money is going somewhere else, not Georgia.”
Tennessee keeps a running count of the revenue it brings in with its online sports betting market. From November 2020, when it was introduced, to July 2022, the revenue was $439.2 million. The Tennessee Education Lottery releases numbers every month.
Indiana, according to figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures, collected $12.1 million in tax revenue in 2020.
Should Georgia close budget gaps with online betting and casinos?
Richard Rodriguez, 59, of Brooks, said the online sports betting is “available everywhere else” and should be available in Georgia, too.
“If I can bet in another state, I should be able to bet here, too,” he said. “I don’t know if it benefits Georgia one way or another, it just benefits the people who like to do it. I haven’t bet on a game in years, mainly because it’s not available.”
What professional sports organizations and gambling outlets are hoping is that legal online betting will stoke enthusiasm for the games and draw in more fans. Rodriguez said a game like Utah vs. USC, a top 10 matchup last week, would be more interesting to him if he had money riding on the outcome.
“The parlay card vs. $50 for the movie theater, I’d much rather do that (bet on the game),” he said. “To me, it’s a form of entertainment.”
Asked what he thought about putting gambling on the ballot as a constitutional referendum, Rodriguez said, “If it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything to put it on the ballot, I would be ok with that.”
The downside to any gambling is the threat of addiction. But the risks of addiction to other things — alcohol, drugs, sex — are already part of society. Threats are all around us, Rodriguez says.
“I see that as a possibility, you can get addicted to it, but people spend a lot of money on things like alcohol, or any other vice out there,” Rodriguez said. “Help the people who need it, but don’t punish everyone for some bad apples.”
Ron Greene, who did not want to give his hometown, polled “opposed” when asked about legalizing online gambling and said gambling is distracting from the pleasure of sports for its own sake. The competition matters less when the money starts to matter more.
“Sports gambling just takes away from the game itself,” he said. “It’s bad enough that we are paying college kids and now we are out there gambling on them when they are trying to get an education. I don’t think it’s right.”
More worrisome is the threat of organized crime latching on to a young college athlete.
“I think crime can come into high school sports and college sports (with legalized gambling), there is always room for something to go wrong with that,” he said.
Adam Fister, 33, of Newnan, sees something more sinister than losing $10 on a busted parlay card on an NFL Sunday. He sees online gambling and casinos creating huge profits for companies that are masters at manipulation on a digital screen.
“Football is huge, soccer is huge, I understand that,” said Fister, “but it opens up the door for exploitation in other forms by these gambling companies as they stream gambling online to their audience, which is feasibly not age-gated. Any 13-year-old can create an account and they’re exposed to gambling addiction. So it ends up allowing online gambling to permeate society unchecked.
“Kids with undiagnosed ADHD get on these online gambling sites and that will 1,000% be a problem with them. There is research that shows companies using ‘loot’ boxes and video mechanics to trap these kids in cycles of addiction.”
Fister said online gaming can be a problem for not just kids, but with adults with a mental disorder.
“These randomized prize boxes have the exact same characteristics of slot machines with shiny objects, flashing lights,” he said. “They are not targeting normal people, they are targeting people and giving them a rush of dopamine, people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD.”
Atlanta’s Braves, Falcons, United, and Hawks collaborated on an effort to pass a gambling bill in the state legislature for several years. The clubs want fans to be more invested in their teams and betting on your team creates an emotional attachment.
“Just one more underhanded way to exploit their fans,” Fister said. “They have been doing it for years.”
The Georgians interviewed for this story expressed reservations about legalizing casinos into the state, or doubted they would go to one, which did not match the results of poll. Almost 60% of respondents favored legalized casino gambling while 29.1% opposed with 11.3 answering “don’t know.”
Hodges, the finance professor, favors online sports betting, but he is fierce in his opposition to casino gambling.
“I saw what it did to the local economy along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it sucked the life out of small businesses,” he said.
Rodriguez, the Brooks resident, is also “not a big proponent of the casinos” in the state.
Greene said he has been in casinos in other states and doesn’t see the allure in putting one in, say, downtown Atlanta.
“People who seem to be in there are the ones that really don’t have any money,” he said. “They seem to be spending their paychecks to hit that one jackpot.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.