Sports betting: a growing trend among college students

Junior communication studies major, Zach Harley, on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2016.

Richie Mulhall

Like hundreds of other Kent State students and millions of Americans across the country, Kent State junior Zach Harley will be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday.

Harley is more invested in the game than the casual viewer. He’s going to bet $10 on the game using Bovada, an online casino and sportsbook operating out of Canada that he started using this fall. He says he hasn’t picked a team yet. He’s ‘looking at the spreads’ — the number of points gamblers expect a team to win or lose by.

The Super Bowl is the most heavily bet on sporting events of the year. The American Gambling Association estimates Americans will wager a record $4.2 billion on Super Bowl 50 this year, up 8 percent from last year.

Sports is big business for casual and professional gamblers, including students like Harley. The gambling association estimated $149 billion in 2015.


Harley says he has probably deposited $60 to $80 on Bovada over the course of two or three months since he joined.

“I just play for fun,” Harley said. “I don’t actually play to make a profit. I just play so I can keep playing. So, all the money I won I eventually lost on a really big bet. I just throw 20 bucks in and see how long it can last me. If lasts me two weeks, I just paid for two weeks of fun.” 

With Bovada, members can bet on the final score or just about anything else. People can bet on anything from the coin toss from the length of the National Anthem to the color of the Gatorade dumped on the winning coach at the end of the game.

“You can literally bet on anything for the Super Bowl,” Harley said.

Sports betting is so popular that ESPN established a special section on its website dedicated to gambling.

David Purdum, the ESPN reporter who covers gambling, said he’s confident that many college students gamble on sports.

“Every campus has some sort of bookmaker there,” Purdum said. “I would assume the percentage of people sports betting on a college campus represents the percentage of people betting nationwide in the general population.”

The Pew Research Center says its surveys show that 33 percent of Americans bet on sports. 

Years before Harley discovered online gambling, he worked with a bookie who is now out of business. Harley said bookies deal with the hassle of soliciting money from people and the threat of being robbed.

“A bookie is moving thousands of dollars a day,” Harley said. “Nobody wants to be a bookie anymore, so now everyone just goes online.”

Former Kent State student Nigel Crighton estimated that he’s wagered thousands of dollars on sports, mostly using a bookie.

“I’ve bet $500-$1000 easily (this year),” Crighton said, who left Kent State in 2015 to go to work for his father in Pittsburgh. “Once you win, it’s like playing with the bookies money.”

Crighton said he has won $500 to $700 in a week multiple times, and he’s also been down $200 to $400.

But betting is not what it used to be. Much like anything else in 2016, it’s gone online.

Last spring, sophomore Anna Sharick bet $150 that the Cleveland Cavaliers would win the NBA Championship in an online bracket. The object of the bracket was to guess who would win a playoff game and each participant could do an estimated point variance. A participant would receive 10 points for guessing the correct team and 10 more if they were in a certain scoring range.

“I didn’t know anyone else in the bracket. It was just something. Me and my sister did it together,” Sharick said. “We guessed our bracket together. Like, I did $75 of my money and she did $75 of her money and we did it as the same team.”


Sharick said in the past she would bet on games with her friends because she is “obsessed” with the NBA.

“I feel like the majority of people who do sports gambling is in football,” she said. “That was the first time I had heard of an NBA bracket of actual gambling. I would do it again this year.”

So much of the action these days is online. Some states try to ban online gambling outright, others have no regulations. The FBI says it’s illegal, though some – mostly people in the gambling industry — say federal laws aren’t that clear. The government has closed down some online operations. Individual gamblers, especially smaller ones, are not prosecuted regularly.

Most online gambling operations — like Bovada — operate outside the U.S. to circumvent the federal government. Purdum said these sites use loopholes to get bettors’ money and process it. If you deposit money into an account on Bovada, for example, Bovada’s name won’t show up on the transaction on your credit card.

A great deal of the online action today is through fantasy sites like FanDuel and DraftKings and it’s very much in dispute whether those sites are actually gambling.

The sites argue that they’re ‘games of skill,’ in which participants choose players they think will perform the best in a game or season. They win money based on how well their players do.

But some states — among them California, New York, Texas, Illinois and Nevada — have tried to ban fantasy sports sites, arguing that what they do is gambling. New York received a court injunction to stop FanDuel and DraftKings from operating in the state, but an appeals court allowed the sites to stay open until the case is heard in May. 

Sophomore multimedia news major Jake Kopanski has been a member of FanDuel since the summer. He said he mostly plays fantasy football and fantasy basketball with his grandfather.

“My grandpa basically said, ‘I’ll front the cash, you pick the team and then we’ll split whatever we win’,” Kopanski said. 

Kopanski doesn’t buy the argument that online fantasy games aren’t gambling. 

“It’s the definition of what gambling is,” he said. “You start out with some cash, like you’d walk into a casino with some cash. You put some of that money down, you win some money back. What’s the first thing you want to do? You want to spend some of that money you won on more games until eventually you’re where I’m at right now.”

Kopanski said he deposited $200 with FanDuel, which claimed it would match any deposit. He said he didn’t know that the site matches deposits over time, and has yet to receive the full amount back.  

“Eventually you’re down to nothing,” he said. “And they sucker you into putting $200 more dollars down.”

Contact Richie Muhall at [email protected].

Ian Flickinger, Stephen Means and Zac Sommer contributed reporting to this story.