WASHINGTON – When the Maryland Terrapins take the floor in this weekend’s NCAA Final Four, there will be more than just a trophy and bragging rights at stake.
An estimated $70 million will be bet legally on the tournament and up to $2.5 billion will be wagered illegally, according to gaming analysts and law enforcement estimates.
And studies have shown gambling on sporting events is increasingly appealing to young people, as the growing trend of Internet gambling makes illegal betting on sports even easier.
Valerie Lorenz, the executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, has worked in the field of gambling addiction for 30 years. She said she has seen a notable increase in younger gambling addicts.
“Young people grow up in an environment where gambling is OK and gambling is everywhere,” Lorenz said. “That, combined with easy access to computers and credit cards makes for a lethal combination.”
In a 1990 study on college campuses, 33 percent of males and 15 percent of females said they gambled once a week or more, and the rates of problematic or pathological gambling for college students was four to eight times higher than for other adults.
A 1997 Harvard University study found more youths were introduced to gambling through sports gambling than any other form of gambling.
“Seemingly innocent office pools many times are the catalyst for some people to get involved in sports betting,” said Edward Looney of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. “Many of these pools are illegal.”
Officials with legitimate gaming companies defend their business, saying theirs is a heavily regulated industry that safeguards against abuses by requiring that players are over 21 and that they appear in person to place a bet.
The NCAA takes a hard line against betting — legal and illegal — on college sports.
“We believe that people should watch the games for the action that occurs on court,” said Jane Jankowski, an NCAA spokeswoman. “It’s not necessary for money to be wagered on the game in order to enjoy it.”
But that claim seems to be unheard by the number of people betting online.
Though online gambling is illegal in all 50 states, Looney said there are now over 700 foreign operated web sites dedicated to sports betting. He also said Internet gambling rose 89 percent last year.
“It’s an epidemic,” Looney said. “We’re losing a generation of young people.”
Some blame the pervasiveness of gambling in films and television as contributing the rise.
“America’s gone to wide-open, hard-core Las Vegas-style gambling,” said Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. “It’s on main street America now.”
Lorenz blames public officials for not taking the gambling issue more seriously.
“Elected officials don’t do anything about it,” Lorenz said. “The head of the ostrich is getting deeper and deeper.”
She noted that while other state lotteries contribute some of their profits to gambling addiction services, Maryland does not. If more funding were available, Lorenz said she would focus on outreach to area high schools and colleges.
Although college-age males are prime candidates for gambling addiction, the University of Maryland’s counseling center said it has not seen many cases
“There’s an element of denial, as with any compulsive or addictive behavior,” said Jonathan Kandall, the center’s assistant director. “A lot of times people won’t acknowledge there’s a problem until they hit rock-bottom.”
Lorenz said it is a problem that could ruin more than a weekend for gamblers on the losing end of this year’s tournament.
“It’s sad that what should have been a celebration in fact becomes a nightmare,” Lorenz said. “One that can last many years.”