Gambling has been a part of life in Indiana for decades — slot machines, table games, horse-race parlors and lottery tickets are available to Hoosiers who want to try their luck and risk their money. But soon, anyone in Indiana who is at least 21 years old will be allowed to bet on pro- and college-level sporting events — not only at a casino or racino, but from a computer or smartphone.
That raises new concerns. Will access to betting online create more problem gamblers? Will sports wagers tempt players or coaches to share inside information with gamblers or even throw games?
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states could decide whether to implement such gaming. This spring, lured by the prospect of more jobs and more public revenue, the Indiana legislature and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed up.
The incentive is to capture some of the huge sums now bet illegally — as much as $50 billion to $60 billion nationally. The California-based Eilers & Krejcik research firm estimated last year that within five years, sports gambling could have a $1.7 billion direct and indirect economic impact on Indiana, and create 2,281 jobs.
Monday, the Indiana Gaming Commission begins processing applications from casino companies that want to offer sports betting at their sites or online. One or more companies could be up and running by Sept. 1. But commission officials, anxious to avoid potential problems, are stressing they won't be held to that date.
"We are certainly not going to roll something like this out until at least one operator is ready," Jenny Reske, the commission's deputy director, said Thursday. "We're still in the beginning stages."
Grandfathered in by an earlier law, Nevada and Delaware were the only states to offer sports gambling until the Supreme Court's decision. Now several other states have programs under way, and Indiana is taking advantage of their experience.
Reske said the regulatory agency is working to ensure problem gamblers get the help they need and that online systems effectively block minors and people who ask to be "self-excluded" from access to gambling.
"We know the (online) demographic is different from the demographic of the traditional casino gambler," Reske said. "We know that creating more resources and more outreach online is important." The agency has set up a website to direct people to help if they think they may have a problem and plans to ensure that each of its applicants to operate a sports-betting operation has its own problem-gambling programs.
Chris Gray, executive director of the Indiana Council on Problem Gambling, said most people won't be hurt by the new betting opportunities. "Ninety-five percent can gamble responsibly," she said in a recent interview. But there are others who find the lure of gambling irresistible, and "there is the possibility that it will increase the number of people who have a problem with gambling," Gray said.
"One percent has a problem that affects every area of their life," she said. Four percent have milder gambling problems.
Gray's group and others work to see that those who have a problem can get help by steering callers to treatment providers in their area. One concern, Gray said, is that those without health insurance may not be able to pay for treatment. "I can tell you right now, people who have a gambling addiction have no money because they've spent it gambling."
In such cases, Gray said, she may try to connect people with Gamblers Anonymous groups or arrange to have one or two former problem gamblers who have volunteered speak with them. The state sets some funds aside for work with gambling addicts, but Gray says there should be more spent in that area.
Americans have been leery of mixing gambling and sports for at least a century. Every baseball fan knows the story of the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, when several Chicago White Sox players plotted with gamblers to throw the World Series.
It will still be illegal to bet on high school and youth sports, and Reske said the commission is working hard to ensure pro and college programs aren't tainted by legalized betting.
"The integrity of these activities is our top priority," she said. "The staff sat down with representatives from colleges and universities to get their viewpoints. We've met with professional sports leagues."
The commission has also begun working with the Sports Wagering Integrity Monitoring Association, a nonprofit agency funded through gambling companies that will watch for unusual betting patterns that could signal problems.
According to Eilers & Krejcik, the most popular pro and college sport for gamblers is football. But the Gaming Commission should ignore critics who say the new arrangements have to be ready for the fall football season. The pitfalls of online and sports gambling may be headed off by good planning and good technology. The commission should take all the time it needs.