California’s wrinkled brow at sports gambling

Voters have doubts about ballot measures in November to legalize sports betting. One reason may be how lotteries may have changed concepts on the role of luck in success and wealth.

Gamblers at a casino in Rohnert Park, Calif.

In two different ballot measures next month, voters in California have an opportunity to approve legal sports betting in America’s most-populated state. Given the 40 million people who live there, the potential market for this fast-paced type of gambling could be the second largest in the world, behind that in Britain.

In promoting the measures, special interest groups have broken state spending records. On the table are billions of dollars in yearly revenue from legal sports betting.

The referendum vote is being closely watched in other states. Since a Supreme Court ruling four years ago opened the floodgates to sports gambling, more than 30 states have lifted their bans. The rest have been reluctant to follow. Yet they could shift if California joins the rush to tap the money in sports betting.

Despite so much at stake, polls now indicate the two measures, known as Propositions 26 and 27, will not pass. Why the public’s hesitation?

For one, the state is saturated with betting places, from 66 tribal casinos to 23,000 stores selling lottery tickets. “The last thing California needs is more gambling,” states an editorial by the Bay Area News Group.

Two, California doesn’t even know how many people struggle with gambling addiction, according to a new state audit. The social costs in dealing with this public health issue could skyrocket with legal sports betting. The San Diego Union-Tribune cites “legitimate apprehensions over the risk to society when the barriers to legally betting on sports are lowered.

Yet another reason may lie in concerns about “how Americans think about wealth, luck, and success,” as historian Jonathan Cohen puts it in a new book, “For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America.”

While the modern state lottery has been around for decades, its impact is very mixed and could be influencing public debates on legal sports betting, which Mr. Cohen calls “the new frontier of American gambling.”

One big problem with lotteries, he says, is that state agencies running them appear to run counter to the purpose of all other branches of state government: “to promote the greater good, not to sell a product to the public.”

As new types of gaming continue to grow, he says, government guidance on gambling remains “lacking and unsuited,” especially as it is well known that state lotteries hit hardest on “a population that is disproportionately poorer, less educated, and nonwhite.”

Lessons from state lotteries could be giving pause to many Californians about sports betting. Americans, Mr. Cohen advises, need to think critically about the “economic forces” that limit social mobility and financial security, driving many people to gamble.

California may be due for a discussion on whether a belief in luck – or “hitting the jackpot” – has anything to do with wealth and success.

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