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Big-time football schools like Michigan State are cashing in on the sports betting frenzy

At a very minimum, Congress should make sure we can find out what universities are getting in exchange for selling out their students.
Image: Michigan State fans cheer  in the audience.
Michigan State fans cheer as their team takes on Ohio State in East Lansing, Michigan on Oct. 8.Stephen Sp​eranza / NYT via Redux

On Saturday, Michigan State visits Penn State, and Louisiana State University visits Texas A&M. But as we gather to watch those teams and others face off, we should worry less about the fortune of the students on the field and more about the fortunes of their classmates cheering them on. Because thanks to a spate of recent laws across the country, it’s not just legal but also uncomfortably easy for people in most of the country to bet money on games. And at particular risk are college students who attend big-time football schools.

According to The New York Times, Michigan State and LSU are two of at least eight U.S. universities that have partnerships with online sports betting companies. It’s a reminder that for all their ostensible concern about their students’ welfare, colleges have too often given outsiders permission to treat their students as marks.

Up to 80% of high school students may have gambled for money during the previous year and about 5% of high school students should be considered addicted to gambling.

Those of us who went to college a generation ago will remember it being near-impossible to walk to a bookstore or the cafeteria without passing tables where credit card company reps were hawking their cards, sweet talking us students into ignoring our empty bank accounts and signing up for credit cards in exchange for their worthless swag.

Online sports betting companies have now taken the place of credit card companies on campus, if not literally, then figuratively. Some of today’s students don’t even have to walk across campus to be seduced. On Jan. 28, the day online sports betting became legal in Louisiana, some LSU students got an email encouraging them to place a $20 bet with Caesars Sports Book in exchange for a $300 credit to make more bets. According to The New York Times, Playfly Sports, the company that markets Michigan State University sports, talked with Caesars Sports Book officials about offering Spartans fans a $150 credit for Spartans merchandise in exchange for a $50 bet.

While it doesn’t necessarily mean the Caesars Sports Book email was the reason, LSU senior Jack Krecildo told The New York Times that on the “first day sports betting was legal in the state, everyone was doing it.”

Regarding the LSU email, PlayUsa, a website that covers online gambling, obtained a statement from Caesars that blamed LSU: “Our contract with LSU Athletics expressly requires them to remove any and all LSU-based student accounts, regardless of age, from any list to which our promotions will be sent. … We have asked our partners at LSU Athletics to identify and solve the system breakdown that led to this distribution.” Cody Worsham, an associate athletic director at LSU told The New York Times that the school and Caesars “share a commitment to responsible, age-appropriate marketing.” 

There’s a reason we should be especially alarmed at these arrangements between universities and online sports booking companies. The National Council on Problem Gambling says up to 80% of high school students may have gambled for money during the previous year and that about 5% of high school students should be considered addicted to gambling. Imagine those students arriving on campuses where their universities or universities’ affiliates are constantly confronted with ads to bet on sports, all because their universities wanted some more money.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a law prohibiting credit card companies from signing up people under 21 for new accounts unless a parent or guardian co-signs or they provide proof they can make the payments. That law also prohibits credit card companies from offering the kinds of freebies they used to dangle to sucker college students into taking on debt.

The details of such partnerships are often secret and not subject to public records requests because the deals are made between the sports wagering companies and the private companies that market a university’s athletic programs.

Though the law isn’t perfect, it’s yielded some improvement. Last month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gave its annual report on partnerships between institutions of higher education (IHEs) and credit card companies. “In 2009, there were over 1,000 partnerships between credit card issuers and IHEs and affiliates,” according to that report, “and by year-end 2021, there were only 155. Similarly, in 2009 these partnerships represented over 2 million credit card accounts, and in 2021 that number was closer to 500,000.” It was right for Congress to protect young people from predatory credit card companies back then. And it would be right for Congress to protect them from online sports booking companies today. There’s no meaningful difference between what credit card companies were doing then and what online sports booking companies are doing now.

The American Gaming Association has adopted the standard that “Sports wagering should not be … advertised on college or university campuses.” The association also says that “Sports wagering advertising and marketing should be placed in broadcast, cable, radio, print or digital communications only where at least 73.6%, aligned with 2020 census data, of the audience is reasonably expected to be of legal gambling age.” Those are good standards, but who’s going to make sports books follow them?

At a very minimum Congress should make sure we can find out what universities are getting in exchange for selling out their students. As The New York Times points out, the details of such partnerships are often secret and not subject to public records requests because the deals are made between the sports wagering companies and the private companies that market a university’s athletic programs. But the newspaper said it obtained university email messages indicating that Caesars Sportsbook had offered Michigan State $8.4 million over five years. In September 2021, LSU Athletics and LSU Sports Properties announced a “multi-year, seven-figure deal” with Caesars in a partnership that, according to a statement, was “facilitated by LSU’s third-party multi-media rights holder, Playfly Sports.”

The betting companies that trumpet their partnerships with universities, plaster ads in campus football stadiums, market themselves on athletic department websites and then say they don’t market to people younger than 21 deserve all the derision we can give them. 

Of the January email blast that included underage LSU students, an executive at Caesars Sports Book told The New York Times that Caesars executives “were very disappointed that it happened.”

How much do you want to bet that they weren’t?