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More than one-third of male NCAA athletes admit to betting on sports, and the lure at big bucks may be drawing in their Canadian counterparts

By Stephanie Zolis

The Responsible Gambling Council’s (RGC) gambling awareness month couldn’t come at a better time. The month-long campaign coincides with March Madness, one of the most wagered-on events of the year.

OCAA executive director Blair Webster says the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball championship draws a large audience every year, many of whom wager on its outcome.

“There’s more gambling on that than the Super Bowl,” Webster says. “Even in Canada.”

The high stakes of the NCAA tournament are a big draw for sports enthusiasts, and according to the RGC, many of those playing the odds are students.

Phil Mun, senior researcher for the council, explains the phenomenon as a symptom of the 18-24 age group’s thirst for excitement, particularly among males who believe their sports knowledge influences the odds of winning.

“The 18-24 is this group that generally participates in high-risk activities,” he says. “Females are more into ‘luck-based’ gambling,” Mun says.

The RGC 2005 gambling prevalence report found students were twice as likely as any other demographic to participate in sport lotteries. It also found students had the highest participation in pools, at around six per cent, in Ontario.

the NCAA men’s FINAL FOUR and the Super Bowl are the TWO most wagered on sporting events.
Stacey Osburn
NCAA spokeperson

“Overall there are low levels of treatment uptake,” Mun says. “Maybe less than five per cent.”

Despite low income levels across the demographic, betting on professional or inter-collegiate sports makes scores and team stats more interesting to spectators, Mun says. “It just makes it more exciting and they can participate in it. It’s more of an experience.”

Humber College mechanical engineering student Svenson Sequeira, 22, says gambling heightens the excitement of a game while also providing money for expenses.

The student athlete is heavily involved in both campus rec and varsity athletics in the school.

“Gambling does add interest to sports because I find that I root for the team or player I have selected in the pool,” he says. “The pools are for both fun and to win money, which I normally put towards paying bills.”

But money isn’t the only wager on the line. Bets with friends can earn the winner anything from bragging rights to beer.

Sequeira caps his wagers at $40 and intentionally limits participation to larger pools with smaller buy-ins.

“I have been involved in hockey pools for the last five years and I have pretty much broken even,” he estimates. But a friend of his has not been so lucky: “One of my friends did get into a little debt due to gambling.”

He’s aware of rumours in the gambling community of U.S. college athletes throwing games for profit. But to his knowledge, he adds, game manipulation isn’t an issue in Ontario.

“I’m unaware of any of my friends or myself shaving points or throwing games, because we always play for fun, or if it is in a league, to win the championship. Because that is more important to us.”

By contrast, post-secondary athletics are big business in the United States.

“Men’s Final Four championship and then also the Super Bowl . . . are the two largest sporting events that attract sports wagering,” says NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn.

But “any sport that is competed at the collegiate level, you cannot place a wager on, even if it’s a professional game.”

All sports gambling violations by athletes, coaches and athletics staff are met with a minimum one-year expulsion, she said. While the NCAA couldn't provide a figure for the number of expulsions that have been handed out, its 2003 national study found roughly one-third of male athletes have participated in some form of sport-related gambling.

While U.S. student athlete gambling levels range depending on NCAA division, a 2003 national study says roughly one-third of male athletes have participated in some form of sport-related gambling.

The Washington-based National Council on Problem Gambling puts the number even higher. It suggests about 45 per cent of male student athletes bet on sports.

The Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health research scientist Nigel Turner says the relationship between wagering and professional league sports, such as the NFL, is a close one that is unlikely to dwindle in the near future.

“Their whole existence depends on gambling,” Turner says. “That’s what motivates people to go to those games.”

Mohawk College’s athletic director Laurie Cahill has a similar outlook. Cahill identifies professional football as a prime example.

The CFL provides a more exciting game compared to its American counterpart, but he says wagering in the NFL brings added appeal – and a larger audience to match.

“Gambling is what makes a lot of the U.S. sports glamorous,” Cahill says. “The fact that people can wager is a buy in.”