Art by Ahania Soni, Clara Gustafson
Art by Ahania Soni, Clara Gustafson

“You can just lie, most people do”: The rise of underage sports betting

April 20, 2023

With its eye-catching graphics and fun, decorated leaderboards, the app Fliff is marketed as a risk-free sweepstakes game that relies on the gambling of “Fliff coins,” online tokens with no monetary value. 17-year-old Chris Smith* got Fliff after seeing it was giving away “free money” (known as Fliff Cash) for all users to put wagers on sports games. Every day, Smith puts one or two dollars on a bet, gambling on the success of a team, a player or another aspect of the game.

“In the past, I’ve hit like $1 to $100 a few times, on a parlay for the NBA. Once, I won like $150, and then that same day, I lost it all trying to throw more parlays,” Smith said. But he says the chance of success outweighs the possible risks, especially when none of his own money is on the line. “I bet at such a low level that when I do win it makes up for 100 losses.”

A parlay is a combination of multiple small wagers, called legs, that only wins if each individual result is favorable. If any leg in a parlay loses, then the whole bet does as well. Chris and his friends enjoy betting parlays with slim chances of large payouts for fun.

“We’ll just think of [betting] randomly and be like, ‘Well, let’s toss down a crazy parlay,’” he said. “Then we’ll all go down and put like $1 on some crazy bets and then if they win, it’s great. If they don’t, we’ll go on with our day.”

Due to the fact that Fliff is a sweepstakes game and not registered as a licensed gambling website, the app doesn’t require users to meet the legal Illinois sports betting requirement of 21 years of age. With an age minimum of 18, Fliff acts as an opportunity for older teenagers—and those younger who enter fake birthdays—to experience the social and entertainment factors of sports betting without a purchase.

I feel like [Fliff ] gets kids into sports betting. You don’t need anything to start, and it’s fun while you’re doing it.

— Sophomore Jonathan Vanderbilt*

ETHS sophomore Jonathan Vanderbilt* played on Fliff during the winter of 2023, and notes that the app did seem to appeal to teenagers, as many of his friends participated with him.

“I feel like [Fliff] gets kids into sports betting,” he said. “You don’t need anything to start, and it’s fun while you’re doing it. “

In order to claim winnings on Fliff, users must submit a valid license proving an age of over 18, as well as a live selfie to confirm identity. So those like Vanderbilt and Smith must either wait or use another person’s identity to see the fruits of their labor.

“[To avoid age restrictions] you can use a VPN,” Smith said. “Or there’s apps once you’re 18, they’ll let you on. [Fliff] didn’t ask, they don’t ask until you try to pull out the money. So you just gotta make it. Then once you hit 18, pull it out. I’m just trying to build it up. I want to build an empire within that app.”

Gambling on sports games in Illinois was only officially legalized at the state level in August of 2021. In the Sports Wagering Act of December 2021, the Illinois General Assembly stated that any person placing a wager on a sports game must be 21 years old, and any winnings earned by a person under this age are to be forfeited to the state. However, Fliff is just one of many ways that high school students have found ways to gamble online. Websites and apps have varying security that in some cases is inadequate to fully ban illegal wagers.

One way teenagers bet is with the aid of older relatives or friends. Senior Will Johnson* uses the popular app FanDuel, which requires ID and social security verification to play, on a shared account with his father.

“During COVID, there was just not really a lot going on and there was still some sports. My dad just started [betting] as a fun thing to do during quarantine,” Johnson said. “It’s just more fun to have a team to root for during a big game. If when they win you get a prize; it’s more incentive for you to root for a team or watch a game.”

For Johnson, the assistance of a legal gambler makes betting safer and less risky. Twice or three times a week, he and his dad place bets of around $10 or $15, mostly on weekends. To him, this moderation is what keeps betting casual and fun.

It’s just more fun to have a team to root for during a big game. If when they win you get a prize; it’s more incentive for you to root for a team or watch a game.

— Senior Will Johnson*

“I think [21 is] definitely an appropriate age [to start sports betting], because when you’re under that age, we’re probably more irresponsible,” he said. ”That’s why I’m doing it with my dad, just so that he could keep me in check.”

Other than sharing an account, older family members can provide other information for teenagers to access online betting. Sophomore Nick Jones* has been betting for a year, after hearing about it from friends, and uses apps like FanDuel and DraftKings through much riskier methods of evading restrictions.

“My family is not against [betting], so I used one of their social security numbers that was given to me,” he said. “But I use my money.”

The use of another person’s social security number is a federal crime, one that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in jail. Despite this—and the chance of punishments like driver’s license suspension, community service or probation from violating gambling law—students like Jones continue to gamble.

The popularity of teenage betting, to Jones, justifies his participation. “As long as you are smart about money and do not let it get out of hand or addicting, I feel it is fine,” he said. “Many people do it so I feel it is okay.”

Presence on social media furthers the social aspects of betting, which appeals especially to young male sports fans. Many people post their picks for a day online, and celebrities or public figures promote betting websites and apps. Even former president Barack Obama publicly releases his March Madness bracket predictions.

“[After betting was legalized] I saw more posts about it and stuff like that on social media, which made me want to [bet] more just because I saw it more,” he said. “Before, I hadn’t really seen that sort of thing on social media, but that also might be because I got older.”

As sports betting becomes legalized, visible and popular, the chances of underaged gamblers dodging restrictions grow. With these developments in betting culture come risks.

Just like drugs and alcohol, gambling is a habit that can evolve into an addiction, and similarly to other forms of addiction, adolescents are particularly susceptible. According to a study published in the Journal of American College Health, around 5.2 percent of American teenagers had problems with compulsive gambling in 2018, before sports betting was even legalized. The International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems estimates that ten to 14 percent of high schoolers are at risk for developing an addiction.

Despite knowledge of the illegality—and possible consequences—of continuing to gamble on sports, the popularity of betting is on the rise among teenagers. Putting money on an athlete or team’s performance, where results are viewed as more predictable than the chances in card games or slot machines, draws the attention of young participants.

“I think I’m at a point in my life where I know what I’m doing,” Smith said. “I feel like I had an idea of risk-reward [when I started betting]. Using [Fliff], which let me do it with their money, really made me realize how much it takes for you to get a win, and then you could lose all that much faster than it took to gain it.”

*The names of students are kept anonymous for privacy. The Evanstonian does not condone underage gambling.

Tarek Anthony and Alec Lloyd contributed reporting to this piece.

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