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Out of sports: The influence of structural and situational characteristics in online sports betting

In a paper that I recently co-wrote in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues with Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez and Ana Estevez, we argued that the growing conversion of sports betting into an online activity has prompted two types of transformations in the way companies market their betting products. Firstly, the Internet has not only extended the opportunities to bet but has also changed the characteristics of the betting practice itself. Such product characteristics can be divided into two categories, namely situational and structural characteristics, that appear to be associated with factors influencing the onset and maintaining of betting as well as the difficulty of discontinuing it (the focus of this blog). Secondly, the online dimension has also enabled the proliferation of cross-marketing strategies leading to a convergence between previously independent markets or the tightening of the relationship between those with already established synergies (which I will examine in a future blog).

The internet has substantially transformed the situational and structural characteristics of sports betting. Situational factors comprise all environmental features that might make gamblers feel comfortable (both psychologically and physically) while gambling including sensory factors like colour, music, and smell in the environment, novelty of the activity, accessibility or proximity to a gambling venue, social facilitation and intrinsic association, which is defined as ‘the degree to which gambling is associated with other interests and attractions’.

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New situational factors in online sports betting include: (i) easier and faster accessibility to betting opportunities; (ii) ubiquity of bettable competitions around the globe and seamless availability of those competitions around the clock; (iii) anonymity (in terms of social stigma traditionally attached to gambling) and comfortable betting from home or elsewhere via mobile devices; (iv) greater social facilitation via online communities of bettors or betting leagues organized between groups of friends; and (v) an enhanced intrinsic association of sports betting with sporting values such as health, competition, team identification and loyalty, further facilitated by the proliferation of live sport content on television and social media.

Structural factors refer to the specific characteristics or design of the gambling activity such as win probability, sound and lighting effects of the game, bet frequency (how many bets a person can place in a given period of time), loss chasing facilitation (gambling to recover lost money), jackpot size, price structure, near-miss opportunities (the psychological bias of interpreting losses as nearly wins or anticipatory of a winning streak).

New structural factors in online betting include: (i) a greater frequency of bets, with shorter intervals between bets, and shorter event durations (e.g., virtual sports), meaning faster reward mechanisms; (ii) in-play betting, which encompasses a closer connection between watching sport and betting; (iii) contextual betting, with live markets that open after specific actions (e.g. betting on the outcome of a penalty kick seconds after being awarded by the referee); (iv) greater illusion of control over the bets with new functionalities that emphasize the skills involved and diminish the role of luck, such as cash out (the person can withdraw the bet before the end of the event at the price stipulated by the betting site), accumulators (a person can aggregate multiple events in a single bet, increasing the potential return), exchange (betting against other people instead of the bookmaker); and (v) a greater integration in the betting process of the knowledge about the sport (e.g., daily fantasy sports), resulting in the gamification of the betting experience.

In a 2013 scoping study that I published with Dr. Abby McCormack in the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, we noted that new situational and structural factors associated with Internet gambling could influence the onset of problem gambling in non-sporting gambling contexts. The relative novelty of these situational and structural characteristics affecting the wagering on sports is reflected in the scarcity of research devoted to understanding them. However, there are a few studies.

An analysis of 47,603 Bwin betting website subscribers (by Dr. Debi LaPLante and colleagues in the journal Computers in Human Behaviors) showed some interesting results in the direction of the importance of structural factors determining excessive gambling. The most involved bettors (those comprising the most active 1% of the user sample) who gambled on final outcomes did not escalate their gambling behaviour over time whereas those who gambled in-play did so. In a 2014 follow-up study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, LaPlante and her colleagues examined the effect of in-play betting in the development of problem gambling. The researchers expanded the sample to other forms of gambling and compared the role of breadth (i.e., many different gambling forms) and depth involvement (i.e., more frequent betting) in problem gambling onset. They hypothesised that more involved users would be more likely to become problem gamblers (which was shown to be the case). For every form and gambling, when controlling for depth and breadth involvement, the model was not able to predict gambling-related problems, with one exception: in-play betting. The study suggested that a structural characteristic of a game, the live betting action, could be a precipitant, in conjunction with other determinants, of gambling disorders.

Another study by Dr. Richard LaBrie and Dr. Howard Shaffer (in a 2011 issue of Addiction Research and Theory) found that self-limiting features – in which the bettor determines a maximum amount of money to be bet – made problem gamblers bet less frequently but, in turn, increased the stakes of the bets placed. Bettors who scored high on problem gambling scales chased their losses by implementing a risk aversion strategy, placing high bets conservatively on short odds events (i.e., events with unbalanced contenders in which the outcome can more likely be determined beforehand but with a lower monetary return).

While there has been an increasing amount of research that has examined the influence of situational and structural characteristics in gambling (particularly in relation to slot machine gambling), the impact of such characteristics on online sports betting (at present) remains largely unknown.

(Please not that this article was co-written with Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez and Dr. Ana Estevez).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Gambling technologies: Prospects for problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 15(3), 265–283.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A biopsychosocial approach to addiction. Psyke & Logos, 26(1), 9–26.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2013) The irrelevancy of game-type in the acquisition, development and maintenance of problem gambling. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, (621). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00621.

LaBrie, R. & Shaffer, H.J. (2011). Identifying behavioral markers of disordered Internet sports gambling. Addiction Research & Theory, 19(1), 56–65.

LaPlante, D., Nelson, S.E. & Gray, H.M. (2014). Breadth and depth involvement: Understanding Internet gambling involvement and its relationship to gambling problems. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 28(2), 396-403.

LaPlante, D.A., Schumann, A., LaBrie, R.A., et al. (2008). Population trends in Internet sports gambling. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(5), 2399–2414.

Leino, T., Torsheim, T., Blaszczynski, A., Griffiths, M.D., Mentzoni, R., Pallesen, S. & Molde, H. (2015). The relationship between structural characteristics and gambling behavior: A population based study. Journal of Gambling Studies, 31, 1297-1315.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estevez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting: Implications for problem gambling and regulation. Gaming Law Review and Economics, in press.

McCormack, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). A scoping study of the structural and situational characteristics of internet gambling., 3(1), 29–49.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling.  In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp.211-243). New York: Elsevier.

Making scents of the situation: Where is sensory marketing going in gambling?

It is well known that most marketing plans tend to appeal to just two senses – sight and hearing. However, this is slowly starting to change with more companies trying to appeal to more of our senses in the hope that it will help increase brand awareness and strengthen the impression a brand leaves on its clientele. Welcome to the world of sensory marketing!

Sensory marketing is all about bombarding all of our senses (touch, taste and smell, in addition to sound and vision) and activating them as much as possible. It is also about making the financial transaction (in whatever commercial market) a more complete rounded experience that draws you in to go out and seek more of that product. Like memories, sensory perceptions are unique to each of us and have the capacity to emotionally stimulate.

The opportunity of brand building by leveraging the five senses is wide open. Few companies have integrated their brand-building strategies to appeal to all the senses. This is because not all media channels are able to connect with each of the five senses, and we really don’t know how to handle the phenomenon of total sensory appeal. Over 80% of information is received visually but other senses offer new opportunities to engage the customer. Sensory marketeers believe the theory of exploiting the senses can be applied to all brands – including gambling. It is claimed that sensory marketing provides a competitive advantage and has the capacity to make the unfamiliar seem familiar and appealing.

Let’s take smell. Psychological research has shown that smell is probably the most impressionable and responsive of the five senses. Smells invoke memories and appeal directly to feelings without first being filtered and analyzed by the brain. We all recognize and are emotionally stimulated by a wide variety of smells such as the scent of freshly cut grass or the smell of new leather car seats.

Some commercial operators have already got the hang of sensory appeal. For instance, supermarkets bake bread on the premises that carries the aroma of fresh bread to the shop entrance. The strategy works. Passers-by are struck with hunger and drawn inside the shop. A major British bank introduced freshly brewed coffee to its branches with the intention of making customers feel at home. The familiar smell is used to help relax the customers. Other examples include a leading chain of toiletry stores who pumped the smell of chocolate through its air conditioning system in the run up to Valentine’s Day, and a well-known clothes shop who filled its flagship stores with the smell of freshly laundered shirts.

The direct use of smell in gambling environments has rarely been investigated experimentally. In one infamous experiment in a 1995 issue of Psychology and Marketing by A.R. Hirsh, the effect of ambient aromas on gambling behaviour was investigated. In a Las Vegas casino, the amount of money spent by punters in slot machine areas were sprayed with pleasant but distinct aromas were compared with control areas that were left unsprayed. The amounts of money gambled in the areas were compared for the weekend of the scent spraying, and for the weekends before and after. The study found that the amount of money gambled on the sprayed slot machines during the weekend of the experiment was significantly greater than the amount gambled in the same area during the weekends before and after the experiment. The increase was greatest on Saturday night when the concentration of the smell was at its highest. In short, pleasant smelling slot machines increased the casinos’ takings.

And let’s not forget hearing. Like smell, sound also evokes memory and emotion. Meaningful sound is a cheap but very effective way of appealing to another of a customer’s senses and of powerfully enhancing a brand’s message or appeal. A pop song from your adolescence can help bring back the excitement felt in your teens. Sound effects and noise in the gambling environment are very important in getting people to gamble. Sound effects – particularly in activities like slot machine playing – are thought to be gambling-inducers. Constant noise and sound gives the impression of a noisy, fun and exciting environment. Walk into any casino in Las Vegas and you will experience this. It is also common for slot machines to play a musical tune or buzz loudly if you win with low denomination coins hitting a metal pay out tray making lots of noise. This is all deliberate. It gives the impression that winning is far more common than losing (as you cannot hear the sound of losing!). So next time you are in a room full of 1000 slot machines, remember that the sound of 20 of them paying out is more audibly noticeable than the 980 machines that are losing money for the gambler.

There are many directions in which casinos and other gambling environments may go along the sensory marketing route. They could introduce their own brand aroma, their own sound, and a different quality of light that could set a mood in accordance with each type of gambling (setting up sensory landscapes). There are now the materials and the technology to take punters into a different sort of experience of their chosen gambling environment.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Casino design: Understanding gaming floor influences on player behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 5(1), 21-26.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? (pp. 277-292). New York: Prometheus Books.

Hirsch, A.R. (1995). Effects of ambient odors on slot-machine usage in a Las Vegas casino. Psychology-and-Marketing, 12, 585-594.

Zangeneh, M., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2008). The marketing of gambling. In Zangeneh, M., Blaszczynski, A., and Turner, N. (Eds.), In The Pursuit Of Winning.  pp. 135-153. New York: Springer.