Professional Sports Migration to Las Vegas Increases Athlete Risk

The 2023 Stanley Cup champion Golden Knights entered Las Vegas as an NHL expansion team in 2017. The Oakland Raiders relocated to Las Vegas to become Nevada’s first NFL team in 2020, while it was just announced that their MLB counterpart (Oakland A’s) are joining them by 2027. Meanwhile, LeBron James has made it known that he wants to bring the NBA (as an owner) to Sin City. It’s not just progressional sports teams that are now calling America’s gambling mecca hone as there are a total of 10 NCAA D1 teams in Nevada. This year, NCAA March Madness games were played in Vegas after decades of avoidance.

The migration of professional sports to Las Vegas has become so blatant that popular tongue-in-cheek publisher The Onion issued a “press release” on Friday June 9/2023:

“Citing a favorable economic climate and a growing fanbase clamoring for more opportunities to watch games, every single professional sports team announced Friday that they are moving to Las Vegas.”

The Onion | Every Professional Sports Team Moves To Las Vegas

No matter how you look at it, Las Vegas is now an epicenter of elite sports. It was bound to happen after sports betting became legal in the U.S. in 2018. The movement may be great for state revenue, gambling operators, and visiting fans, but one potential casualty is being overlooked in all of this – elite athletes who are vulnerable to problem gambling. Leagues need to become mindful of making Las Vegas a focal point of professional athletics and take steps to protect its athletes accordingly. Allow us to explain.

Why Leagues, Teams, and Organizations Must Invest in Better Problem Gambling Support for Vulnerable Athletes Playing in Las Vegas

Proximity to Gambling Establishments Increases Risk

Before we get into the specifics of why elite athletes require careful consideration regarding problem gambling, it’s important to address geography. Research has shown that enhanced accessibility, availability, and acceptability of gambling in casino-densified communities puts vulnerable individuals at great risk. Consequently, the migration of professional sports to Las Vegas has implications for resident and visiting athletes.

Elite Athletes Are More Vulnerable to Problem Gambling

A number of recent studies have shown that elite athletes are more vulnerable to problem gambling than the general population. The reports indicate that occurrence of problem gambling is two to three times higher. In addition to having significant disposable income, these athletes exhibit risk behavior and personality traits that are closely tied to problematic gambling, which include the following:

  • Extreme competitiveness
  • High levels of energy and commitment
  • Motivated by extrinsic rewards
  • Unreasonable expectations of winning despite the odds
  • Distorted optimism
  • Quest for perfection
  • Willingness to make sacrifices

Everything above is compounded by the fact that gambling establishments seek to leverage athlete celebrity status and welcome them to play with all sorts of incentives. View more on why there is a prevalence of gambling disorder among athletes.

Elite Athletes Keep Gambling Despite League Enforced Consequences

Leagues and organizations impose varying forms of gambling restrictions on their respective athletes. However, these regulations are generally about protecting league integrity and not the mental health of athletes. Despite the threat of fines, suspensions, and lifetime bans, athletes keep breaking the rules due to co-occurring conditions and other risk factors which you can read about here. Given that elite athletes continue to gamble when they know the consequences, it’s clear that punitive measures are not enough to protect them.

Proximity to Gamblers Increases Risk of Abuse

There’s a new and increasing concern to consider as Las Vegas becomes America’s heart of professional (and collegiate) sports. Since the inception of legal sports betting in the USA, athletes are facing threats from illogical disgruntled bettors who lost a wager because a player’s actions on the court or field. While evident in professional leagues, this disturbing new trend is especially prevalent at the collegiate level:

“In the five years since legalized sports betting began spreading across the country, student-athletes have reported regularly receiving abusive messages from gamblers on social media, including death wishes and threats of violence. An FBI agent told ESPN that it considers threats to athletes on social media to be a “growing issue,”


With America’s highest concentration of gamblers coexisting in the same tight geographic space as the athletes they are betting on or against, the latter are at risk of threats being manifested as physical violence. Resident and visiting athletes will not only require better security, they will require greater mental health support to manage the fear, anxiety, and stress to come from the emerging danger.

Elite athletes are more vulnerable to problem gambling than ever before now that Las Vegas is the fastest growing market of professional sports. Leagues, teams, and organizations are called upon to step up today to provide the support needed to navigate the threat. Kindbridge Behavioral Health is leading the charge in this capacity. We have programs in place with the NFL Players Association’s Professional Athletes Foundation (learn more), NASCAR (learn more), and we are working with 20 collegiate athletic programs at the moment. Let these serve as inspiration for what a partnership with Kindbridge can help you accomplish for your problem gambling support initiatives.

Concerned Athletic Organizations and Institutions

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