Why do people engage in in-play sports betting? a qualitative interview study


Increasing technological advancements and changing consumer behavior has resulted in individuals having access to a wider range of online gambling markets and sporting events than ever before. Sports betting in real time has been aided by the accessibility of smartphone devices. Consequently, the popularity of live sports betting (i.e., ‘in-play’ betting) has spread across Europe and around the rest of world. The aim of the present exploratory study was to examine attitudes and opinions towards online sports betting news. Qualitative interviews were conducted with 17 males and 2 females aged between 21 and 32 years. Participants were asked a range of semi-structured interview questions based on pre-determined topic areas. Socio-demographic data were collected and the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) was used to assess problem gambling. The data were analyzed using thematic analysis in order to identify themes. Analysis of the transcripts identified several notable areas including the ease of engaging in in-play sports betting, motivations for engaging in in-play sports betting (including increased excitement, demonstrating knowledge/skill and response to live odds), and different reasons for using the ‘cash-out’ feature. The findings will contribute to the design of future research investigating in-play sports betting behaviours.

In recent years there have been many changes in the way that consumers behave and interact with gambling products. There is a continuous stream of technological development and new features being introduced to the gambling market, especially in the UK sports betting market. Mobile technology has been paramount in contributing to the rise in popularity of online sports betting due to that fact that it provides an easy and accessible method of placing sports bets. Traditionally, sports betting took place inside of bookmakers. Now, due to technological change, sports betting can take place online via smartphones, laptops, and tablets in real time and has altered how individuals can place their bets.

In addition, the number of smartphone users has been increasing over the last few years in the UK and over 85% of adults now own a smartphone (Lee & Paul, 2018). According to the UK Gambling Commission, almost 30% of online gamblers are using a mobile device to place their bets, and there has been a 10% increase in mobile usage between 2016 and 2017 (Gambling Commission, 2018a, b, c). Mobile betting allows individuals the capability to bet from almost any location and can also enable individuals to place a range of live bets on different sporting markets. These bets can be made from numerous locations (e.g., work, home, bars, restaurants) with friends or alone.

There has been an increasing conversion of sports betting into an online activity and this increase has been mirrored by a rise in in-play betting. In-play sports betting comprises the wagering of money on something within a sporting event once it has started and up to its conclusion (e.g., who will score next in a soccer match). It is also known as ‘live action’ betting and ‘in-running’ betting. Although it varies from sport to sport, live betting odds are essentially extracted from pre-match odds with (in the case of soccer) the current score, time remaining, and other elements all combined (e.g., the awarding of red and yellow cards, predicting next team or person to score, correct score, the total number of goals, etc.). Over one-quarter of all online gamblers in the UK have placed a bet in-play, with the largest proportion of those by those aged 25–34 years (Gambling Commission, 2018a, b, c). In-play betting is largely an online activity. Bet365 (the most profitable online British bookmaker) reported that over three-quarters of their sports betting revenue is derived from in-play betting (Barber, 2018) and that the most popular sport to bet on is football (soccer).

As well as increased use of mobile device technology, there has been an escalation in the coverage of live soccer matches and other sporting fixtures from around the world. This has resulted in an expansion in the online betting market and an increase in the opportunities to bet on these in-play markets. This is set to continue to rise. The English soccer Premier League showed 200 out of 380 of its matches during 2018–2019, 42 more than 2017–2018 as a result of a new UK broadcast deal. These recent deals were the first time a full round of soccer matches were streamed live in the UK (BBC Sport, 2018). Subsequently, there will be an increase in matches for betting consumers to engage with.

Also of note is the ‘cash out’ facility that has been introduced alongside the ability to bet in-play. The ‘cash out’ feature is now offered to sports bettors by many online gambling operators. It enables sports bettors to settle an open bet for a value offered at the time of ‘cashing out’ (Lopez-Gonzalez & Griffiths, 2017). This figure is based on the current status of the bet and the statistical likelihood of the bet winning. This figure can also be higher or lower than the initial stake amount.

In recent years, increased attention has been given to researching in-play sports betting. A Gambling Commission (2016) prevalence survey reported that individuals who bet in-play were more likely to be categorized as problem gamblers. A recent scoping study identified 16 academic papers that had referenced in-play sports betting (Killick & Griffiths, 2019) and concluded that in-play sports betting has the potential to be more harmful than more traditional ways of gambling. The review also noted that different research methods had been used to explore this area. One method is the use of behavioral tracking data provided to researchers by online gambling operators. Such research has found that heavily involved gamblers are more likely to bet on in-play events (LaBrie, Laplante, Nelson, Schumann, & Shaffer, 2007) and that they increased the frequency of the number of in-play bets being placed after a three-month period (LaPlante, Schumann, LaBrie, & Shaffer, 2008). Secondly, some researchers have used self-report methodologies and reported an association between in-play sports betting and risk of problem gambling (Hing, Russell, Vitartas, & Lamont, 2015; Lopez-Gonzalez, Estévez, & Griffiths, 2019). The review also identified theoretical papers which had discussed the role of the structural characteristics of in-play sports betting. These papers argued that in-play betting had changed traditional sports betting from a discontinuous form of gambling into a more continuous one, and that the increased event frequency of in-play betting would be more likely to have an association with problem gambling than discontinuous (i.e., low event frequency) forms of gambling (Griffiths & Auer, 2013; Lopez-Gonzalez & Griffiths, 2017).

Two structural characteristics relevant to in-play sports betting and potential problem gambling are bet frequency (the number of bets placed in a particular time frame) and event frequency (how many games/matches are available to bet on in a certain period of time; Griffiths, 2012). It has also been argued that problem gambling is related to the structural characteristics that reinforce and facilitate gambling behaviour once it has started (e.g., bet frequency, event frequency, event duration, and pay-out interval; Griffiths & Auer, 2013). Lopez-Gonzalez and Griffiths (2017) suggested that the ‘cash out’ feature might be utilized during a time where emotions run high and the structural characteristics of this feature might facilitate sports bettors to lose control when they are placing their bets.

Lopez-Gonzalez et al. (2019) carried out a study of 659 Spanish sports bettors and examined the association between structural characteristics of online sports betting and gambling severity. The results demonstrated that sports bettors with high problem gambling scores were more likely to use in-play betting and the ‘cash out’ feature. More recently, Parke and Parke (2019) carried out in-depth interviews with 19 online problem gamblers. The core theme to emerge was labelled the ‘online sports betting loop’, which comprised the new structural features of the online sports betting market, and included in-play sports betting, cash out, and instant depositing. They noted that online sports betting offered features that allow gamblers to almost immediately re-engage with the sports betting activity. Some of their participants found it a challenge to maintain their self-control and others admitted chasing their losses. The authors suggested that attention should be directed towards increasing enforced breaks in this type of gambling.

Other studies on in-play sports betting have supported the idea that in-play sports betting may possess a number of features that encourage individuals to bet more, and there could be an association between in-play sports betting and a risk of harm from gambling (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2019; Lopez-Gonzalez, Griffiths, & Estévez, 2020; Parke & Parke, 2019). Lopez-Gonzalez et al. (2020) reported that within a sample of 659 Spanish sports bettors, those who engaged in-play sports betting (compared to those who did not) reported significantly greater (1) problem gambling severity, (2) sport watching consumption, (3) consumption of junk food, (4) alcohol consumption when watching sport, and (5) watching sport to escape from everyday preoccupations. They concluded that in-play betting was associated with impulsivity which occurred under circumstances where there was a high level of emotional involvement (i.e., watching live sport and betting on it).

A few studies have attempted to delineate the relationship between in-play sports betting and increased harm amongst problem gamblers. Previous research has found that impulse sports bettors prefer to bet in-play rather than on overall match outcomes (Hing, Russell, Li, & Vitartas, 2018). However, it is believed that trait impulsivity is not a unitary construct, but encompasses four individual traits: sensation seeking, lack of planning, lack of perseverance, and negative urgency (acting impulsively in the context of strong emotions; Sharma, Markon & Clake, 2014). Hing et al. (2018) suggested that research into contextual factors that contribute to urges to bet impulsively would help the field gain a better understanding of problematic gambling behaviour.

Another explanation that has been provided as to why sports betting may be associated with problem gambling is that betting features within live sporting events such as in-play betting and ‘cash out’ might make sports bettors more susceptible to experiencing cognitive biases (Lopez-Gonzalez, Estévez, & Griffiths, 2017; Lopez-Gonzalez & Griffiths 2017). Furthermore, technological advancements along with narratives found within sports betting adverts that enhance control could lead to an increase in perceived skill causing bettors to place their wagers more uncontrollably (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2017).

One cognitive heuristic related to gambling behavior is the illusion of control (Langer, 1975). The illusion of control is the inclination for individuals to overestimate the control they have over the outcome of events. It has been suggested that the illusion of control may be heightened because sports bettors can choose the amount to stake, the number of bets, and the speed in which they place them, which may result in sports bettors overestimating their control over uncountable events (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2017). The availability heuristic refers to the placing of more weight on information that is easier to recall. Information that is easier to recall is judged to be more common (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) which leads to an overestimation of the probability of similar things happening in the future. Gamblers often utilize heuristics to process information more quickly such as representativeness heuristics. The use of these mental shortcuts could lead to biased decisions and/or distorted perceptions (Griffiths, 1994).

D’Astous and Gaspero (2015) reported that when there is a limited timeframe for bet placement, sports bettors (n = 161) used heuristic processing. Sports bettors were more likely to use heuristic (intuitive and fast) processing, rather than analytic processing (slow and deliberate). This form of processing was found to result in a lower gambling return on investment. Furthermore, this study reported more experienced gamblers were more likely to use analytic processing and their bets were more favorable (D’Astous & Gaspero, 2015). The authors suggested that these heuristic and analytic processes act as mediators in the relationship between previous experience and betting performance. It has also been argued that features such as in-play betting and “cash-out” betting may result in sports bettors having a higher likelihood of experiencing cognitive biases (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2017; Lopez-Gonzalez & Griffiths, 2017) and as a result place less planned bets.

Although the potential impact of emerging online sport betting features has been raised as a possible concern in relation to risk of problem gambling, to date, there has been minimal research carried out on the underlying mechanisms and attitudes towards specific online sports betting features including in-play sports betting and the use of the “cash out” feature. Consequently, the present study explored the opinions towards in-play sports betting behaviours. More specifically, it explored sports bettors’ perceived motivation and opinions towards online sports betting features. The specific objectives were to explore participants’ opinions and attitudes to: (1) in-play sports betting, and (2) towards the ‘cash out’ feature use within online sports betting.

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