This article is available in: PDF HTML Sports Bettors: A Systematic Review

Journal Information
Journal ID (publisher-id): jgi
ISSN: 1910-7595
Publisher: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Article Information
Article Categories: JGI Scholar’s Award, Category B
Publication date: May 2018
Publisher Id: jgi.2018.38.11
DOI: 10.4309/jgi.2018.38.11

Sports Bettors: A Systematic Review

Jonathan Mercier Université Laval, École de psychologie, Centre québécois d’excellence pour la prévention et le traitement du jeu, Groupe de recherche sur l’intervention et les fondements en jeu, Québec, Canada
Serge Sévigny Université Laval Département des fondements et pratiques en éducation, Centre Québécois d'Excellence pour la Prévention et le Traitement du Jeu Québec, Groupe de recherche sur l’intervention et les fondements en jeu, Québec, Canada
Christian Jacques Université Laval, École de psychologie, Centre québécois d’excellence pour la prévention et le traitement du jeu, Groupe de recherche sur l’intervention et les fondements en jeu, Québec, Canada
Annie Goulet Université Laval, École de psychologie, Centre québécois d’excellence pour la prévention et le traitement du jeu, Groupe de recherche sur l’intervention et les fondements en jeu, Québec, Canada
Michael Cantinotti Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Département de psychologie, Secteur des sciences sociales, Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada
Isabelle Giroux Université Laval, École de psychologie, Centre québécois d’excellence pour la prévention et le traitement du jeu, Groupe de recherche sur l’intervention et les fondements en jeu, Québec, Canada


Sports betting is associated with problematic gambling behaviours. However, little is known about the profile of sports bettors. Also, it is still unclear if there are useful abilities in sports betting. This systematic review aims to describe gambling habits and cognitions of sports bettors, and determine the roles of chance and skill in sports betting. Addressing the chance and skill distinction in sports betting would be helpful to identify which of sports bettors' cognitions are erroneous. Out of 991 studies identified in the databanks, 31 met the inclusion criteria of this review. Results indicate that these studies are mostly conducted with male samples aged from 30 to 50 years. These gamblers bet many times per week, with weekly averages ranging from 100 to 200$ CAD. Five studies examined the roles of chance and skill in sports betting, among which three showed that sports bettors perform better than chance in predicting results accurately, but they do not win more money than they would with a random selection, due to the structure of the game. The 11 studies that focused on cognitions indicate that sports bettors overestimate the influence of skill on the outcome of the game. These results support the need to further study the role of cognitions in the behaviours of sports bettors. It also offers insights concerning the distinction between chance and skill in sports betting.

Keywords: chance, cognitions, gambling, horseracing, fantasy league, skill, sports betting, sports lotteries


Les paris sportifs sont associés à des comportements de jeu problématiques. Cependant, on sait peu de choses sur le profil des parieurs sportifs. De plus, il est difficile de statuer si certaines habiletés seraient utiles dans les paris sportifs. Cette revue systématique vise à décrire les habitudes de jeu, les cognitions des parieurs sportifs, et à déterminer le rôle du hasard et des habiletés dans ces paris. Examiner la distinction entre le hasard et les habiletés aux paris sportifs serait utile afin de déterminer quelles cognitions entretenues par les parieurs sportifs sont erronées . Sur 991 études repérées dans les banques de données, 31 répondaient aux critères d’inclusion de cette revue. Les résultats indiquent que ces études sont principalement menées auprès d’échantillons masculins âgés de 30 à 50 ans. Ces joueurs parient plusieurs fois par semaine et misent en moyenne de 100 $ à 200 $ CA par semaine. Cinq études ont examiné les rôles du hasard et des habiletés dans les paris sportifs, parmi lesquels trois ont montré que les parieurs sportifs prédisent mieux les résultats sportifs que le hasard, mais ils ne gagnent pas plus d’argent qu’avec une sélection aléatoire, en raison de la structure du jeu. Les onze études portant sur les cognitions indiquent que les parieurs sportifs surestiment l’influence des habiletés sur l’issue du jeu. Ces résultats confirment la nécessité d’approfondir le rôle des cognitions dans les comportements des parieurs sportifs. Ils donnent également des pistes sur la distinction entre le hasard et les habiletés dans les paris sportifs.


Sports betting is a form of gambling activity where the bet is made on the result of one or various sport events (Rice, Healy, & Rigway, 2012). Sports betting generate around 15% of the gambling industry’s returns throughout the world (Global Betting and Betting Consultants, 2013). In Canada, a report including results of prevalence studies conducted between 2001 and 2014 reveals that 0.4 to 12.2% of Canadians have participated in at least one form of sports betting on an annual basis (Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling, 2014). Horseracing betting, sports lotteries and pools are examples of sports betting activities offered in Canada (Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling, 2014).

Prevalence studies conducted in Canada (Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling, 2014), in the United States (Kessler et al., 2008), in England (Wardle & Seabury, 2012), in South Korea (Williams, Lee, & Back, 2013) and in Australia (Productivity Commission, 2010) show that sports bettors are mostly men. However, due to divergences in the classification of sports betting activities, it is difficult to get a clear picture of sports bettors’ characteristics. Indeed, some studies distinguish every type of sports betting (e.g., horseracing betting, sports events, sports lotteries: See Kessler et al., 2008; Productivity Commission, 2010; Wardle & Seabury, 2012), whereas others group them in one category – sports betting (see Abbot, Romild, & Volberg, 2014; Williams & Volberg, 2013). Consequently, except for their sex, it is difficult to determine the specific characteristics (e.g., age, gambling frequency) of sports bettors based on available prevalence studies. This lack of information on sports bettors makes it difficult to establish their profile as gamblers. It is a cause of concern since those profiles could help to determine adequate prevention or treatment strategies considering that sports betting is associated with problem gambling (Williams, Volberg, & Stevens, 2012).

Williams and collaborators (2012) conducted a systematic review of gambling prevalence studies on an international scale that were published between 1975 and 2012. Out of the 68 studies collected, 24 (35.3%) associate sports betting with gambling problems. After video-lottery terminals, sports betting is the second most frequently associated gambling activity with gambling problems in national prevalence studies (28 studies, 41.2%). Though many studies highlight this association, they usually do not present specific information pertaining to risk factors in sports betting.

Recently, Hing, Russell, Vitartas and Lamont (2016) aimed to identify contributing variables to problem gambling in a sample of 639 sports bettors. Their results reveal an association between being young, male, single, educated, having a full-time job or being a full-time student, and having a high score on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI; Ferris & Wynne, 2001). The sports bettors’ gambling habits, namely gambling frequency and amounts of money spent in sports betting, were also significantly associated with a high score on the PGSI.

Empirical evidence suggests that high gambling frequency and amounts of money spent in gambling activities are associated with gambling problems (Ferris & Wynne, 2001; Marshall & Wynne, 2003; Wiebe, Single, & Falkowski-Ham, 2001). Recently, it has been shown that risk of problem gambling increases with greater frequency and expenditure on sports betting (Hing et al., 2016). However, little information is available concerning specific gambling habits of sports bettors (e.g., amounts of money spent, gambling frequency). Indeed, prevalence studies report detailed information regarding gambling behaviours in general, but they do not present specific information with respect to gambling activity type. In this context, conducting a review of studies that include samples of sports bettors, collecting data relative to their gambling habits, and reporting it by type of sport betting would be helpful to determine if these gamblers show potentially harmful behaviours. This information could help target specific behaviours in a prevention program (e.g. reducing the frequency of gambling or the number of weekly bets).

Many authors propose that gamblers’ cognitions, particularly gambling-related thoughts or perceptions, play a central role in the development and the maintenance of problematic gambling habits (Blaszczynski & Nower, 2002; Fortune & Goodie, 2012; Griffiths, 1994; Ladouceur et al., 2001; Petry, 2005; Walker, 1992). Indeed, certain thoughts in gamblers may not be realistic, nor take into account basic concepts in gambling (e.g., statistics, probabilities, independence of gambling events). These thoughts are generally labelled as cognitive distortions or erroneous perceptions (Ladouceur et al., 2001). Studies suggest that skill games (e.g., poker, sports betting) gamblers present a higher number of erroneous perceptions compared to gamblers with a preference for pure chance games (Myrseth, Brunborg, & Eidem, 2010; Toneatto, BlitzMiller, Calderwood, Dragonetti, & Tsanos, 1997). Sports bettors’ thoughts could be reinforced due to the active role they play in the game, namely by seeking and analyzing sports information. Gathering studies conducted with sports bettors to document their specific thoughts would allow a more accurate depiction of their specific cognitions.

Based on current knowledge, it is difficult to determine the influence of skill on the performance of sports bettors. Some studies carried out with horseracing bettors (Ladouceur, Giroux, & Jacques, 1998) and hockey bettors (Cantinotti, Ladouceur, & Jacques, 2004) indicate that financial gains generated by sports bettors’ predictions are not superior to those of a random selection. Thus, the authors suggest that the belief that skill increases the probabilities of winning in sports betting constitutes an erroneous perception. Since no review to date has gathered all studies that have attempted to distinguish the influences of chance and skill on performance in sports betting, it is difficult to draw conclusions on the erroneous nature of this perception. Hence, gathering these studies would allow us to compare data on sports bettors’ cognitions with data that discriminate the parts of chance and skill involved in sports betting.


The aim of this systematic review is to collect all empirical studies that include samples of sports bettors to answer the following questions:

  • 1) What types of sports betting do they participate in, at what frequency and how much money do they spend gambling in sports betting or other types of gambling activities?
  • 2) What beliefs do sports bettors hold about sports betting?
  • 3) What conclusions were drawn from studies that attempted to distinguish the roles of chance and skill involved in sports betting?

This synthesis of current knowledge will also describe sociodemographic characteristics of the samples of the retained studies.


Research strategy

Literature on sports bettors was identified with combinations of terms entered in the following search engines: PsycNet, PubMed, SportDiscuss and FRANCIS. The first combination was constituted of two sets of generic keywords that include themes relative to gambling and sports: (betting OR bettor* OR gambl* OR lotter* OR wager*) AND (sport OR sports OR "fantasy league*" OR league* OR horse* OR dog*).

This research strategy was conducted with the abstract of the article in PsycInfo, SportDiscuss and FRANCIS, and with the title and the abstract in PubMed.

The second combination was formed with terms from the thesaurus of PsycInfo and Sport Discuss, as well as with MESH terms in PubMed. The search combination used in PsycInfo and PubMed was the following: (“Sports” and “Gambling”). In Sport Discuss, the following criterion was used: “Sports betting”. Since FRANCIS does not include a thesaurus, this strategy was not employed.

To maximize the amount of retrieved publications, a literature research was conducted with the keywords from the first search strategy in Google Scholar. The 200 first results were consulted. Finally, the reference list of these articles was consulted.

Inclusion criteria

Publications that satisfied the following criteria were retained: (1) published in English or French, (2) published between January 1980 (i.e., year that pathological gambling was recognized as a psychiatric disorder; See American Psychiatric Association, 1980) and December 2014, (3) included a sample of sports bettors or described a subgroup of sports bettors, (4) contained either data on gambling habits, gambling-related beliefs, or on the part of chance and skill involved in sports betting, and (5) relied on a research protocol, with or without random assignment (e.g., experimental, longitudinal, cross-sectional).

Reference selection

After excluding 284 duplicates, the literature research gathered 707 publications. During the screening process, 591 publications were excluded after reading the title and abstract. At the eligibility process, 116 articles were read completely by two graduate students in psychology who then conducted an inter-rater agreement process. Disagreements were discussed until a consensus was reached; the final agreement was of 87.9%. Finally, a total of 31 publications were included in the review (see figure 1).


Figure 1. Flow Diagram of Study Identification, Inclusion, and Exclusion

Quality assessment

The Effective Public Health Practice Project Assessment Tool (EPHPP; Thomas, Ciliska, Dobbins, & Micucci, 2004) allows to assess the scientific quality of the studies. The EPHPP tool can be used on observational, cross-sectional, before and after studies and randomized controlled trials (RCT). Six of the eight domains evaluated by this tool are mainly used for the appraisal of intervention studies. Since no intervention studies were included in this review, only the selection bias and the data collection methods of the EPHPP were evaluated. The first author and a psychology doctoral student rated those components individually and discussed the disagreement until they reached a consensus.

Data analysis

Information retrieved for descriptive analysis were related to seven themes: (1) study type, (2) objectives, (3) method, (4) participants description (gambling problem severity, sex, age, etc.), (5) gambling habits description (e.g., amounts spent, gambling frequency, other gambling activities), (6) gambling-related beliefs, (7) data concerning the influence of chance and skill on the gamblers’ performance. To simplify the monetary data presented in this study, they were converted to the Canadian dollar (CAD) based on the exchange rate that was in effect during the recruitment period of the retained studies. The term sports events bettors (SEB) is used to refer to gamblers who bet on sports events other than horseraces, and who do not bet on sports pools/fantasy leagues. The latter consists in selecting a number of athletes from a sport (e.g., hockey) depending on constraints (e.g., salary cap) in order to build a “competitive team”. A membership fee (i.e. bet) is required to create the pool that will be taken by the winner at the end of the pool season. Extracted data were counter-verified by the first author and an undergraduate student in psychology.


Eighteen (58.1%) of the 31 retained studies were conducted exclusively with horseracing bettors, four (12.9%) with horseracing bettors and SEB, eight (25.8%) exclusively with SEB, and one (3.2%) exclusively with pool/fantasy league bettors. For all 31 studies, the sociodemographic characteristics, gambling habits, cognitions related to gambling and main results on the distinction between chance and skill present in sports betting are reported in Table 1 according to type of sports bettors.

Table 1 Main Results for Gambling Behaviours and Cognitions of Sports Bettors and Data Relating to the Parts of Chance and Skill in Sports Betting

Horseracing bettors

Sociodemographic characteristics.

Among 22 studies involving horseracing bettors, the number of participants varied from 13 to 354 for a total of 1,800. All studies were conducted with samples composed of men from 51.7 to 100%. Almost a quarter of these studies included male participants only. Participants’ age varied from 16 to 85, with an average between 25 and 48. However, half of the studies reported mean ages from 41 to 48.

Horseracing betting habits or other gambling activities.

Twenty-one studies out of 22 (95.5%) presented data on horseracing bettors’ gambling habits. Nine studies had inclusion criteria that required a minimal horseracing gambling frequency of one to three times per week. These bettors gambled on average four to five days per week. For studies that did not have inclusion criteria for gambling frequency, one indicated that 42% of their participants gambled many times per week on horseraces (Noriega & Lin, 2003), and one specified that their participants could spend 12 to 14 hours per day at the racetrack (Rosecrance, 1988). Two studies did not specify gambling frequency but indicated that participants gambled at least once per week (Ladouceur et al., 1998) or per month (Oliveira & Silva, 2001) on horseraces. Two other studies presented data on gambling frequency, but did not specify whether this frequency was exclusive to horseracing betting or concerned all types of gambling activities (Coventry & Norman, 1997; Petry, 2003). One of the latter studies indicated that 72% of their participants gambled at least once per week (Coventry & Norman, 1997), and the other specified that they gambled on average 15 days per month for all types of gambling activities (Petry, 2003).

Six studies out of 22 (27.3%) reported data for money spent on gambling. Two presented money spent per session of horseracing betting. One of these studies conducted with gamblers who bet at least once a month indicated that approximately 70% made maximum bids up to 150$ CAD, and 30% made maximum bids superior to this amount on a single gambling occasion (Oliveira & Silva, 2001). The other study reported that gamblers spent 157 to 314$ CAD per gambling session on horseraces, and half of them gambled many times per week (Noriega & Lin, 2003). One study reported spending weekly amounts of 196$ CAD on horseraces (Chantal & Vallerand, 1996) and one specified an average annual amount of 826$ CAD (Chevalier et al., 2004). Two studies presented data for money spent gambling, though without specifying data exclusively for horseraces. The first study indicated that gamblers in their sample spent an average of 240$ CAD per week (O’Connor & Dickerson, 2003), while the horseracing bettors of the second study conducted with gamblers in treatment reported an average amount spent of 14,968$ CAD per month (Petry, 2003).

Cognitions relating to horseracing and skill.

Six studies reported data relating to horseracing bettors’ cognitions on skill. They perceived participation in horseracing betting as a means to acquire knowledge (Chantal & Vallerand, 1996) and considered that a talented gambler must be task-driven, disciplined and possess a good ability to tolerate ambiguity (Rosecrance, 1988). On a nine-point Likert scale, (0 = not at all, 9 = a lot more), participants in one study considered themselves “experts” compared to non-gamblers (M = 3.4, SD = 1.9) and believed that they can better predict horserace results than chance (M = 4.7, SD = 1.4; Ladouceur et al., 1998). Another study indicated that 11.5% of their sample considered themselves better than other horseracing bettors (Noriega & Lin, 2003). Morvannou and collaborators (2012) revealed that horseracing bettors in their sample presented some cognitive distortions concerning gambling in general as identified by the Gambling-Related Cognitions Scale (Raylu, & Œi, 2004), namely overestimation of predictive control and illusion of control. The last study on cognitions indicated that compared to non-gamblers, horseracing bettors agreed more with the statements that when a loss is incurred, the odds of winning increase, and that a game strategy for gambling can be beneficial (Chevalier et al., 2004).

Chance and skill in horseracing betting.

Two publications attempted to distinguish the parts of chance and skill involved in horseracing betting. The first reported that gamblers made significantly more accurate predictions than a random selection, but there was no significant difference for financial returns due to the structure of the game (Ladouceur et al., 1998). The second suggested that it was possible to become an expert in horseracing betting and become better than horseracing officials (Rosecrance, 1988). This interpretation was based on the subjective personal experience of the author, observations of professional gamblers and interviews with professional gamblers.

Sports events bettors (SEB)

Sociodemographic characteristics.

In the 12 studies involving SEB, the number of participants varied from 16 to 47,000. All studies (100%) were constituted of mostly male samples, where the percentage varied from 77.3 to 100%. None of these studies had specific inclusion criteria for participants’ gender. Participants’ age in these studies ranged from 18 to 73, with an average age between 27 and 36.

Gambling habits for SEB and other gambling activities.

Eleven studies (91.7%) out of 12 presented data on gambling habits for SEB. More specifically, six studies reported data for offline SEB and five for online SEB.

Seven studies (58.3%) out of 12 presented data for gambling frequency, and seven (58.3%) reported data for money spent by SEB. One study indicated that SEB gambled on average 4.7 times per week (Arcan & Karanci, 2013). Three studies did not report data for average gambling frequency for SEB and other gambling activities, but indicated that 36.7% (Cantinotti et al., 2004) to 85.0% (Li, Zang, Mao, & Min, 2012) of their sample gambled many times per week. One of these three studies revealed that 62.5% of gamblers spent from 157 to 314$ CAD per session, and half of them gambled many times per week (Noriega & Lin, 2003). Another study that reported specific data for gambling habits of SEB revealed that they bet on average 19 times per week, where each bet was valued around 10$ CAD (D’Astous & Di Gaspero, 2013).

Three observations could be made regarding the gambling habits of approximately 50,000 online SEB. The first was that they were active during the first month of their membership, but their activity level decreased substantially over the following months (Laplante, Schumann, Labrie, & Shaffer, 2008). The second was that women gambled over a shorter period, made higher bids and less risky bets, and lost significantly less money than men (Labrie, Laplante, Nelson, Schumann, & Shaffer, 2007). The third was that gamblers who attempted to exceed the limit permitted by the website bet significantly higher amounts than gamblers who respected it, and had significantly more odds of belonging to the group of most involved gamblers (upper 5% for the seven variables of the study [e.g., total amounts of bets, frequency]; Broda et al., 2008). For these gamblers, a mean amount of 37,000$ CAD over two years was spent, with mean losses of 3,200$ (Braverman, Labrie, & Schaffer, 2011)

Finally, one study was conducted with SEB in treatment and reported general data relating to their gambling habits. They spent a mean amount of 7,415$ CAD per month and gambled an average of 13 days per month (Petry, 2003).

Cognitions relating to gambling and skill.

Four studies (33.3%) out of 12 reported results for cognitions of SEB. In the first, results indicated that in comparison to non-gamblers, SEB agreed more with the statements that after a series of losses, the odds of winning increase, and that a game strategy in gambling can be useful (Chevalier et al., 2004). In the second, 18.8% of participants considered that they had above average skills (Noriega & Lin, 2003). The third compared participants’ confidence in their predictions based on their group. Results indicated that SEB were just as confident in their predictions as students in sports science, and significantly more confident than art students in their predictions of the winner of the soccer world cup (Andersson, Memmert, & Popowizc, 2009). The last study was carried out with hockey bettors. Among these gamblers, 33.1% believed that they could improve their performance, 62.5% believed that their knowledge increased with their odds of gains, 75% believed that assessing their past scores and the location of the match was helpful, and 93.7% believed that ties were more difficult to predict. Most of these participants indicated relying on recent sports results to prepare their bets (Cantinotti et al., 2004).

Chance and skill.

Three studies discussed the parts of chance and skill involved in sports events betting. The influence of experience on the accuracy of sports results was assessed in two studies. Results indicated that experienced gamblers performed significantly better than chance in making accurate predictions. One of these studies focused on the accuracy of participants’ predictions based on complexity level and group. The data showed that as predictions became more complex, SEB predicted results as equally well as university students in sports sciences (understanding the impact of sports on people and society), and significantly more than art students (Andersson, Memmert, & Popowizc, 2009). A study carried out with SEB that bet regularly on hockey indicated that they made significantly more accurate predictions that a random selection. However, there was no significant difference for financial gains between SEB selections and random selections (Cantinotti et al., 2004). One study rather indicated the opposite for financial gains: there was a positive association between gamblers’ experience (measured subjectively) and financial investment returns ([Sum of gains-Sum of bets]/Sum of bets) X 100). The sample of SEB obtained investment returns of 11.1% on the average of their 20 last bets (D’astous & Di Gaspero, 2013).

Pool/fantasy league bettors

Only one study focused on pool/fantasy league bettors (Weiss, Demski, & Backen, 2011). Participants (N = 56) were mostly men (98.2%), with a mean age of 32.5 years, and bet on baseball. Data on gambling habits were not available. Compared to non-gamblers, gamblers considered that skill had more impact than chance on sports pool bets. The authors asked participants to identify the components of skill and chance in the game. The majority (68%) proposed that the gambler’s unpredictable performance was the main component of chance, followed by the league’s procedures (23%) and other elements such as suspensions (9%). Moreover, most participants (66%) identified the gamblers’ selection process as the main component of skill, followed by the strategies employed (17%), for example the choice of opponents, and other various skills (17%). This study did not present data on the distinction between chance and skill inherent to gambling, but suggested that some players were better than others.

Quality assessment rating

Table 2 presents the evaluation of the selection bias, the quality of the data collection methods used, and the significance of the rating. For the selection bias, eight studies obtained a strong score, 10 a moderate score, and 13 a weak score. For the data collection methods, 18 studies obtained a strong score, two a moderate score, and 11 a weak score.

Table 2 Selection Bias and Data Collection Methods Ratings by Study


This systematic review is the first to focus specifically on gambling habits and cognitions of sports bettors. Likewise, it is the only review that gathers empirical data regarding the roles of chance and skill in sports betting.

The first aim of this paper was to determine gambling habits of sports bettors, namely the type of sports betting, gambling frequency and money spent. Over two thirds of the studies retained for this review focused on horseracing bettors, and only one concerned pool bettors. This overrepresentation of studies on horseracing bettors in comparison to other types of sports bettors may be explained by its popularity over time, though it appears to have decreased in the past decade (European Gaming and Betting Association, 2017). Although interest in SEB seems recent, this sports betting activity is rising rapidly in popularity. It is estimated that profits brought in by SEB will increase from 58 billion US dollars in 2012 to 70 billion in 2016 (Hing et al., 2016). This illustrates the increasing popularity of SEB, which may be explained by the increased accessibility offered with Internet and mobile technology and, in turn, may motivate researchers to further study SEB in the future. Concerning sports pool betting, the rarity of studies on this topic could be due to the fact that it is not regulated by gambling laws. Indeed, many pool bets were made between friends or colleagues rather than through official sports betting platforms. However, this type of gambling activity may be perceived as less harmful due to its structure that involves betting only once in the beginning of a season, thus limiting the bettor’s financial investment.

Regarding gambling frequency, both horseracing bettors and SEB gambled many times per week. This high frequency may be explained by inclusion criteria of the retained studies, of which half required participants who gambled at least once a week. Thus, the conclusions of these studies with frequent gamblers cannot be generalized to occasional gamblers. Concerning money spent gambling, horseracing bettors appeared to have similar habits to those of SEB: both groups generally bet over 100$ CAD per week. Overall, information on gambling frequency and money spent presented in the retained studies indicated that they exceeded the threshold of low risk gambling proposed by Currie and collaborators (2006). The authors suggested that an optimal frequency would be of two to three sessions per month, with annual bets of 500 to 1,000$ CAD. Considering this, the seemingly excessive gambling habits of sports bettors as observed in this review may be the result of an overrepresentation of gamblers with problematic gambling behaviours in the samples. Indeed, one in four studies in this review had participants who were probable pathological gamblers or frequent gamblers (i.e. gambled a least two or three times a week). This might be a volunteer bias, as problem gamblers were found to show more interest in participating in gambling research than non-problem gamblers (Chrétien et al., 2013).

The second aim was to identify beliefs held by sports bettors. Findings were similar for all types of sports bettors (i.e., horseracing, SEB and pools). Although only 11 studies focused on this topic, they all reported that bettors had thoughts that minimize the role of chance in favour of skill on the outcome of the game. These results are consistent with the idea that gamblers who play games of skill overestimate their personal ability to win (Bjerg, 2010; Dufour, Brunelle, & Roy, 2015; Toneatto et al., 1997; Walker, 1992). For example, some gamblers believed that accumulating information on past statistics or bets would give them an advantage to make a profitable bet. These potentially risky thoughts are preoccupying as significant empirical data emphasized the potential role of this type of thought in the development and maintenance of problematic gambling behaviours (Cunningham, Hodgins, & Toneatto, 2014; Ladouceur & Dubé, 1997; Toneatto, 1999).

The third aim was to explore how studies distinguished the roles of chance and skill in sports betting. The results converge toward the same conclusion for horseracing bettors and SEB: most of the studies indicated that personal skill enabled gamblers to make more accurate unique predictions. However, most sports betting games are structured in a way that requires gamblers to combine several accurate predictions in order to win money. When gamblers have to combine these predictions, they do not perform better (i.e., they do not win more money) than bets made by random selection. Hence, the belief that sports literacy increases odds of winning in sports betting may reinforce illusions of control (Cantinotti et al., 2004). Only one study reported data suggesting that gamblers’ skill is associated with financial gains. However, the authors indicated that the use of a self-report measure and an underrepresentation of gamblers with a negative balance of gains may have influenced their results. In sum, although most of the retained studies showed that sports bettors’ skill was not associated with financial gain, only five out of 31 studies focused on this question and conclusions were contradictory. Consequently, it remains difficult to quantify the part of chance and skill in sports betting, and to clearly distinguish the influence of each on gamblers’ efficiency. Likewise, it is impossible to determine the erroneous nature of certain thoughts relative to skill held by sports bettors. These thoughts may however encourage gamblers to adopt problematic gambling behaviours in the hope that their personal skills may help them control the outcome of the game.

Strengths and limitations

A limitation of this review lies in the quantity of studies conducted that allowed to answer the research questions. Only 11 studies out of 31 contained data on sports bettors’ cognitions. In addition, only five studies addressed the distinction between chance and skill in sports betting. The conclusions of this study must be interpreted carefully in light of this limitation. It also illustrates the lack of empirical information on components that are essential to better understand sports bettors’ behaviours. A second limitation that warrants careful interpretation of the results concerns the variation in methodological quality of the retained studies. Sports betting has seldom been studied and no randomized controlled studies seem to have been conducted. Consequently, this review is mainly constituted of cross-sectional studies with potential biases. However, the inclusion of these studies regardless of their methodological quality allows for a wider and richer perspective on research that has been conducted on this topic so far.

This review is the first to address the specific characteristics of sports bettors, namely their gambling habits and cognitions. It is also the first to assess available data on the roles of chance and skill involved in sports betting. Finally, the scientific rigor employed during the selection and data extraction processes constitutes a strength of this study.

Recommendations for future research

It is essential to continue research on gambling cognitions as a risk factor in order to determine their impact on gambling habits of sports bettors. Since it is difficult to determine the part of skill involved in sports betting, it is also difficult to determine whether sports bettors’ thoughts regarding the influence of skill on the outcome of the game are erroneous or not. Future research could attempt to conceptualize sports bettors’ thoughts as “at-risk” instead of “erroneous”. However, this particularity could complicate the task of therapists as they generally work with erroneous thoughts (Ladouceur et al., 2001). From a clinical standpoint, counsellors could emphasize financial consequences related to gambling rather than focusing therapeutic work on erroneous thoughts. Gamblers may be more inclined to observe the objective financial consequences of their gambling behaviours rather than recognize the erroneous nature of their thoughts due to the ambiguity that subsists regarding the part of skill involved in sports betting. A longitudinal design would be necessary to verify if there are helpful abilities in sports betting. The first step would be to identify gamblers with a positive return over investment (ROI) and extract their characteristics (i.e., years of experience, knowledge on sports, gambling habits). The second step would be to follow these players over time to see if they can maintain a positive ROI, and to compare the characteristics of players who keep a positive ROI with that of players who do not. Finally, future studies could address pool and fantasy league bettors in order to acquire further knowledge on their specific characteristics. The structure of sports pools is different from that of horseracing and SEB, namely due to the single investment that it requires at the beginning of a season and the months it takes before finding out the results that determine whether the bet is a winning or losing one. It is possible that thoughts and consequences related to gambling in sports pools differ from those seen in horseracing betting or SEB, but few studies have addressed these elements.


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Submitted May 29, 2017; accepted October 9, 2017. This article was peer reviewed. All URLs were available at the time of submission.

For correspondence: Jonathan Mercier, B.A., Université Laval, 2325 rue des Bibliothèques (1313), G1V 0A6, Québec (Qc), Canada. E-mail:

Competing interests: None declared (all authors).

Ethics approval: None required.

Acknowledgements: The study was funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec –Société et culture (FRQ-SC) in partnership with the ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux du Québec. The authors would like to thank Marie-Claude Mailhot, Dominic Nadeau, Pierre-Yves Bergeron, Alexandre Hamel and Édith Gosselin for their collaboration in the data collection phase of this study. We also wish to thank Mélanie Dixon and Catherine Boudreault for their contribution in the last revision of the English version of this paper.

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