scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Double your money if the Celtics score? Eye-popping sports betting offers are hard to ignore.

Six apps are competing for your attention — and they’re often paying cash. But experts warn that long-term, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The FanDuel app on a smartphone.Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

Somerville resident Jay Friedland isn’t much of a gambler. He lives by the maxim that you shouldn’t “bet money you don’t have.”

But when legal sports betting went mobile this month and the 31-year-old accountant saw what the online apps were offering new customers, a typically wary Friedland found himself slightly intrigued.

The advertisements popping up in Davis Square, on the MBTA, and on virtually every social media site were relentless. Hundreds — even thousands — of dollars in bonus credits were being waved under the noses of first-time users if they deposited money into apps run by Barstool, BetMGM, Caesars, WynnBet, DraftKings, and FanDuel.


It was one offer in particular that really caught his attention, however: A “No-Brainer” bet that promised to double wagers of up to $50 if the Celtics scored a single point. Unless the entire team dropped dead after tip-off, it was a sure thing.

“I was not expecting that at all,” said Friedland, who relented and downloaded the app making the offer. “Once you get to the point where it’s like they’re giving you money, you kind of lose that sense of inhibition.”

Sure enough, the Celtics scored a point — 134 of them, actually — and he was $50 richer.

As half-a-dozen mobile sportsbooks have competed for Massachusetts gamblers’ attention the last few weeks, they’ve promoted deals that come as close to handing out cold, hard cash to new customers as legally possible.

Welcome to what some see as the golden era of betting apps, a short-lived frenzy of offers that, while irritating to those who’d rather not hear about them nonstop, are leading thousands of otherwise hesitant bettors to dip their toes into wagering on sports. The cash bonanza has supercharged gambling in Massachusetts and stoked concerns from experts about how easy it can be to get sucked in.


“It’s great marketing,” said Matt Bain, content manager for PlayMA, a sports betting analysis site. “Sportsbooks have gotten really, really good at this business they’re in. There’s a reason they make the amount of money they do.”

At this stage, Bain said, it’s all about recruitment.

Bets that almost certainly can’t lose get people to go through the motions of real-life gambling: linking a bank account, transferring money, placing a bet, and watching the winnings pile up.

If enough new users stick around and keep spending money, companies will easily recoup what they shelled out during the promotional phase.

Things appear to have gone as planned. In just the first three days, when the bonuses were large and easy bets frequent, Massachusetts gamblers set up more than 400,000 profiles on the mobile apps now available.

But those bettors shouldn’t get used to having it so good.

“[Companies] only do this during the launch,” Bain said. “It’s not smart of them to essentially give away these close-to-guaranteed-winner promos at any other time.”

Anyone depositing large sums in the apps in search of bonuses and promotions should also proceed with caution. Bain urged new bettors to always read the fine print.

For example, “bonus cash” typically can’t be withdrawn for actual US currency — users need to first place bets with it, then only get to keep whatever they might win. They may also have to spend those credits quickly, as they can expire in just a few days.


Still, the bets with extremely favorable odds on highly plausible events, like a single point being scored, come with virtually no strings attached. Both the initial stake and the winnings go straight to the user’s account, and can be withdrawn right away.

For some, this caliber of sweetener has fueled a time-tested marketing strategy: word of mouth.

Soon after these types of bets went live, North Andover resident Patrick McCarthy said, friends rushed to text him about it.

“It seemed too good to be true, but I think for the most part the advertising was pretty accurate,” said McCarthy, 30. “I think [the apps] are all just trying to outdo each other at this point.”

Like others, he signed up, collected his bonuses and one-point Celtics bet, and enjoyed the thrill of seeing cash appear in his account. He’s not concerned about developing a costly gambling habit, though.

“Do I personally see myself doing it a lot? No. But I could certainly see the appeal,” he said.

McCarthy is among those who have said they plan to take their winnings from these offers and walk away, and only place bets occasionally.

Still, winning — or feeling like you’re winning — can be intoxicating.

Although companies include links to responsible gaming resources, this temporary gold rush can be troublesome for people with histories of addiction to sports betting, said Michelle DiBlasi, chief of inpatient psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center.


“This can be really enticing for them to get back into that habit,” DiBlasi said. “Your brain, even if [you quit gambling] a long time ago, has this learned reflex that sticks around. When you see this sort of trigger, it becomes a lot easier to want to start getting back into it.”

Even when there’s no money at stake, betting with bonus credits can provide a dopamine rush that’s comparable to the real thing, she said.

“Your brain is going to be responding the same way,” she said. “I think that it could be really dangerous, and can lead people down a really challenging path.”

Friedland, the accountant, has tried to remind himself of that.

After accepting his bonuses and playing with the cash he’d accrued, he found betting with it to be almost too easy. Soon he realized he’d lost track of how much he’d lost.

“This is basically a battle between your self-control and literal free money,” he said. “And I can’t say that the self-control battle has been as easy as I would have liked it to be.”

To keep himself accountable, Friedland developed his own safety approach by making a spreadsheet of his betting habits. After tallying up his profits against his losses, he was still in the black.

For now, at least.

Spencer Buell can be reached at Follow him @SpencerBuell.