First came the rise of sports betting. Now comes the backlash.
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and regulators who began the dogged expansion of legalized gambling in the United States are now heading to locales nationwide to tighten oversight of the gambling industry, especially when it comes to advertising that might reach underage gamblers.
The crackdown extends to gamblers themselves, as at least three states have responded to a jump in abusive behavior by barring gamblers if they threaten or harass athletes after losing bets.
This more aggressive approach to online betting is evident in countries around the world, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, where officials have issued or proposed new restrictions on online betting in recent months, in some cases involving sponsorship by celebrities and almost all advertisements.
Nationally, 33 states and the District of Columbia offer legal sports betting, followed by Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska and Florida. That means more than half of Americans live in places that allow sports betting, five years after the Supreme Court overturned a law barring most states from legalizing the practice. Collectively, Americans have legally wagered more than $220 billion on sports since the 2018 lawsuit.
In the United States, changes to state rules and laws began this winter in states, including New York, where mobile sports betting generated $16.5 billion in wagering and an extraordinary $909 million in new tax and licensing revenue. in the first year it was legal.
But the explosion of legally sanctioned online sports betting has also led to growing concerns that it could do harm. New York responded by proposing new rules ban advertising on college campuses or is “targeting those under the minimum age,” which is 21 in New York, while Ohio ramped up enforcement actions.
“People are becoming aware of the need to step in and not wait a decade and bear the brunt of the harmful effects of this, especially on minors,” said Matt Schuler, executive director of the Ohio Casino Control Commission, who said that he was extremely disappointed. with advertising content in its state when betting began this year. “The industry will certainly never check itself.”
According to BIA Advisory Services, a data aggregator, an estimated $1.8 billion was spent last year advertising online gambling in local markets in the United States. sports viewers – that the airwaves had become too saturated with sports betting advertisements.
In the past six months, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio and Connecticut have passed or proposed new rules regarding sports betting, some of which are now in effect or awaiting final approval. The measures vary by state, but most are aimed at preventing deceptive marketing or promotions aimed at underage gamblers.
Maine has proposed rules that would only allow television advertising for sports betting to appear during live broadcasts of games, which would be the most restrictive policy in the country. They would also ban ads offering gambling bonuses and ban the use of “cartoon characters, professional or Olympic athletes, celebrities or entertainers” in ads.
Massachusetts last month formally banned marketing on college campuses and banned advertising aimed at minors. This month it also joined New York in banning sports betting marketing outfits from receiving a commission on bets placed by customers who supply them to sports betting platforms over concerns that these regulations could fuel gambling addiction.
Brian O’Dwyer, chairman of the New York State Gaming Commission, said sports betting generated a windfall in tax revenue in his state. But he added: “We have to make sure we don’t hook people up, we don’t promote problem gambling and we certainly don’t promote underage gambling.”
Maryland and Connecticut are acting separately to bar gambling companies from making deals with public universities in which they pay schools to help them market their sports betting platforms.
“I think it’s outrageous,” Connecticut State Representative Amy Morrin Bello, a Wethersfield Democrat, said of the agreements certain gambling companies had signed with eight universities across the country. Her bill banning the deals passed this month by 142 to 0.
Ms. Morrin Bello and Mr. O’Dwyer said their regulatory action was prompted by The New York Times’ coverage last year of the explosion of sports betting in the United States, including marketing on college campuses.
The Ohio Casino Control Commission has imposed more than $800,000 in fines on sports betting companies since January. . The offenders included DraftKings, one of the most prominent gambling platforms, which acknowledged that it illegally claimed that gamblers could place “free” bets and mistakenly sent 2,582 advertisements to state residents under the legal gambling age of 21, urging them to download the mobile app and claim $200 in free bets.
Penn Entertainment, another major sports betting company operating under the Barstool brand name, was fined separately in February. Late last year, on the campus of the University of Toledo, Barstool hosted a college football show promoting the company’s sports betting mobile application despite a ban on ads targeting anyone under the age of 21.
Both companies declined to comment.
Mr Schuler said the enforcement had led to increased advertiser compliance. But he said he still had concerns, such as the logos of gambling companies on the jerseys of players for the professional football team in Columbus, Ohio, a practice he called “completely offensive” since these players are heroes to many young people. “Their greed trumps the common sense they should be using when watching out for the harm done to minors,” he said, adding that he currently does not have the authority to ban betting sponsors from appearing on jerseys.
The spate of abusive behavior targeting college athletes and professional players has caught the attention of coaches and the players themselves. Anthony Grant, the coach of the University of Dayton men’s basketball team, condemned verbal and online attacks by angry gamblers on his players in January, just days after Ohio legalized sports betting.
At a hearing last month in Illinois, Josh Whitman, the athletic director of the state’s flagship university, asked lawmakers to continue banning the state’s sportsbooks from accepting bets on in-state college sports. He presented lawmakers with a letter, signed by representatives from many of the state’s universities, that contained five pages of crude and sometimes racist remarks made against players and teams online.
Chris Boucher, a forward for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, described one of the hateful messages he received from a gambler on a podcast in March. “I chose the wrong slave today,” the person wrote to Mr Boucher on social media after losing his bet.
“In its purest form, players take offense that fans sometimes pretend players are playing to bet,” said David Foster, deputy general counsel for the union representing NBA players. “If it crosses the line and becomes harassment and threatening, that’s even worse.”
While the specific language differs, any law or rule changes proposed or passed this year in Ohio, West Virginia and Massachusetts would broadly allow state officials to bar gamblers who threaten or harass athletes.
The industry supported the proposals and said it abhors that kind of behavior towards athletes.
“There’s absolutely no room for that,” said Casey Clark, a senior vice president at the American Gaming Association, whose members include most of the major casino companies, as well as FanDuel and DraftKings. “And anyone who reacts in such an extreme to losing a bet has a gambling problem, I think, and needs to get help.”
The gambling industry and professional sports leagues have announced their efforts to tackle harmful practices and avoid further mandatory tightening of rules.
That includes revisions to the American Gaming Association’s “responsible marketing code” that endorses the ban on the term “risk-free” betting and prohibits marketing partnerships with colleges. The professional sports leagues and some television networks have joined in forming what they call the Coalition for Responsible Sports Betting Advertising, making statements such as “sports betting should be marketed only to adults of legal age to bet.”
Mr Clark said the industry has taken steps to address emerging issues for regulators, reflecting a commitment “to provide the right kind of consumer protection that will enable a sustainable legal sports betting market.”.”
Brianne Doura-Schawohl, a lobbyist representing the National Council on Problem Gambling and other organizations, said the move to tighten the rules was in response to the shoddy work state officials have done in so many states since 2018 to enact laws that legalize sports betting.
“These are discussions that should have taken place prior to legalization,” she said.
The moves by regulators abroad, Ms Doura-Schawohl added, reflect what could happen if the US sports betting industry does not take swift action to address problems that have arisen in countries where sports betting has been legal in some cases for many years. are. .
Australia is preparing to ban the use of credit cards to place bets online, which now make up about 20 percent of bets. Belgium and the Netherlands will ban gambling advertising on television, radio, newspapers and in public spaces from this summer.
“If you have untargeted advertisements – billboards and TV commercials – you have no control over who sees them, not even by young people and people with gambling problems,” said Frerick Althof, a spokesman for the minister of legal protection in the Netherlands.
Canada’s largest province, Ontario, last month proposed a ban on the use of athletes and celebrities in advertisements, concluding that “the potential harmful impact on the most vulnerable populations, minors, remains significant.” And in the UK, the government agency overseeing online gambling released a much-anticipated study last month that concluded that “change is needed now” because “gambling carries the risk of becoming a clinical addiction”, describing “financial risk controls” for gamblers are proposed. losing more than $160 a month and endorsing a move to remove gambling logos from the front of players’ shirts.
Mr Clark, of the American Gaming Association, said the gambling industry would object if some of these moves were proposed in the United States, as it relates to the pending limits on sports betting advertising in Maine, which it considers excessive .
“We’ve always wanted to learn from more mature markets,” he said, but added, “We’re not in favor of restrictions when we can bring legal, regulated things to market.”