Sports gambling ads are everywhere. Should they be restricted — or even banned?

CHICAGO - APRIL 14:  Josh Naylor #22 of the Cleveland Indians leaps but cannot catch the double hit by Leury Garcia #28 of the Chicago White Sox on April 14, 2021 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

By Daniel Kaplan

May 12, 2023

“I haven’t seen an online sports betting ad in almost 7 minutes. Am I dead?” — Conan O’Brien, 2022 tweet.

Five years ago this weekend, the Supreme Court overturned the ban on sports betting that had stood for decades in most of the country. It would take a few years for states one by one to license the business in large numbers, but to date, sports gambling has been approved in 33 states plus the District of Columbia, a number likely to grow this year.

That tide has brought a tsunami of sports gambling ads as scores of sportsbooks scramble for market share; with each new state opening up a mad dash of commercialism and marketing conveyed on media ranging from traditional TV, social media, radio and text notifications. (The Athletic, it should be noted, has a sponsor partnership with BetMGM.) For many, it’s an annoyance as their phones and TVs are awash in gambling pitches from the likes of the Manning family (Caesars Sportsbook), Nicki Minaj (the now-shuttered MaximBet) and Rob Gronkowski (FanDuel), to name but a few.

But critics take umbrage with ads seemingly aimed at kids, collegians and problem gamblers littered throughout sporting events, particularly those featuring celebrities who make gambling seem cool and normal. These Madison Avenue spots are just part of the marketing deluge that’s snared the attention of lawmakers and regulators.

“This is a public health crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who has introduced a bill to ban sports gambling ads, comparing them to once upon-a-time ubiquitous tobacco spots. “What we’ve done is simply displace Joe Camel with this activity.

“What’s worse is they’ve replaced Joe Camel with celebrity spokespeople.” (Joe was a smoking cartoon camel popular in the ’80s and ’90s in ads for Camel cigarettes.)

According to ad-measurement firm iSpot, national sports gambling TV spots grew from $17.6 million in 2018, the year of the Supreme Court decision, to $278.4 million last year ($110 million in 2023 through April 30). And those figures do not include local TV or other outlets including websites, social media, billboards, radio and podcasts.

There are no definitive studies linking advertising to problem gambling, but calls to the National Problem Gambling Hotline have been on the rise. According to the hotline, monthly calls rose 124 percent to over 30,000 between March 2020 and March 2023. And these figures don’t reflect calls to state-specific hotlines.

Tonko’s bill, which has received strong industry pushback, is by far the strongest effort proposed by a still nascent movement to rein in the advertising avalanche. There is no federal regulatory framework for gambling, so outside of Tonko, the fledgling pushes are at the state level, especially in Massachusetts, Ohio and even Maine, which is proposing a ban on celebrity endorsers.

“Just about every jurisdiction doesn’t want to have celebrities, especially ones that could possibly influence somebody under 21 years of age,” said Milt Champion, executive director of Maine’s Gambling Control Unit. He points to Kevin Hart, a pitchman for DraftKings, who starred in the movie “Jumanji” as possibly normalizing sports betting for kids like Champion’s preteen grandson.

“My grandson, who’s now what, 11, 12 years old, likes ‘Jumanji,’ and so when he sees Kevin Hart on the ads, he’s thinking ‘Jumanji,’ and so on, Kevin Hart says, it (betting) is good,” Champion said.

Sensing lawmakers’, regulators’ and public concerns about saturation marketing, the industry of bookmakers, sports leagues and broadcasters formed a consortium last month to push voluntary guidelines. The policies include not promoting irresponsible behavior, marketing only to those of legal age and designing spots in good taste. Depending on one’s vantage point, this is a responsible industry initiative or a transparent move constructed to head off coming regulation.

At a November roundtable hosted by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to take feedback on proposed state restrictions on sports gambling ads, industry and league experts sang from the same book. Their premise is that nothing is inherently wrong with sports gambling ads, as long as they don’t target kids and problem gamblers, or falsely advertise. In fact, the leagues and bookmakers argue the ads promote responsible gaming and pull gamblers away from illegal markets.

“We have to permit enough advertising so that the legalized regulated sportsbooks can draw customers away from that illegal market,” Marquest Meeks, vice president and deputy general counsel at MLB, told the Massachusetts roundtable. “We’re working in collaboration with industry leaders and experts like the AGA (American Gaming Association), our broadcast partners, and everybody’s layering on top of everybody else’s efforts to the point where we not only have the belt, we have the suspenders and we’ve taken a bit of extra string and rope to tighten it up as well. Because we all want to avoid potential problems that can come from not being as careful and thoughtful.”

Casey Clark, an AGA senior vice president speaking at the same roundtable, added, “Looking at advertising not just as a monetary or commercial opportunity, but as an opportunity to advance our RG (responsible gaming) is really critical. I don’t think advertising and responsible gaming are mutually exclusive. I think they’re actually really beneficial.”

Responsible gaming in industry parlance refers to spots that include messages about help hotlines and exhortations to gamble responsibly.

Clearly, there are strong financial incentives for the gambling ad gravy train to persist. Leagues pull in revenue from sponsorships and media ads, and the broadcasters have a strong source of advertising cash that did not exist before the 2018 ruling.

When the Massachusetts Gaming Commission met again in March, however, the state attorney general’s office, apparently concerned about the commission’s direction, told the group it would consider invoking consumer protection laws to confront the marketing.

“There’s a population of people who will be negatively affected by mobile sports betting who will slide into addiction and possibly face continuing personal, financial and mental health challenges,” Pat Moore, first assistant attorney general, told the March 9 hearing. “We intend to do our part. … Among other things, that means requiring the operators to abide by our consumer-protection laws, particularly as to the marketing, promotion and even the design of their sports betting apps.

“We are seeing betting apps being promoted through credits, and even referral bonuses, which often lock users in for a particular period of time, or until they have spent a particular sum of money. These promotions are not permitted in other industries that pose public health risks, like the sale of alcohol or marijuana, and the burden should be placed squarely on the operators to show why any particular promotion should be permitted here.”

New Orleans’ Superdome, home of the NFL’s Saints, is now sponsored by Caesars. (Lance King / Getty Images)

Still, some industry insiders take a hard-line stance against any advertising restrictions, arguing the concern about children is overblown because gambling is off-limits for those under 21 (a bill to legalize sports betting in Kentucky would lower the age to 18).

Chris Grove, an industry consultant and analyst with Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, criticized efforts to restrict ads and even questioned regulations in Ohio to ban terms like “risk-free” in betting ads.

“What harm does the exposure create?” he asked of young kids’ watching gambling ads. “And what’s the formula so operators aren’t directly targeting folks who are under 21? What’s the formula by which they’re meant to not market, or to market in a way that excludes folks who are under 21 from seeing those ads?”

Indeed, new regulations in states like Massachusetts that prohibit ads on programming where 25 percent of the audience is under age 25 don’t explain how exactly that is determined. Clearly, “Sesame Street” is out, but what about other programming where the audience might not be so clear?

There are few documented links between exposure to sports gambling ads and addiction. One 2021 research paper did cite a connection between problem gamblers and these ads in Norway. A United Kingdom white paper released last month from the country’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport did not find one but suggested more research into the subject.

The white paper concluded there is a “lack of conclusive evidence on the relationship between advertising and harm. The limited high-quality evidence we received shows a link between exposure to advertising and gambling participation, but there was little evidence of a causal link with gambling harms or the development of gambling disorder.”

A spokesman for the International Center for Responsible Gaming wrote the U.S. group is soliciting grants for a study on the effects of gambling advertising, spanning television, digital media and push notifications. “The ultimate aim of this endeavor is to identify the advertising elements that could potentially encourage hazardous or problematic gambling attitudes and behaviors,” the representative wrote. “By doing so, the study will establish metrics for the creation of advertising standards for gambling operators and regulatory bodies. The research project is set to begin in the autumn of 2023 and will be concluded within two years.”

Matt Zarb-Cousin, 33, doesn’t need studies to declare, in his words, the perils of sports advertising. Zarb-Cousin, the founder of the Coalition Against Gambling Ads in the UK, had lost everything to gambling before he reached the age of 20 and nearly took his own life, he said. He started gambling before the UK first allowed betting ads, but he said when they were green-lit in 2007, they only fueled his addiction.

“When I saw an advert, I would want to take myself to the betting shop and put a bet on. It definitely exacerbated the problem,” he said. Though his initial gambling was fueled by the abundance of physical betting locations in the UK, after 2007 the ads “definitely made it worse.”

He had been pushing for an ad-ban proposal in the UK white paper but said the interests with money on the line were too hard to overcome. There are already guardrails in the UK that appear to have convinced the government that self-policing negated the need for a ban. In the UK, sports gambling spots can’t air during games — a policy put in place by the industry — and recently the Premier League agreed to ban gambling sponsors on the front of jerseys.

The Washington Capitals are among North American pro sports franchises to have a jersey patch sponsorship deal. Caesars Sportsbook advertises on their uniforms. England’s Premier League agreed this year to stop having betting sponsorships on jerseys. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

Free speech concerns could hamstring an aggressive restrictive push in the U.S. Under the 1980 Supreme Court decision Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Held, the government may restrict commercial speech if the interest served by the restriction is substantial. The ruling paved the way for clampdowns on booze and cigarette ads, which were placed in the context of public health.

Rep. Tonko argued sports gambling ads are predatory and target vulnerable populations: “When you’re going after children, and young adults and college students, and those who may be on lists, in our society, who are in recovery, I think that can be pretty cruel.”

But though Tonko and others describe sports gambling as a public health crisis, there is no declaration from a government agency that this is the case. Still, Maine’s Champion said, “I can tell you, addiction is real. … I’ve seen suicides over addiction. So it’s nothing to play with, you know, and if it’s hitting the younger age, we’ve really got to take a look at it.”

It’s possible some of the ad volume could dissipate if the number of sports books declines. PointsBet USA is for sale, and the thinking in the sector has always been there is not enough room for the roughly dozen sportsbooks operating today. As they consolidate, the need for marketing intensity might wane. And the newest entrant, Fanatics, is relying on its vast database to capture customers more than a gusher of ads.

“DraftKings, FanDuel, (Bet)MGM, Caesars are going to pull back a little bit on how much they spend on all this as they try to become profitable,” said Dustin Gouker, an industry consultant. “So it’s maybe a problem that’s going to solve itself a little bit more than it would have in the past.”

Perhaps, but with three of the largest states — California, Texas and Florida — yet to legalize sports betting, if they do another rush of market share, ad spending is sure to follow.

And even comic critics like Conan O’Brien have come around. FanDuel is now a sponsor of his podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” during which the comedian reads the betting ads’ script extolling the gambling platform’s virtues. No joking.

(Top photo: Ron Vesely / Getty Images)

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