Ohio Casinos May Be Allowed To Choose Between Local, National Helpline 

Written By Steve Friess on June 17, 2022 - Last Updated on August 18, 2022

When Ohio finally launches sports betting next year, casinos and their sports betting apps may have a choice of helplines. Ohio’s problem gambling hotline or 1-800-GAMBLER, the number that the National Council on Problem Gambling will soon adopt, could both be options for Ohioans.

The provision is buried deep in the 121-page draft of rules being considered by the Casino Control Commission before Ohio’s sports betting launch. That launch is coming on Jan. 1, 2023.

A choice of hotlines

Most states with their own helplines and call centers require casinos to publish the state’s number in advertising. Ohio plans to provide operators with a dealer’s choice.

“It’s been the properties asking to be able to use 1-800-GAMBLER as opposed to the local number,” says Derek Longmeier, executive director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio. “I would much rather they use 1-800-GAMBLER on multiple-state advertising, for example, as opposed to having to putting 30 different state numbers on an ad where nobody can actually see any of them.”

That has been a goal of the NCPG’s effort to strike a deal with New Jersey’s Council on Compulsive Gambling. The affiliate has owned and used 1-800-GAMBLER for decades.

NCPG executive director Keith Whyte is pushing to “harmonize” the many toll-free helplines. This effort is backed by the American Gaming Association and the National Football League.

The NCPG is using $2 million of a $6 million donation from the NFL to improve a fractured helpline system. The system results in multiple phone numbers on advertising that airs nationally during sporting events.

Until the licensing deal between NCPG and the New Jersey affiliate, there had been little reason for Ohio casinos to support the promotion of the NCPG’s longtime national line, which is 1-800-522-4700, instead of Ohio’s equally unmemorable helpline, 1-800-589-9966.

“This is an important step in the right direction,” says Cait DeBaun, the AGA’s vice president for strategic communications.

“Consumers needing help should be able to write down one number and get the support they need. We look forward to continuing to work with NCPG, its affiliates and the industry broadly on ensuring helpline harmonization efforts deliver against our collective goal of providing effective, reliable support to those who need it.”

The importance of geolocation

An easy-to-recall number won’t solve a key problem that has dogged the prospect of creating an intuitive system. The NCPG and New Jersey numbers route calls to local helplines based on the caller’s area code, not their location. Longmeier says about 10 percent of the calls received by the Ohio helpline come from people calling from elsewhere. 

Longmeier is urging a prompt to callers asking what state they’re from before the call is routed. Whyte suggested a solution similar to that in an interview with PlayUSA last month. However, there is resistance to the adoption of a national number in lieu of a local one among some states.

Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling communications manager Paul Tarbox says a single national number “is a goal that we’d all like to see achieved.” However, he worries that the word “gambler” is “stigmatizing” and discourages callers. In Connecticut, unlike Ohio, gambling regulations require the state’s toll-free number to appear on advertisements.

It is currently not legal for any call center other than 911 to route calls based on geolocation. The Federal Communications Commission can change that with an exemption. So far, they haven’t even done so for the soon-to-be live National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988).

Multiple states call for a single solution

NCPG director of programs Jaime Costello touted the new arrangement as the first stage of a broader modernization plan.

“I think a lot of folks think that we’re just taking over 1-800-GAMBLER and that’s our modernization but, in reality that’s only part of it,” Costello said during a web symposium last week. “Harmonizing those numbers is part of it but [it is also about] the ability to make sure the technology is really smooth and people get to where they need to go. … [And] we want to make sure that we are supporting staff, we’re answering these calls, we’re supporting call centers and giving them the resources that they need, whether it’s staff training and access to consistent training across the board support. … And so we’re really trying to figure out the best way to bring all of those pieces together.”

Whyte echoed that sentiment, asserting that offering one memorable number will boost call numbers overall.

“Can you imagine an ad during the World Series, the Super Bowl or the World Cup where you have one second to see 27 different state helpline numbers? … I think we will demonstrably increase the amount of calls we get with no additional advertising or promotion.”

Longmeier agrees, recalling the havoc that accompanied the launch of sports betting legalization in neighboring Indiana. The casinos were “advertising in Ohio but using the the Indiana helpline in Ohio. I don’t think people care what number they call as long as they get to where they need to go.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for PlayOhio. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Ill., Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected].

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