A new gambling partnership is raising some eyebrows in Ohio.
Earlier this month, Prime Sports launched as an online sportsbook in Ohio. According to state regulations, Prime needed a market access partner to enter the Ohio sports betting industry.
Enter SPIRE Academy, an alternative high school in Geneva. The school focuses on athletics (with a student enrollment of fewer than 100) and wanted to get into the sportsbook business.
But Derek Longmeier, Executive Director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio, thinks SPIRE’s entry into the gambling business is problematic. Although it hosts collegiate tournaments and runs a sports research development lab, it’s still a high school. Thus, its student body is too young to gamble legally.
In fact, it’s the first such partnership between a high school and a sportsbook.
Longmeier believes that’s why a minor operator like Prime ended up with the deal.
“None of the big operators wanted to touch [SPIRE],” Longmeier told PlayOhio.
SPIRE students can’t gamble, so why the partnership?
Sportsbooks have partnered with several academic institutions over the past few years. But most partners ended these deals recently.
The University of Colorado ended its partnership with PointsBet, and both Michigan State University and Louisiana State University severed their deals with Caesars.
All these colleges include at least some students above the legal gambling age of 21.
That’s not the case with SPIRE, which leads us to the obvious question: How does a partnership like this even happen?
Jessica Franks, Director of Communications for the Ohio Casino Control Commission (OCCC), told PlayOhio that lawmakers did not include any automatic disqualifying factors in the state’s legislation requiring sportsbooks to partner with an Ohio-based business.
Though there are criteria that must be met in all such applications, the bill did not say who could — or could not — apply for a license to operate in the state. So, it boils down to an Airbud-esque loophole for SPIRE and Prime Sports: No rule says they can’t partner in a sportsbook enterprise.
According to Franks, the OCCC has no input or opinion on business partnerships. On the other hand, the commission conducts regular audits to ensure all regulations are met and that “the money they’re making is being made the right way.”
Partnership creates advertising problems for Prime
Part of making this money is in advertising, and here is another area where eyebrows could migrate upward regarding Prime and SPIRE’s partnership. Prime cannot advertise on SPIRE’s campus because sports gaming advertising cannot target individuals under the age of 21.
For instance: If and when Prime creates an Ohio sportsbook promo offer, it won’t be able to promote that at SPIRE.
Regulators are only allowing Prime to operate an online sportsbook at the moment. Its application for a license to operate a brick-and-mortar location is still pending.
“While the Prime Sportsbook has launched online, their retail sports book has not,” Franks said. “They still have requirements to meet.”
What are those requirements that Prime and SPIRE have thus far failed to meet? We don’t know.
Prime and SPIRE partnership raises concerns about youth gambling
SPIRE Academy’s decision to get into the sportsbook business is also concerning for organizations devoted to advocating for responsible gambling. Take Longmeier’s Problem Gambling Network of Ohio, for example.
Longmeier is troubled by the partnership, citing the simple fact that partnering with a high school is well outside of gambling industry standards and norms.
He believes this is why SPIRE was not able to partner with any of the larger sportsbooks, like FanDuel Ohio or DraftKings Ohio, and ended up partnering with Prime. It’s a sportsbook that still is not operating in any other states, though its website lists New Jersey as a planned second state of operation.
All this raises questions about SPIRE’s motivation for partnering with a sportsbook. Longmeier has a simple answer: money.
“For whatever reason, SPIRE saw an economic benefit to moving into this space,” he said.
However, SPIRE and Prime were both mum on the point of motivations and goals. After initially responding to an interview request, SPIRE Academy did not respond to multiple follow-up emails or a voicemail from PlayOhio.
Prime Sportsbook and its parent company, Out the Gate Inc., also did not respond to requests for an interview.
It’s certainly possible that SPIRE and Prime will operate separately. But the optics of the association are tough to ignore, especially with potential underage gambling and Ohio responsible gambling issues.
Longmeier ultimately fears that this partnership will put SPIRE’s student body at risk for youth gambling. Furthermore, he thinks this partnership reflects poorly on online gambling writ large in the state.
“I think it makes the whole industry look bad to have a high school running a sportsbook,” he said.