Just before Christmas and only a little over a week ahead of the statewide launch of legal sports betting, Ohio regulators sent a sternly worded message to sportsbooks planning to operate in the state, imploring them to do a better job with responsible gambling messaging in sports betting advertising.
In a letter addressed to sports gaming stakeholders, which includes sportsbook operators and media, the Ohio Casino Control Commission expressed its concerns that sports betting advertising in the state ahead of the Jan. 1 Ohio sports betting launch has not been following Ohio’s established guidelines requiring placement of responsible gaming messages in all forms of advertising.
In the letter, the OCCC said that it has been disappointed to see “consistent violations” of the guidelines.
“We understand mistakes happen, but it is not a mistake when it appears to be this consistent,” the OCCC wrote.
The letter said that failure to address the OCCC’s concerns could lead to “administrative action,” though it was hopeful that would only come as a last resort.
Sportsbooks breaking “core tenets” of responsible gambling requirements
The OCCC said that it has seen advertising in the state from the sports betting industry that has broken the “core tenets” that the OCCC has been sharing since June regarding sportsbook advertising and marketing.
The three core tenets that should be followed, according to the Commission, are:
- All advertisements must have a responsible gambling message
- All responsible gambling messages must be conspicuous
- Advertisements must not target individuals under the age of 21
“These (tenets) comport with a stance the industry repeats itself over and over again; namely, that the industry does not want to have people participating in gaming if they are underage or have a gambling problem,” the letter said.
OCCC asks operators to to ensure “conspicuous” messaging
The OCCC asked that all sportsbook operators immediately review their advertising to make sure that the responsible gambling message is not only included, but that it is “conspicuous.”
“An advertisement should not have to be zoomed in on, slowed down, or the volume turned up for an individual to see or hear a helpline number. Our expectation is that the (problem gambling) helpline number be at least nearly as clear, legible, and audible as the advertisement, whether advertised directly by the operator or through an affiliate marketer. To be clear, conspicuous certainly is not having the responsible gambling tagline in the smallest font, lowest voice, or fastest speech in the advertisement.”
The OCCC’s letter said that it has never sought to “manage” the industry’s advertising, which is why it doesn’t set specific size or audio requirements for the responsible gambling messaging, nor has it ever required OCCC approval of advertisements or promotions.
“As such, we ask for the same courtesy from the industry,” the letter stated. “Act in accordance with your stated goals on responsible gambling. We look forward to helping the industry do so.”
The OCCC’s letter ends with a link to the Commission website’s updated Sports Gaming FAQ section, which includes the defined guidelines regarding advertising, marketing and user recruitment.
Barstool Sportsbook issued violation notice for Toledo promotion
The OCCC’s letter also asks that all operators “look at the platforms and areas they are advertising and ensure they are not targeted at individuals under 21.”
The plea to not promote to anyone under the age of 21 comes on the heels of the Commission’s recent chastisement of PENN Entertainment, the company that owns Barstool Sportsbook.
PENN was issued a notice of violation of Ohio’s regulations against promoting sports betting on or near college campuses and targeting people under 21. The violation stems from a Barstool College Football Show video broadcast from on or near the campus of the University of Toledo in mid-November. Barstool Sportsbook’s pre-registration was allegedly promoted on the program.
OCCC Executive Director Matthew Schuler briefly addressed Barstool’s violation at a mid-December OCCC meeting.
“This apparent direct promotion to college students is completely at odds with responsible gaming and the law,” Schuler said.
The OCCC will hold a hearing to determine what to do regarding Barstool’s violation. PENN and Barstool could face up to a $250,000 fine, which is what the commission’s notice of violation recommended.
OCCC also on the lookout for deceptive “free bets” messaging
Another area of concern for the Commission is what it considers “misleading” language in sportsbook promotions that advertise “risk-free bets” or “free bets,” which have been a fairly common offer in the sports betting industry.
The OCCC’s website describes a scenario where a sportsbook runs a promotion that offers a “$100 free bet once you bet $100.” The Commission says that is a false and misleading claim since it costs the user $100 to get the bonus bet credit.
Such claims are against Ohio law. Ohio Administrative Code 3775-16-09(C) states:
Promotions or bonuses described as free or risk-free must not require the patron to incur any loss or risk their own money to use or withdraw winnings from the free wager.
In a recent Washington Post story about regulatory push-back against misleading “free” and “risk-free” sportsbook offers, the OCCC’s Schuler reiterated that Ohio would not allow such promotions in the state.
“If something is claiming to be free or risk-free, then it has to absolutely not require the patron to incur any loss or risk their own money,” Schuler said, echoing Ohio law.
Schuler also warned sportsbook operators against trying to sneak the true risk factors of the wager into the terms and conditions section.
“We are not supportive of trying to put the truth in small print,” Schuler confirmed.
The OCCC website’s suggests operators simply find other terms to use besides “risk-free” or “free bet”:
Some examples may include: bet credit, promo play, bonus play, bet bucks, bonus bucks, bet tokens, etc. An operator could get more creative—for example, if a sportsbook was called “MyOhio,” the operator could call the tokens “MyOhio Money.” There are numerous options without misleading patrons.
State, sportsbooks push responsible gambling ahead of Ohio launch
In the months leading up to Ohio’s Jan. 1 sports betting launch, the state and several sportsbooks hoping to operate in Ohio have in their own ways emphasized the importance of responsible gambling.
The Ohio for Responsible Gambling organization, which partners with the OCCC, Ohio Lottery Commission, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Ohio State Racing Commission, offers problem gambling/responsible gambling resources on its website as well as through the Before You Bet site.
In November, the state launched the “Pause Before You Play” campaign, which showed Ohioans interested in sports betting how to prepare before engaging. Once sports betting launches in the state, Ohio for Responsible Gambling is planning more such campaigns aimed at giving sportsbook users and potential users tips and resources to gamble responsibly or get help for problem gambling issues.
In the industry, sportsbooks have also made gestures toward responsible gambling promotion, with initiatives ranging from stepping up advertising and promotional campaigns to setting certain wagering restrictions.
It’s estimated that Ohio will spend up to $1 million annually to support responsible gambling, which is less than some nearby states. Some experts, including Bowling Green professor Joshua Grubbs (who is conducting an ongoing study of problem gambling in relation to sports betting), say that more funding for research and expanding problem gambling treatment is crucial to confronting the expected increase in cases of gambling addiction/compulsion across the state.