Exclusive: NCPG Nears Deal To Take 800-GAMBLER National, Replace Local Hotlines

Written By Steve Friess on May 4, 2022 - Last Updated on May 18, 2022

The National Council on Problem Gambling expects this month to strike a deal to take control of 800-GAMBLER from its New Jersey affiliate and then start the process of turning it into a national helpline for people seeking help with gambling addiction, NCPG executive director Keith Whyte exclusively tells PlayUSA.

The move would start an effort to consolidate the industry around a single, easy-to-remember helpline number and end a pastiche of at least 27 different state-level numbers that creates confusion, wastes state resources and frequently flummoxes people seeking assistance with their problems.

The NCPG would eventually replace its own national number, 800-522-4700. This launched in 1985 and routes calls to state-level call centers based on the caller’s area code or to a call center in Shreveport, Louisiana, if a state has no number or a local operator is not available.

Whyte says:

“We have a proposal with the New Jersey chapter to lease in 800-GAMBLER in the other 49 states. If we do that, we would make it so whether you call the national number or 800-GAMBLER, your call is routed to the local call center for the same local services. If we can do that, we’ll probably switch to using 800-GAMBLER nationally. It’s easier to remember, it’s more memorable. The board of directors of NCPG still hasn’t made that decision yet, but I don’t think we would try and get the rights of 800-GAMBLER if we weren’t going to use it.”

Hashing out the wave of change for the NCPG

First, though, the Council on Problem Gambling of New Jersey – a separate 501(c)3 non-profit that is affiliated with NCPG – must agree to share the number it created back in the 1980s when it was one of just two states to even offer legal gambling at casinos. In the Internet era, the New Jersey entity also has since adopted 800gambler.org as its domain name and contracts with several states without call centers to route calls that come in from outside the Garden State.

It’s unclear what the New Jersey group is seeking in the negotiations. Whyte says the talks are ongoing; CPGNJ Executive Director Felicia Grundin did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

Says Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow in responsible gaming at the International Gaming Institute at University of Nevada at Las Vegas and a former longtime MGM Resorts executive:

“If they want to be compensated for it, that would be entirely reasonable. They have invested a lot of time and money in that, so I don’t find that to be unusual or out of out of line in any way.”

Several entities are eager to see a consolidated national number, including the National Football League and the American Gaming Association. Whyte says the NCPG is using about $2 million of a $6 million grant from the NFL to modernize and update the entire gambler helpline industry. That includes unifying behind a single helpline number for advertising that appears on national NFL broadcasts as well as “raising standards, improving training and certification and better collection data,” Whyte says.

Figuring out how to best help problem gamblers

Cait DeBaun, an AGA vice president who oversees problem gambling issues, says the need for one number is crucial now that legal sports betting and other iCasino offerings are becoming so widespread around the U.S.

“The ads have become more national, but the states still require state-specific numbers, and that leads to confusion for consumers. It’s possible that an ad can have up to 12 helpline numbers, and that’s not providing service to a customer if someone is in need of help. If they’re looking at the advertisement and writing down that number, they should be able to write down one number, call that number and get connected to help that’s going to be the most convenient and relevant to them.”

One prime example of the clutter and confusion came with Caesars’ Super Bowl advertising. Because the ad appeared simultaneously everywhere, it was required to have several gambler hotline numbers crammed into small type on the screen. Because New York State’s regulations specify that their helpline appears either during the entire ad as “at least 2 percent of the height or width, whichever is greater, of the image on the screen” or at the end at 8 percent of the image’s height or width, the New York number overwhelmed the others.

The result, according to Virginia-based gambling industry consultant Brianne Doura-Schawohl, is that New York received many calls from people not in New York who were then told to call their local or national numbers.

“That’s a real concern because if you look at someone who’s in crisis with a gambling addiction, we know that the suicidal ideations and concern is far more significant in gambling addiction than other addictions, so these are people who are in crisis and it can take years upon years for someone to be able to admit that they need some help. Can you imagine finally picking up the phone and being told, ‘You’re not in this jurisdiction, I’m not sure I can help you.’ ”

There remain technical challenges ahead, Whyte says. The ideal would be for states to keep their call centers and have calls routed to them based on the caller’s geolocation given how Americans move often between states and often maintain their original cell phone numbers.

Yet the only emergency number that is permitted to geolocate calls in that way is 911, per federal law. Thus, the NCPG number routes calls based on the caller’s area code which leads a caller in, say, Michigan, with a Las Vegas cell phone number to get turned to the Nevada call center.

Whyte says they are seeking a “technological solution” that may involve a menu where callers select their state:

“The state of Michigan has resources that differ completely from Indiana’s resources, so getting the gambler to the right call center is pretty critical for a number of reasons, one of which is that the resources you have access to are completely state-specific.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for PlayUSA and its related local sites. 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, Illinois, 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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