Ohio Sportsbooks Mischief Endangers Legalization Elsewhere

Written By Steve Friess on January 31, 2023 - Last Updated on March 23, 2023
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North Carolina State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a progressive Democrat and ardent foe of online gambling, can now point about 500 miles northwest for her most recent example of the evils of the casino industry. As Harrison begins her 10th term representing the fine folks of Greensboro, she is devoted to preventing the Tar Heel State from opening the door to legal wagering.

How kind of the biggest names in the business to give her a potent new talking point with the spate of boneheaded infractions that came along with the Ohio launch of mobile sports betting this month.

“The industry is insincere when it talks about how it is against problem gambling and this is just more proof of that,” she tells me. “I think they don’t like how it reflects negatively on them, but at the same time they’re in the business of making money off gamblers. They don’t have an incentive to help problem gamblers, because that’s their cash cow.”

Casino executives routinely speak about how that isn’t true, how gambling addicts aren’t sustainable as customers. How important it is to protect minors because, dagnabbit, they’ve got sons and daughters, too, y’know. How they’re the major funders of research into the causes of and treatments for compulsive gambling behavior.

And then BetMGM, Barstool, DraftKings and Caesars prove their north star is, indeed, marketing and profit as they leapt recklessly into the crowded, very lucrative market that is the sports-crazed Buckeye State. They all whined about how slow the state was to launch mobile betting, but they could’ve used more time to read the regulations and find ways to comply.

Read more from the State of Play column:

Sportsbooks gone wild in Ohio

First, it was Barstool Sports alighting in Toledo six weeks before launch for a live TV show before an audience of 1,000 that included hundreds of undergraduates in which the personalities openly talked about preregistering for Barstool Sportsbook. The Ohio Casino Control Commission slapped Barstool’s parent company, Penn Sports Interactive, with a fine of not less than $250,000.

Meanwhile, DraftKings shipped out 2,500 mailers to people under 21 in November in Ohio and faces a $350,000 fine for that. Evidently, other people’s young sons and daughters are fair game after all.

Then, upon launch, BetMGM, DraftKings and Caesars all found themselves in the OCCC firing line for either failing to properly display the problem gambling hotline information and/or offering “free” bets that require deposits and, thus, were not free. Those errors may cost $150,000 each.

All of this was avoidable. All of it was obviously inappropriate. All of these very experienced operators either just didn’t care enough to follow the laws and protect the public good – or they’ve been getting away with such behavior for so long elsewhere they didn’t expect to be so brutally shamed by a red state like Ohio, of all places.

The level of mistake and/or mischief here is absurd. And so, so, self-defeating.

Bad behavior for the sports betting industry

That the OCCC came down so fast and hard is a testament to their sincerity about balancing the liberty of consenting adults to spend their money as they wish with negative public health implications that might be unleashed.

The operators themselves, though, could not have had worse timing. Just two months ago, California voters brutally rejected sports betting at the ballot box. Casino companies and universities are pairing up, prompting concerns about marketing to minors. The New York Times exposed flaws in the plans for sports betting revenue in Kansas that have legislators and the governor expressing “buyer’s remorse.”

Now is not the time for these folks to confirm all the things iGaming foes predict and fear. States like North Carolina, Missouri, Texas and Kentucky – which shares a media market with Cincinnati, natch – are paying attention. Legislators who want to legalize must now answer for the bad behavior of an industry that the public has never truly trusted. It doesn’t take much to pierce the respectable gloss that has settled over this world in recent decades.

Harrison, for instance, is well aware that many regulations in other states are not followed. She points to Tennessee, among others, for allowing credit cards to fund gambling accounts despite a strict law against that. Operators are just peachy with players going around the law by accepting money from Play+ and PayPal accounts that can come from Visa or MasterCard. It’s not their fault.

But it is their problem, at least from a public relations standpoint. If they want to continue to open new markets – not to mention legalize mobile casino gambling, too – they must behave impeccably.

“Some of this was so brazen, it was a little mind-boggling because no operator should do that, especially an operator that has been in business this long,” says Derek Longmeier, executive director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio. “I’ve not seen any state that has fined operators for marketing or advertising issues like this. I really think we’ll set a new industry standard for what you should expect.”

Gambling rules not meant to be broken

Longmeier says the casino companies have “clearly gotten the message and pretty quickly have responded and are making sure the Ohio Problem Gaming Hotline is clear and conspicuous, that they’re not saying free bets if they’re not actually free.”

That’s the most optimistic way to see it – that a chastened industry will be more circumspect at launches. We’ll see how true that is as Massachusetts sports betting goes live.

“We’re all hoping for a smooth start up there,” says an industry lobbyist in talks with legislators in several other states. “This was a headache we didn’t need. It makes our jobs exponentially harder.”

Indeed, the Ohio debacle isn’t going to shove any genies back into bottles where mobile sports betting is already legal. But getting genies out of those other bottles just got a bit more difficult.

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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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