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Steve Friess: Six Months In, Ohio’s Sports Betting Launch Holds Lessons For Regulators, Media

Written By Steve Friess on June 23, 2023 - Last Updated on February 16, 2024
Ohio Sports Betting Launch Problem Gambling

In early January, Derek Longmeier was pretty peeved.

“I couldn’t scroll through Facebook and not find an illegal ad that either did not include the helpline number or was advertising for risk-free bets that weren’t,” he says.

Longmeier is the executive director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio. He and his members responded by sending screengrabs and links to the Ohio Casino Control Commission or OCCC. Within days, the OCCC chastised several mobile app purveyors, including BetMGM, Barstool, DraftKings and Caesars. Some $1 million in fines were assessed and the apps suffered some totally deserved, self-inflicted, unbecoming media coverage.

He hasn’t seen an illegal ad since. Says Longmeier:

“After those fines went through, all those changes were made, those shifts happen, they were in compliance. It really goes to just making sure that the regulators are holding the operators accountable for their actions and really making sure that they’re following the rules. That’s really all we can ask for.”

Well, the casino companies could just not violate the law, too. But evidently, as with my 3-year-old, they need to hear someone with authority say “NO!” before they behave. “There’s really no excuse to not follow the rules,” Longmeier says.

Still, there’s a key lesson here. As with the old Soviet Union, regulators must trust, but verify.

Media narrative on problem gambling needs pushback

There also are lessons for journalists covering the launch on Jan. 1.

The Ohio sports betting launch is the biggest success in the industry this year. More than $1 billion wagered in the first month. Some $209 million in revenue for 16 online and 14 retail sportsbooks. The biggest handle of any state other than New York. More than 160 million transactions from more than 2.25 million unique user accounts in January 2023.

But with that, predictably, came a plethora of reports about a spike in gambling addiction based entirely on the call volume reported by Longmeier’s organization and random anecdotes.

One gambling intervention program administrator told WCMH in Columbus in February that his clientele had doubled:

“I’m seeing a lot more younger folks coming in, mainly between mid-20s, mid-30s, but then I’m getting some folks coming in that are casino gamblers, and what’s really been surprising are the amount of people doing the online.”

This may well be true. But there’s never any context. If there’s a surge in people seeking help through therapy, that’s a good thing, right? Presumably, they didn’t just become addicted in the prior month; more likely than not, they were already betting on offshore sites and came into contact with the messages about problem gambling when they switched to legal, regulated domestic outlets.

But more importantly, not one of the stories I saw noted that the vast plurality of calls to Longmeier’s helpline had nothing to do with gambling addiction at all. In January 2023, the helpline received 1,492 calls, a record.

Of those, 35% were errant — often people seeking tech help for a gambling app or some similar customer service question. That figure is remarkably stable, Longmeier says, even when call volumes rise.

In May 2023, for example, the number of calls was 754, or about half of that from January. The percent of calls not relevant to gambling was 34.8 percent. Check out May’s breakout:

 

It’s not that the rate of gambling addiction rose because it became more available. The numbers are larger than a year prior, yes, but not in a way that is disproportionate.

What’s more, isn’t it funny that we never ever see media reports of gambling addiction falling when the raw numbers of calls to helplines drop? I mean, if the rising data is that important and reflective, then can we now say that gambling addiction has fallen by half because the call volumes are down?

No. Of course not. Longmeier agrees that this data needs to be explained better. He says:

“From what we know from other states, you see a spike when sports betting launches and then that curtails. And, also, we see that summer is a slow season for sports betting. So we’ll expect to see that spike again in the fall when we have NFL and NCAA football coming back. Then we’ll have likely a lot more people reaching out for help with challenges that they’re experiencing.”

Longmeier rarely gets quoted explaining things like this. In January, he figures, the spike came from the launch. February (the Super Bowl) and March (NCAA Tournament) saw similar high numbers.

Ohio deserves credit for its launch

Already, Longmeier says, Ohio’s launch has influenced other states.

“Just look at New Jersey, adopting similar marketing guidelines, Massachusetts adopted something similar. New York is looking at it. So there’s a shift that we’ve seen. That is to the credit of the Ohio Casino Control Commission. … That really sets a positive tone for how we balance of giving a product for people who want it while also helping protect those who will be adversely affected.”

As a Michigander, this pains me to say, but I must.

Well done, Ohio.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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