Responsible Gambling Taking A Back Seat To Mass Hysteria

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I was on the phone with Harry Levant last week — he’s the gambling reformer (insert Trump voice: “Some people, some very good people, say ‘anti-gambling person’”) — asking why he thought it necessary to contact SuperBook and report that their employee, Taylor Mathis, had talked to second-grade students about March Madness.

It was a pleasant enough conversation, as these things go, and about halfway through, Levant apologized and asked me to hold on, as he had another call coming in he had to take.

The call was from the office of U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, the man who is seeking to ban sports betting advertising, period, full stop.

And that’s probably all you need to know about the current state of nanny state-style hand-wringing that’s happening in the industry, the fact that Levant — who believes the sports betting industry should be regulated like the tobacco industry and told me he sees the “responsible gaming” model with the “industry saying we can police ourselves” as equal to the “Sackler family with opioids” — is the one being contacted by a United States congressman.

Meanwhile, groups that have been trying to bridge the gap, trying to be centrist, trying to be the reasonable people at the party, are off in the corner, ignored.

Don’t believe me? Ask Keith Whyte.

Banning and grandstanding

“No one is talking to us. The state regulators launching these regulations … most of it’s not based on good responsible gambling theory, and almost none of it’s done in consultation with us or our state affiliates,” said Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

“And that’s when it starts to get dicey, when you’ve got sort of self-proclaimed experts, a lot of whom have an ax to grind or something to sell you. I think both the gambling industry and government have made mistakes and allowed critics and opportunists to jump into the debate without knowing what they’re talking about.”

Whyte doesn’t agree with the current race to limit or ban sportsbook advertising.

“To people spouting off on advertising bans: That’s not a serious solution,” Whyte said. “There’s a lot of good policy we could do that would meaningfully help people with problems.”

Whyte points to the NCPG’s support of the GRIT Act the Gambling Addiction Recovery, Investment, and Treatment Act — which would be the first federally funded problem gambling treatment or research program. It would take half of the government’s excise tax fee — well over $100 million — and apply it to problem gambling.

“Or you could grandstand on a bill that has no chance of passing,” Whyte said.

It’s fair to say Whyte isn’t exactly thrilled with the current hysterical climate.

“We wish more people that have problems talk to us about the solutions. Because we’ve got ‘em,” he said. “The government going from ‘gambling is bad,’ to ‘gambling is good,’ to now we’re going to ban advertising — it’s just wild leaps. And it’s going to get wackier.

“I do think these things tend to pendulum. I think we’re at the start of the swing, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Operators have made mistakes, states have made mistakes, and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. As a result, a lot of government officials are running around with nonsensical solutions.”

My favorite one is in Minnesota, where a bill has been proposed to ban gambling advertisements in limos, taxis, airports, and the like. That’ll solve problem gambling. For sure.

Everyone is (not) betting on sports

Quick little sidenote here: One might think online sports betting has taken over the country like some kind of sports betting zombie apocalypse.

One would be incorrect.

Eilers & Krejcik, a research firm focused on the gambling industry, released its 2022 “gambling spend” study last week. Americans spent $157 billion last year on assorted forms of gambling. That’s over $600 per adult in the country.

And where did we spend this money? Casinos, mostly, with 63% of the action. After that, the lotteries, at 23%. Distributed gaming — you know, slot machines at bars and the like — took 5%. Mobile sports betting came in at 4% (total sports betting at 5%). Charity-connected gambling came in at 2%.

Show me the bills, at the state or federal level, that are seeking to ban casino advertising. Show me the bills that are seeking to ban lottery advertising (which I love to mention uses children’s cartoon characters to sell its crappy product). As for “charity”? Show me the outrage over my daughter selling 50/50 tickets at $20 a pop for her special education school.

But online sports betting? All of 4% of the gambling pie? That’s the boogeyman that has state and federal lawmakers falling all over themselves in a race to police it in any way possible.

Levant rising

Right now, it would seem to appear the Levants of the world are having their moment. Levant, for all the rhetoric, insists he’s not “anti-gambling,” as he’s painted by the opposition.

“Not only am I not anti-gambling, I’m certainly aware that gambling has been around since the dawn of time,” Levant said. “The first caveperson invents the first wheel, there’s some schmuck three caves down laying 3-to-1 the wheel wouldn’t work. And gambling is going to be around until the sun explodes — someone will be taking book on how cold it gets, how fast.”

But Levant — who is a recovering gambling addict and whose story certainly serves as cautionary tale for gamblers who get out over their skis — is seeking to bring the industry to heel.

“I’m opposed to the responsible gaming model — the combination of the gambling establishment, the gambling industry, the technology companies, the world’s largest media companies, state government, professional sports, and advocacy organizations that have come together to feed the public the message of responsible gaming,” he said.

“Meanwhile, all of these same forces deliver two public health threats: one, the constant access to action, and two, the business model set up by these entities is they have to continue to deliver more constant access to more action to satisfy Wall Street expectations.”

As for the more moderate voices like Whyte, and his view of Levant and the like?

“It plays into the anti-gambling narrative, not the responsible gambling narrative,” Whyte said. “Those two things are diametrically opposed.”

Well, at least folks taking a taxi to St. Olaf may be spared the horror of a sports betting advertisement. Praise be to the author of that bill. Sheesh.


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