Even before the first legal sports wager was accepted in Ohio in the wee hours of Jan. 1, the state’s gambling regulator got busy issuing six-figure fines to sportsbooks like DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars, and PENN/Barstool for violating specific advertising regulations — something that left Ohio Casino Control Commission (OCCC) Executive Director Matthew T. Schuler in a foul mood when he fired a memo off to the state’s gambling operators and service providers shortly before launch.
“The Commission is disappointed with the industry’s repeated violations of Ohio advertising law,” the memo read. “In particular, there have been multiple advertisements, from multiple sportsbooks, that either completely lack responsible gambling messaging or have that information so small or obscured that consumers would not be able to access or, more importantly, use that information.”
Attached to Schuler’s memo was the state’s “Conspicuous RG Message Guide,” which contains the following passage: “Video and audio advertisements should not have the responsible gambling message in the fastest voice or lowest audio. No advertisement, regardless of medium, should need to be zoomed in on, slowed down, or have the volume turned up for an individual to see or hear a helpline number. Advertisements where this is the case are clear violations of Ohio law and call into question the industry’s commitment to responsible gambling.”
Schuler’s memo was circulated on Dec. 30. But as recently as Feb. 28, The Ringer Podcast Network’s The Mismatch featured host-voiced FanDuel advertisements, many touting sign-up offers in Massachusetts ahead of that state’s March 10 mobile launch, where the problem and responsible gambling messaging — state gambling addiction helplines and the like — toward the end of each ad was sped up to the brink of indecipherability.
“The absurdity of this is epic,” Whyte replied after hearing one spot. “It damages not just the concept of responsible gambling, but it’s damaging to FanDuel themselves. We hope they hold the people they advertise with to high standards.”
Whyte added that FanDuel’s “RG folks are good,” and the sportsbook operator’s response to this situation supports this opinion. Sports Handle sent the aforementioned Ringer snippets to FanDuel spokesman Chris Jones on March 3. Without mentioning The Ringer by name, he replied, “Our team is always working with partners to make sure reads are not sped up to the degree [where] listeners can’t understand wording. [We’re] constantly working to fine tune in light of various different national and local requirements.”
A publicist for The Ringer and its founder, Bill Simmons, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Sports Handle. But on The Mismatch’s March 7 podcast, co-host Kevin O’Connor’s voice was not sped up during his recitation of state helpline numbers and other critical information for those struggling with gambling issues during a FanDuel ad, indicating that the sportsbook and its media partner had corrected their course.
‘Our goal is long-term compliance’
Because The Ringer’s February FanDuel spots appeared to potentially be in violation of Ohio’s responsible gambling messaging guidelines, Sports Handle sent the clips to the OCCC to get the commission’s take on the matter. In response, OCCC Communications Director Jessica Franks said, “The Commission regularly checks to ensure our licensees are in compliance with all laws and regulations, including those for advertising and promotions. The Commission welcomes tips and information if someone is concerned a violation has occurred, and will take appropriate action when needed.”
In a brief followup conversation, Franks said, “Our goal is long-term compliance with these guys.”
Sports Handle also sent the clips to Massachusetts Gaming Commission Communications Division Chief Thomas Mills, since that state was featured so prominently in several of the Ringer/FanDuel spots. Mills responded by saying, “This particular matter will be brought to the attention of the commission,” and sent several pages from the state’s regulations surrounding sports wagering advertising, singling out the following section:
(2) Advertising, marketing, branding, and other promotional materials published, aired, displayed, disseminated, or distributed by or on behalf of any Sports Wagering Operator shall include a link to and phone number for the Massachusetts Problem Gambling Helpline using language provided by the Department of Public Health and such other information regarding responsible gaming as required by the Commission (“Responsible Gaming Messaging”).
(3) Such advertising, marketing, branding and other promotional materials shall not use a font, type size, location, lighting, illustration, graphic depiction or color obscuring conditions or limiting factors associated with the advertisement of such Problem Gambling Helpline Information.
When Sports Handle informed Mills that The Ringer was now airing the problem gambling messaging on its FanDuel ads at normal speed, Mills replied, “Interesting to know — I will pass it along.”
Time to revisit ad requirements?
By swiftly moving to bring one of its partners into compliance, FanDuel will likely avoid a major fine. But the solution to this issue lies not in how quickly or slowly a podcast or radio host reads a promotional script. Rather, it’s what’s required to be in that script — and the requirement itself — that could use some fine-tuning.
When a problem gambler calls the NCPG’s national helpline, 1-800-GAMBLER, they will be routed to the helpline or an equivalent resource in their state to get the treatment or assistance that they need. In spite of this, several states still require sports betting ads to contain specific state hotlines as well.
If a spot has the potential to be heard nationwide, which is the case with anything that airs on The Ringer Network, that makes for a dizzying amount of hotline numbers that must be rattled off. Listen to the March 7 Ringer/FanDuel ad that aired at normal speed, and you’ll notice about half of O’Connor’s time is spent taking listeners on a nationwide tour of problem gambling resources.
The fix, as Whyte points out, is easy: States should only require the national helpline to be read, and that’s it.
“One problem, of course, is the state regulators who cling to their state-specific numbers even though the national helpline works everywhere in the U.S. by referring callers directly to the state-specific resources,” said Whyte. “The solution is to get the industry’s army of lobbyists to update the regs so that FanDuel and their ads can use just the national number.”
“In 1995, setting up your own state helpline number was a great idea. … In 2023, requiring an operator to list your number and 25 other different numbers is a bad idea. It actually hurts people trying to get help.”
— @TheKeithWhyte1, on the national move toward 800-GAMBLER: https://t.co/AHE0DiZbdm pic.twitter.com/wSWrgudeQE
— US Bets (@US_Bets) March 3, 2023
FanDuel, for one, seems up for this challenge.
“We’re always working with partners to be certain responsible gaming messaging is clear and compliant within our advertising. Unfortunately, this can be challenging, as the regulatory environment is different state to state,” said Jones. “We continue to encourage all legalized states to adopt the national standard RG hotline 1-800-GAMBLER framework that would aid in avoiding lengthy disclaimers, both visually and in audio, while, more importantly, making the available help resonate for those who need may need it.”
“When we created the national helpline, it was to make the call easier for someone who faces all these barriers to get help,” added Whyte. “We do the same thing with 9-1-1, and for every national disease or disorder, there’s one national number. One national number is even more important today because of the wide reach of social media and because an ad will be seen in multiple states. It places a huge compliance burden on operators and advertisers to get it right.”
Whyte went on to say that the NCPG “will be active at the state level urging them to update their regulations to allow operators and advertisers to use the national number in lieu of state numbers,” adding that roughly half of all states with legal sports betting had already granted that permission. Driving home the 9-1-1 analogy, Whyte said, “The national number doesn’t replace a state helpline; it just routes people efficiently to a state helpline. It’s a pass-through. It’s like 9-1-1. They instantly route that call to the local police or fire department that’s closest to you.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a leader of the nation’s preeminent problem gambling organization, Whyte isn’t sure requiring that problem gambling information be included on each and every sports betting ad is the most effective way to reach people who truly need help.
“In the old days, before widespread gambling advertising was a thing, it probably made sense to have a number and a message on every single ad,” he said. “These days, the most effective approach might be to say every fourth ad should just be a responsible gambling ad to avoid it being seen as just a compliance thing. Three ads could be just sports betting with no disclaimer, then the fourth ad could be purely RG.
“Regulation around advertising has to evolve. In a lot of cases, we’re driving a lot of callers to these helplines whose gambling problem is they can’t activate their bonus. When state lotteries put our number on the back of the ticket, we got a lot of calls wondering what the jackpot was last night. So we’ve got to do a much better job and make sure that these messages are tuned toward those who are at risk and that we’re targeting them effectively.”