Sports Betting Companies Should Self-Regulate Ads to Avoid UK Fate

Felicia Grondin is the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

The business side of sports betting is typically full of calculations about market share, customer acquisition cost and lifetime customer value, as it should be. But it’s important to remember that all those data points represent real people, and the vulnerabilities of those people—customers—warrant a closer look at a cautionary tale from across the pond.

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Sports betting in Europe got a nearly two-decade head start on the U.S. It has expanded to the point that eight teams in England’s Premier League now have the logo of a sportsbook emblazoned on their shirts. England, along with much of western Europe, has finally recognized that the profits sportsbooks are reaping come with a devastating societal cost—the more betting, the more problem bettors, the more debt and, in too many cases, despair.

As this fallout reached a crisis point, England took steps to rein in gambling advertising, prohibiting sports advertising during games. London’s mayor recently vowed to take the further step of removing gambling ads from the Underground.

Over the last few years, the downsides of the sports gambling surge seen in Europe have become apparent stateside. The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey (CCGNJ) recently testified on increased problem gambling at a hearing before the Assembly committee for tourism, gaming and the arts. During the session, I noted the significant rise in gambling and gambling ads in recent years. New Jersey sports gambling in particular has seen a staggering amount of wagering: $25 billion in the four years since it became legal. The gambling industry’s television ad expenditures rose by 250% in one year, from $292 million in 2020 to $725 million in 2021, according to Nielsen. This ad outlay largely reflects the fierce competition among sportsbooks vying to emerge as the dominant player in this market.

If the numbers sound staggering, the human toll is heartbreaking. The Assembly hearing included the screening of a segment from HBO’s Real Sports entitled, “Show Me the Money,” to which CCGNJ contributed. The video included interviews with the mother and girlfriend of a 25-year-old man from England whose gambling debt drove him to commit suicide. It is, unfortunately, an all-too-common scenario, since disordered gambling’s suicide rate is 20%—the highest of any addiction.

CCGNJ’s 800-GAMBLER Helpline, which takes calls from problem gamblers, has seen a 141% increase in call volume since 2018. The unsettling stories that have emerged include that of an 81-year-old woman whose phone solitaire habit led her to begin gambling. She ended up depleting her $400,000 nest egg and now must work a minimum-wage job. Another recent call came from a man who squandered his son’s college fund through online sports betting.

Committee chairman Ralph Caputo, who endorses gambling as a source of revenue for the state, nonetheless characterized the volume of advertising as “obscene.” He is not alone among New Jersey lawmakers in taking issue with gambling ads. Senator Ray Lesniak, who placed the very first legal sports wager in the state, expressed dismay at the content of some gambling marketing. In an article on Sportshandle, the senator said: “I’ve actually made complaints to the DGE [Division of Gaming Enforcement] about some of the TV advertisements that I believe have been too enticing. I saw one that had someone putting a new pool in their backyard from winning on slots or something. Stuff like that. I think some of these advertisements have gone a little too far in promoting the big dream, the big win. We have the regulatory power, we just have to use it.”

Two legislators who generally view gambling as a plus for the state are not blind to the costs that come with 24/7 access to betting apps, along with an endless stream of gambling ads. And as Lesniak said, they have the power to do something about it.

One approach would be to require warning labels at brick-and-mortar casinos and online betting sites. The CCGNJ presented these two concepts to the Assembly committee this past May. Legislators were receptive to our recommendations, and we are hopeful they will come to pass.

It’s hard to argue with the “obscene” label chairman Caputo applied to the volume of gambling ads now running. If the industry truly wants to avoid what’s happened in the U.K., it will go a step further on its own. Although it may seem an unrealistic scenario, sports betting companies would do well to take the lead in curtailing their marketing bombardment. Self-regulation is usually more palatable than that enforced by external groups. Companies understandably have a hard time pulling back when there’s money at stake, but one way or another, either with self-imposed limits or those imposed through regulation, curbing the excess of gambling marketing is in everyone’s best interest.

Felicia Grondin is the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

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