Is Paul Tonko’s Bill to Ban Sports Betting Advertising a Sign for Leagues to Self-Police?

In the five years following the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the great balancing act for the American gambling industry is being aggressive enough to hook the customers it needs to thrive without alienating the disinclined or ambivalent.

Cautionary tales were there ready for viewing in Europe, where public backlash to gambling’s ubiquity led to outright advertising bans. The nullification of PASPA by the Supreme Court allowed states to legalize sports betting, and with 34 US jurisdictions in some phase of implementation, the specter of federal intervention is a repulsive prospect to gambling’s acolytes, whether state-level politicians or gambling executives.

New York Congressman Paul D. Tonko (D) sees the balance as askew, leading him to introduce the “Betting on our Future Act” in the House of Representatives on Feb. 9. The bill would ostensibly curtail the spread of gambling advertising and touting of risk-free bets, following the model of the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act.

Said Tonko:

“In the years since the Supreme Court legalized sports betting, these unfettered advertisements have run rampant, with betting companies shelling out billions to ensure they reach every screen across America. These ads pose a particularly dangerous threat to adolescents and young adults unaware of the risks involved in gambling, and to individuals prone to addiction.

“The excessive, uncensored promotion of these sites needs to be put in check. My legislation puts a halt to this dangerous practice and sends a powerful message to the online sports betting advertisers. Congress must take the necessary steps to reel in an industry with the power to inflict real, widespread harm on the American people.”

The gambling industry has reacted with expected disdain and counterpoints, but it remains to be seen if Tonko’s bill will gain traction where predecessors, such as a 2018 Orrin Hatch-Chuck Schumer bill to create a federal sports betting model, failed.

“Any such effort only serves to reduce awareness for legal options to the benefit of illegal, offshore operators and the detriment of consumers and communities,” the American Gaming Association said in a statement. “The proposed legislation would violate well-established free speech protections and undermine the expertise of more than 5,000 state and tribal gaming regulators across the country.

“Responsibility is a foundation of the legal gaming industry and that includes with advertising. In fact, there’s never been more attention paid or resources invested in responsible gaming and problem gambling resources.”

Either way, the Tonko bill will serve as another measure on the scales of a balancing act not only sports betting companies, but American sports leagues increasingly relying on gambling as an engagement tool and revenue source, must consider as sports wagering becomes more ingrained in sports entertainment.

Could Pro Team Uniforms be the Line Americans Don’t Want Sportsbooks To Cross?

Sports betting content permeates many aspects of the sports entertainment experience, and not every viewer is amenable.

Fans can click off designated gambling shows or ignore bottom-of-screen crawls flashing odds.

But sports betting signage in arenas, and — specifically in the National Hockey League — on uniforms, is unavoidable.

Europe perhaps sent the United States another primer this week, with the English Premier League reportedly agreeing to self-ban gambling advertising on the front of team jerseys. The BBC reports that clubs have not yet voted on the proposal, however.

England stands as one of the more mature gambling markets in Europe, saturated with the experience to the point where in 2020 the House of Lords Select Committee proposed banning gambling sponsorships.

After months of lengthy discourse and threats about a governmental ban of gambling advertising, a long-awaited white paper yielded nothing with teeth, yet.

Still, the EPL — where eight of 20 clubs brandished gambling companies as their primary sponsor this season — seems ready to make a move designed to create a firewall against national intervention.

In the US, only the NHL allows gambling patches on the front of game uniforms in jurisdictions where sports betting is legal. And only the Washington Capitals (Caesars) and Vegas Golden Knights (Circa) have availed themselves to this revenue stream. (The Seattle Kraken announced the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe as a patch sponsor on Feb. 22, but the patch won’t specifically mention the tribe’s casino).

Granted, these 3 by 3.5-inch patches are far less noticeable than the dominant sponsor logos that have pushed soccer team crests to the upper chest, but whether through rule or self-reflection often uncharacteristic in sports ownership, both the NHL and other leagues might be wise to self-police this passive form of advertising.

“I think a better compromise would be to define an acceptable volume of adverts and create space for messaging that would put even more focus on consumer protection while promoting the commercial aspects of sports betting,” Martin Lycka, senior vice president for American Regulatory Affairs and Responsible Gambling at Entain, told Gaming Today in an email. “This goes for NHL uniforms as well.”

European Countries Have Already Banned Gambling Ads

Italy banned gambling advertisements and sponsorships in 2018 but is reconsidering after the Italian Football Federation highlighted subsequent financial hardships among clubs. Spain followed in 2021. Holland is in the process of banning all gambling advertising. too-man-sports-betting-ads

Italy’s example is illuminating, Lycka said, but not for the reasons the government intended.

“I strongly believe that any advertising ban is counterproductive,” Lycka told Gaming Today. “Italy, that has introduced a blanket ban on gambling-related advertising, serves as both a testament to the aforesaid statement and a warning to any authorities that may consider going down this route. As a result of the ban, the country has driven certain customer segments into the underground of the black market, deprived itself of a key channel of delivering consumer protection messages and prejudiced financing of numerous sports teams.

“I would suggest that a more productive way of handling this matter is by means of collaboration between the state regulators and the industry with a view to identifying an optimal volume of advertising and defining clearer bonus-related terminology.”

Tonko’s bill focuses on mitigating “unfettered advertisements” that it claims “have run rampant.” They’ve at least hit a level of din that annoyed potential customers in states that have legalized sports betting, and sports betting executives have acknowledged a need for restraint even while attempting to acquire new customers.

The problem has been made worse, FOX Bet CEO Kip Levin said at the 2021 Global Gaming Expo, because the industry is “trying to use television to build a category from scratch.” He added: “Everybody’s trying to get the early adopters because your early customers tend to be the better customers.”

The problem was recognized long before sports betting laws were passed in the majority of American jurisdictions. Legalization in major media markets like New York and MarylandVirginia-Washington, D.C, highlighted it, however.

Cait DeBaun, Vice President, Strategic Communications & Responsibility of the AGA said at ’21 G2E: “I think the public backlash is really driving change. We have the benefit of learning from these other markets and what’s happening in the UK, Spain, and other countries. And I think now’s the time that we take those lessons and apply them before it’s too late.”

It was apparently too late for Tonko.

About the Author
Brant James

Brant James

Senior Writer
Brant James is a senior writer who covers the sports betting industry and legislation at Gaming Today. An alum of the Tampa Bay Times, ESPN.com, espnW, SI.com, and USA Today, he's covered motorsports and the NHL as beats. He also once made a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rode to the top of Mt. Washington with Travis Pastrana. John Tortorella has yelled at him numerous times.

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