Wednesday continued a tumultuous stretch for PENN Entertainment and its Barstool Sportsbook, as the Ohio Casino Control Commission (OCCC) brought up a notice of violation against the company for allegedly targeting college students in advertising.
Last week, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) delayed a decision regarding a retail sports betting license for PENN Entertainment’s Plainridge Park. That decision came after controversial Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy came under fire in a New York Times article that referred to him as a “degenerate gambler.”
Part of the MGC’s concern with PENN Entertainment/Barstool Sportsbook, which relies on Portnoy to promote the sportsbook, stemmed from him visiting the University of Tennessee for a football game earlier this season. During his off-campus visit, he discussed wagering $100,000 on the team’s opponent, Georgia, to win the national championship. Some MGC commissioners expressed concern about his effect on a young audience and glorifying large wagers.
“I’m disturbed by that,” MGC Commissioner Eileen O’Brien said.
Ohio violation details
The OCCC notice of violation states that the Barstool College Football Show visited the University of Toledo’s campus on Nov. 15. During the show, Barstool promoted pre-registration for Barstool Sportsbook, which is expected to launch in Ohio when legal wagering goes live widely in the state on Jan. 1.
The Barstool College Football Show usually draws an engaged live audience, and the event in Toledo even brought out Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz. The mayor gave Dan Katz, a Barstool Sports personality, a key to the city of Toledo toward the end of the show. Kapszukiewicz also poked fun at Portnoy, a University of Michigan alumnus, about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
Big Cat Gets the Keys to the City: The Barstool College Football Show – LIVE from the University of Toledo for MACtion Week https://t.co/LNYvzejc8c
— Barstool Sportsbook (@BSSportsbook) November 15, 2022
The mayor and the show’s four hosts all picked Toledo, which was a 14.5-favorite against Bowling Green, to win. The Rockets lost the game outright, falling 42-35.
It was during the mayor’s appearance and before picking the games that the show’s hosts shared information on pre-registration for the Barstool Sportsbook. According to the OCCC, the advertisement violated Ohio law and targeted people under the age of 21. As a result, PENN Entertainment could have to pay a fine of $250,000, although the company may appeal the violation and have a hearing with the OCCC.
“Responsible gaming should be the cornerstone of any gaming business,” OCCC Executive Director Matthew Schuler said at Wednesday’s commission meeting. “This apparent direct promotion to college students is completely at odds with responsible gaming and the law.”
A hearing with the OCCC could result in a removal or reduction of the financial penalty.
“We look forward to the opportunity to address this directly with the Ohio Casino Control Commission through its regulatory process,” a PENN spokesperson told Sports Handle. “Other than that, we do not comment on pending regulatory matters.”
The alleged violation directly contradicts a comment Chris Soriano, PENN Entertainment’s chief compliance officer, made about the company’s responsible gambling values during a recent MGC meeting.
“We of course take very seriously that we will not target those who are underage, that we will not encourage signups, promotions, to anyone who is underage,” Soriano said.
The comment was in response to O’Brien’s concerns with Portnoy’s Tennessee trip.
During the MGC meeting, Soriano also mentioned a gray area between targeted ads and general ads. If PENN does have a hearing with the OCCC, expect the definition of “targeted advertising” to be debated.
Barstool Sportsbook and colleges
Like sports betting itself, Barstool Sports is highly popular among younger males. Several of the media company’s top personalities, including Portnoy, often make visits to collegiate sporting events to interact with their primary audience.
Portnoy and other personalities pride themselves on breaking the traditional sports media mold, speaking freely and without filter. Despite a years-long pattern of well-documented offensive comments, Portnoy and his colleagues have developed a loyal following largely due to their entertaining personalities.
“I think they can continue to be irreverent because that’s what they do,” said Jeffrey Seglin, the director of the Harvard Kennedy School Communications and a business ethics expert. “A bunch of high school kids listen to irreverent people all the time. I think what they have to be very careful of, since they’ve crossed over into this world with a new parent company, is they can’t break the law.”
It’s one thing to rile up a crowd with words, which happened throughout the 40-minute Barstool College Football Show at Toledo. Fiery personalities are something Barstool Sports will likely continue to lean on for years to come. But the issue for PENN Entertainment comes when Barstool Sports employees, who are the face of the Barstool Sportsbook brand, contribute to or commit gaming violations.
“They can be shocking, they can be irreverent — [but] they can’t break the law in service of their brand,” Seglin said.
Barstool Sports isn’t the only sports media company to discuss sports wagering regularly. Plenty of prominent outlets, including ESPN and The Athletic, also frequently focus on betting lines. But at times, sports gambling shows and articles fall short when it comes to sharing responsible gambling strategies.
I placed this bet last week. I ruined Georgia pic.twitter.com/kt5L5mrb1g
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) October 2, 2022
“These live shows and broadcasts should also be rewarding taking breaks,” said Brianne Doura-Schawohl, a responsible gambling national consultant. “‘We take breaks. We do $5 bets. We have fun when we’re not betting, but we’re absorbing the content.’”
Doura-Schawohl doesn’t like when well-known sports bettors harp on a “go-big-or-go-home mentality” and encourage unsafe gambling practices. Those messages can be particularly harmful when directed at impressionable college students.
“You carry a significant responsibility in the media to have a balanced approach,” Doura-Schawohl said.
Responsible gaming and colleges
Barstool Sportsbook isn’t alone in its questionable relationship with college sports.
Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, told Sports Handle in November that he was disappointed that the University of Maryland had formed a partnership with PointsBet. The mobile sportsbook operator became the official sports betting partner of the university’s athletic department, which includes in-game and on-campus activations.
“The majority of students at the University of Maryland are underage to bet on sports,” Whyte said. “One operator is helping to create additional risk across the entire system.”
Maryland isn’t the only college athletic department to form partnerships with sports betting operators. Louisiana State University has a deal with Caesars Sportsbook, as does Michigan State University, which signed a five-year, $8.4 million deal with the sports betting company, according to The New York Times.
The partnerships create a revenue stream for the college athletic departments, many of which took financial hits during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the deals also create a slippery slope.
“I’ve always had considerable concerns around sports betting operators and having a formal relationship with a college,” Doura-Schawohl said. “The risk exposure and the potential human costs that could come as a result are far too great.”
Could a partnership with a sports betting company lead to the inadvertent promotion of sports wagering to underage college students? Could those college students then fall into problem gambling habits? The same questions apply to not just the universities, but also to sports betting operators. Is there an ethical responsibility for someone like Dave Portnoy to preach responsible gambling habits when visiting a college campus?
“It just becomes really important for the companies doing this to think about, ‘What are the effects of this to the people on the other end?’” Seglin said. “Beyond just being responsible, do we have an obligation to make sure we aren’t going after vulnerable people? And underage people fall into that category.”