There have been dramatic changes since then throughout the U.S. sports betting ecosystem, including after the industry celebrated the fifth anniversary of PASPA’s repeal this spring. Several states have issued six-figure fines for violations related to the targeting of underage populations with sports betting advertising. In the U.K., the nation’s gambling commission released a 336-page white paper calling for uniform standards on digital gaming. By November, Disney will make its highly anticipated debut in the U.S. sports betting market with the launch of ESPN BET.
The ever-changing climate has Tonko believing in the need for guidelines to protect the nation’s most vulnerable populations from aggressive marketing tactics by sportsbook operators. Last week, Tonko stressed the importance of federal standards covering sports betting ads.
Tonko delivered the comments at the Racing and Gaming Conference at Saratoga, one of the nation’s largest gatherings on legal issues related to gambling law and horse racing. Tonko represents a district that encompasses parts of Saratoga County, home to the nation’s most prestigious summer horse racing meet. He spoke about his Betting on our Future Act, a bill sent to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce.
“Let me be clear: This legislation would not in any way ban mobile sports betting,” Tonko said during his Saratoga panel appearance. “It is narrowly targeted at the predatory advertising that has coincided with a significant increase in gambling addiction.”
Asked about the likelihood that the bill will make it to the full House floor for a vote in the current session that ends in 2024, Tonko demurred.
“We’re serious about the bill. It’s just about how quickly we can get the sponsors,” he told Sports Handle.
The bill, H.R. 967, still needs additional sponsors and has to make it out of committee, Tonko noted, adding that those decisions are beyond his control.
Implications of U.K. standards
Tonko, an eight-term congressman, is the co-chair in the House of the Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus.
During his appearance, Tonko made several references to the sports betting environment in the U.K., which has one of the most mature markets for legal sports betting worldwide. In 2016, a 13-year old English boy rang up around £80,000 in gambling debts (about $101,901 by current exchange rates) after stealing his father’s credit card. Enticed by viewing sports betting ads at a soccer match, the teenager lost approximately £60,000 in the span of a week, according to The Mirror. The case spawned widespread gambling reforms across that nation.
One prohibition under the UK standards prevents athletes from endorsing sportsbooks. Tonko largely views the proliferation of sports betting advertising as the “wild west,” with few restrictions in place to deter sportsbooks from targeting children. The allure of sports betting can be magnified, he suggests, when the message comes from star athletes, many of whom are worshipped by young fans.
“They are models for these kids. You’re taking everyone for their word,” Tonko told Sports Handle. “They’re going to put that message out not intending to draw consequential outcomes, but it’s going to cause people to forgo, maybe, a better judgment.”
Another panelist, Marlene Warner, executive director at the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, shared a personal anecdote to depict the conditions resulting from the sea of advertising now prevalent in the sports betting market. Typically each morning, Warner’s teenage son eats breakfast with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith on television in the background. Still half-awake, her son is bound to see several sports betting commercials on Smith’s program, First Take.
On Warner’s drive to summer camp or school, her son, an ardent sports fan, will likely hear more gambling commercials on sports talk radio. It is rare for one to blare across the airwaves without containing a splashy promotional offer. On a short drive to the school, Warner and her son may pass several billboards from local sportsbooks hawking their latest promos, she explained. Finally, when her son attended a concert at Fenway Park, he viewed a BetMGM logo on the iconic Green Monster, above a scoreboard in left field.
BetMGM, the sports gaming arm of the MGM casino company, will add its logo to the middle of Fenway Park’s Green Monster. https://t.co/oXPdP1KK7q
— Boston Business Journal (@BosBizJournal) March 8, 2023
“Not a single one of those are meant for him, but he’s interfaced with them,” Warner said. “I’m not here to talk about whether we should have a prohibition or not — but what I’m talking about is what we should do with these ads.”
A federal ban by 2028?
Asked if his proposal could be amended to allow certain forms of advertising if the commercials are meant for a general audience rather than vulnerable populations, Tonko doubled down on his plan.
His bill would prohibit the advertising of sportsbooks “on any medium of electronic communication subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission.” Although the congressman indicated that he will listen to differing views on the ad standards, the prohibition would be all-encompassing.
Upon introduction in February, Tonko’s bill received vigorous pushback from the industry. Martin Lycka, a compliance executive with Entain, expressed trepidation that a ban would be “counterproductive” and push bettors into the black market. Brendan Bussmann, a prominent gaming lobbyist, described the proposal as another example of “overreach by the federal government” on a subject the U.S. Supreme Court deemed a states’ rights issue.
Tonko did not provide a firm timetable on when would like the bill to be passed, telling Sports Handle that legislation “takes a while to be developed.” Still, he hopes for action on it “sooner rather than later,” while alluding to the explosion in sports betting ads over the last five years.
“We’ve seen what’s happened. If we give it another five years, that’s way too long,” the 74-year-old Tonko, who plans to run for a ninth term next fall, told Sports Handle.
Elizabeth Garvey, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig, LLP, and moderator of the panel, is betting on Tonko to deliver.
“He’s relentless about getting issues passed that he’s passionate about,” Garvey said.