The U.S. sports betting market has seen a steady stream of firsts since May 2018 when the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on full-fledged sports wagering outside Nevada. The first wager placed in the First State (Delaware) in June 2018, the first mobile sportsbook to go live outside Nevada (DraftKings in New Jersey), the first state to pass a law permitting mobile sports betting only with no physical sportsbook component (Tennessee).
Just to the east, Virginia somewhat quietly claimed another first — becoming the only state so far to codify a “Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights,” outlining requirements for licensed sportsbook operators regarding consumer complaint processes and consumer protection standards. Last week the Virginia Lottery, tasked with regulating legal sports betting in Virginia, released initial regulations that begin to bring to life the law’s requirement to “establish a consumer protection program and publish a consumer protection bill of rights.”
While regulations in other states address some of these issues in some fashion, Virginia’s bill represents the most comprehensive and straightforward legislative effort to protect and empower the people who make the booming U.S. sports betting industry go: the sports bettors.
Sports betting consumer protections
“[The bill] contains several important consumer protections, including customers’ expectations for fairness, for integrity, for transparency in how the betting platforms operate,” said Lottery director Kevin Hall upon release of the regulations on July 15. “The consumer protections also require permit holders to provide a credible dispute-resolution process, and also include a framework for creation of a voluntary self-exclusion program.”
That said, these regulations as written need a lot more meat on the bones, and for the sake of compliance and inspiring cooperation, a full set of teeth.
“The Bettors’ Bill of Rights is a great start for the future of Virginia,” said industry watchdog and educator ‘Captain Jack,’ who is one of the forces behind the American Bettors Coalition. “Letting the consumer know they have a voice in this process is a huge progressive step. I look forward to talking over this legislation with the American Bettors Coalition and I intend to submit comments to Virginia to help support and strengthen this initiative.”
Indeed, a noticeable voice missing from the scores of hearings on sports betting across the U.S. has been that of the sports bettor. ABC’s stated mission is to represent, communicate, protect, and educate the legal U.S. sports betting consumer. Legal sports betting markets have overall proved a success in many jurisdictions, but in many areas there remains substantial room for improvement to shore up consumer protections for a level playing field.
Work on the Bill of Rights in Virginia began in 2018 with House of Delegates member Mark Sickles. Sickles’ bill eventually gave way to Senate Bill 384, and the language requiring the implementation of a Bill of Rights was incorporated into the final vehicle.
But any set of requirements without associated punishments or penalties is as good as a wish list. That task of enforcement now falls on the regulators as the drive toward final regulations proceeds.
The advocacy group Sports Fans Coalition (SFC) helped craft and lobby for the five-item Bill of Rights that serves as the backbone of Virginia’s version. SFC was primarily interested in getting the Bill of Rights into the law, a task apparently made easier by deferring to regulators on enforcement measures.
“During my advocacy for this I did not want to get too prescriptive regarding enforcement,” said Brian Hess, Executive Director of SFC. “It’s up to the regulators and lawmakers to figure out what the appropriate penalties are for each violation.”
“As the document was being drafted, our team drew from several sources and ultimately shaped it to best fit our program,” the Virginia Lottery said in a statement to Sports Handle. “We will consider all input that we receive during the public-comment period in response to the drafts that have been published. Our goal with the Bill of Rights is to provide Virginians the same assurance of fair and responsible gaming they have come to expect from both our traditional and online lottery products.”
Now that the first iteration of regulations is out, the comment period is open, and special interest groups are sure to object to or twist various lines to suit their interests.
The Lottery will be hearing from a variety of stakeholders, from the pro leagues to sportsbook operators seeking licenses, to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), which is focused on the provisions concerning problem gambling, including the right to self exclude, which is an effective mechanism for enabling someone prone to addiction to cut himself off from sportsbooks. Other protections include giving a patron the option “to set pop-up warnings concerning excessive sports betting activity.”
“Enforcement absolutely needs to be refined or teased out,” said Brianne Doura, legislative director for the NCPG. “We know that in the U.K., for instance, or in New Jersey, there are consequences to taking a bet from someone who’s on a self-exclusion list or violating any of these protections. Enforcement has to be a component of that.
“Sportsbook operators have a responsibility and a role in this. And there’s no incentive to comply with these protections, without which I just don’t think we’re going to see the maximum benefit that the people of Virginia deserve. I think at the very minimum we need to be talking about enhanced training, a business commitment to problem and responsible gambling, but then also living it. And then if they’re not living up to it, well it’s time for everybody and the leadership team … to get enhanced training about why this is important.”
A common complaint among bettors that goes unaddressed in this version of the Bill of Rights: it does not require sportsbooks to post the maximum allowed wagers on any one market. Sportsbooks may allow some bettors to place larger wagers (or much larger, or smaller) than others based on the bettor’s history (of success, or not) or perhaps based on the sportsbook’s exposure to certain outcomes based on action taken.
“The Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights was an important policy initiative required in the legislation that allowed us, in our brand-new role as regulator of sports betting in the Commonwealth, to build on our already trusted foundation of integrity, transparency and consumer security,” the Lottery said.
With respect to all elements of this Bill of Rights, sportsbooks, bettors and regulators will need to find the middle ground for integrity, transparency and fairness.
In Virginia, this document is a starting point for finding that terrain, which does not yet fully exist in other states.