Bet responsibly? A struggle for some as sportsbook ads widen

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — The tagline makes the solution sound so simple: "Gamble responsibly."

It's anything but for those who struggle with compulsive gambling. Instead, the footnote caps a powerful new temptation as ads for sports betting emerge in states that have recently legalized an activity once banned in most of the United States.

Sharon, a 39-year-old homemaker, decided with her husband to move from New Jersey to New York specifically to get away from legalized sports betting, but still sees ads frequently that remind her of the tens of thousands of dollars in debt she racked up on a wagering app.

Charlie, an information technology professional from suburban Philadelphia, says the advertisements and easy access makes wagering "tempting as hell," even as his losses mounted to $400,000 as he bet online while traveling on service calls.

They've complicated addiction recovery for Gary, a real estate agent from New Jersey who attends support group meetings and has lost nearly $2 million over a lifetime of gambling.

"It seems like every fourth commercial, there's one telling you how easy it is to bet on sports and make money," said Gary, who like other gamblers spoke to The Associated Press on condition that his full name not be used because of stigmas some people associate with unhealthy gambling.

"It's right in front of my eyes, and even though I've been in recovery for years and go regularly to Gamblers Anonymous meetings, it's starting to bother me," he said. "I can feel it."

Advertising supporting the nascent sports betting industry has not drawn the same level of scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers in the U.S. as counterparts in Europe, where several countries strictly regulate or even ban gambling ads, including those for sports betting.

One year after the U.S. Supreme Court ended an effective monopoly in Nevada, eight states have begun taking legal sports wagers. Three states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to create new markets and a handful of legislatures are still considering bills. None of the laws passed has significant restrictions for sports betting ads.

The commercial casino industry wants to keep it that way.

The American Gaming Association, the gambling industry's main trade group and lobbying arm, recently issued voluntary guidelines for sports betting advertising in a bid to stay ahead of possible government regulation, drawing on the experience of the liquor industry to develop self-regulations.

"We want to get in front of this in a way that is meaningful," said Sara Slane, the group's senior vice president of public affairs. "We view the opportunity to offer sports betting on a state-by-state level as a privilege, and there needs to be responsible advertising that's tied to that."

Indeed, those who struggle with gambling find ads touting Super Bowl or March Madness wagers similar to beer ads tempting those with alcoholism or fast food ads enticing those with unhealthy eating habits. Though a hurdle for some, the ads are an understandable facet of expanded betting with sportsbooks chasing new customers to bet legally and leisurely, just like millions of people who visit casinos, buy lottery tickets or drink and eat without harmful consequences.

"There's not one commercial break it seems where you don't see one of these ads. As much as I tried to stop, there are all these incentives: a $500 free bet, we'll refund your first bet even if you lose. They're everywhere I look," said Sharon, who lives in a New York TV market that's a key target for advertisers of New Jersey sportsbooks. "It's a constant reminder of my problem. It brings an incredible amount of guilt and shame for me, and yet there's still this incredible temptation that these ads make worse."

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, thinks the details of gambling ads haven't been explored enough.

"In the U.S., if you say, 'Gamble responsibly,' you've now met the responsible gambling standard," Whyte said. "It's going to be a big issue. There's heightened concern for people struggling with gambling addiction and relapse. And I don't see a lot of discussion about this."

Major sportsbooks all say they train their workers to spot people with potential gambling problems, offering various solutions including self-imposed betting "timeouts" for those who want them. In New Jersey, some money from licensing fees for sports betting fund compulsive gambling treatment programs, and ads are required by state law to mention a 1-800-GAMBLER telephone help line. Regulations in other states are relatively similar.

"We're always mindful of the tone and content in our advertisements," said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill US. "We are committed to doing what we can to help lead the industry in seeking to minimize the harm gambling can cause to the vulnerable."

European regulators haven't left that up to casinos.

In 2018, Italy banned all gambling advertising — including on TV, radio and internet — as part of a "dignity decree" aimed in part at fighting gambling addiction.

Sweden is considering similar restrictions. Under new regulations in Belgium, online casinos will be banned from advertising on television. Sports betting ads will air only after 8 p.m. and no such ads will be allowed during live sports broadcasts.

England plans to ban all gambling-related ads and promotions during live sports starting in August.

European gambling giant GVC Holdings said UK laws show go even further and ban ads during replays and some other sports programming. GVC, which operates several huge brands including bwin, Ladbrokes, Sportingbet and partypoker, signed a $200 million deal last year to offer sports betting and online gambling in the U.S. with MGM Resorts International.

"The (European) market has become swamped with these advertisements," said Martin Lycka, the company's director of regulatory affairs.

Lycka said ideally, governments would set acceptable guidelines and individual companies would go farther than the minimums in policing their own ads.

"A balance needs to be struck," he said.

In the U.S., leagues have generally had a hand in the content of their advertising; not long ago the NFL even stopped ads for Las Vegas casinos from airing nationally during the Super Bowl, a move that seems well antiquated now given the pending move of the Raiders to Sin City and a marketing and data deal between the league and Caesars Entertainment, one of the biggest gambling operators in the world.

Scott Kaufman-Ross, head of fantasy and gaming for the NBA, said advertising for sports betting is OK "if a fan is interested in betting and they want to bet. But if they're not interested if they're a problem gambler, they should not have it thrown in their face."

Bill Ordower, executive vice president of Major League Soccer, said restraint for leagues makes sense after a backlash several years ago to daily fantasy sports ads.

"Any game you watched you were inundated with that advertising," he said.

Fantasy sports ads became such an annoyance that they even drew attention from law enforcement, with DraftKings and FanDuel settling a dispute in New York for a combined $12 million.

For Gary, a 63-year-old real estate agent who has lost nearly $2 million gambling since his first bad bet on the Dallas Cowboys beating the Giants when he was 13, the struggle to resist advertising is made more difficult by the ease of betting online, a relatively new option in the legal gambling world outside Nevada.

"They make it so tempting. It's the perfect drug for compulsive gamblers," he said. "They can close the bathroom door, make all their bets, not talk to a live person, and walk back out into the living room in a minute, with no one knowing."

John Sweeney, a professor at the University of North Carolina with backgrounds in advertising and sports communication, said questions about advertising point to a common question for gambling: Should states regulate this or is a single national standard necessary as sports betting grows?

Sweeney said he recently received mail offers for casinos in 14 states, many with their own responsible gambling programs and policies.

"This is the time when all these gambling issues will be given regulatory structure," he said. "There's an enormous amount at stake."

Whyte, from the national problem gambling council, suggests that U.S. casinos dedicate 1% of their advertising budget to messages promoting responsible gambling and help for those with problems. The French lottery plans to allocate 10% of its TV ad budget to such messages, but in most other places, there is no requirement to fund responsible gambling ads.

The trajectory of sports betting in the U.S., once mainly an underground activity, makes it unclear whether the ads themselves are making people with gambling problems bet more on sports.

Neva Pryor, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, said calls to the state's hotline that involve sports betting are up 21% since it started last year. But most of those callers say they had been betting on sports long before it became legal.

"Some people are having difficulty with the ads," she said. "The good thing is they all have the 800-GAMBLER number at the end. You don't see that with beer ads."

Charlie, the IT professional, said gambling is often easier than drinking alcohol when he finds himself alone in hotels with nothing to do.

"Imagine being an alcoholic sitting home on your couch and there's no beer in the house, and then there's this app that you can press and magically a beer appears," he said. "That's the kind of access that's out there now and it's tempting as hell. It's really, really hard to maintain your recovery and not bet again. Everywhere you look, someone's urging you to gamble."


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