If you haven’t noticed a flood of television ads for sports betting, you likely live in an area where such wagers aren’t yet legal. But in legal markets, the ads are ubiquitous—on TV, on radio and online. Could it reach a point where regulators pull the plug?
Recent polling data show that U.S. consumers aren’t overly concerned about the level of gaming advertising compared to ads for other industries. Research by the American Gaming Association shows that more Americans “believe there’s too much advertising for alcohol and fast food than for casinos and sports betting,” according to Cait DeBaun, the AGA’s vice president of strategic communications and responsibility.
In the mature U.K. market, the omnipresence of sports betting ads has struck a nerve—and sparked calls for greater and more stringent regulation. Though the systems differ in fundamental ways, sportsbooks here could view the U.K. as a cautionary tale.
“The United States has a fundamentally different government structure than the United Kingdom,” DeBaun said. Unlike the U.K., which has a national gambling commission to regulate activity, gambling in the U.S. falls under the jurisdiction of individual states. And the U.S. industry is one of the most heavily policed in the country.
Almost 200 partnership deals have been made among operators, gaming companies, teams and leagues since the Supreme Court overturned the federal ban on sports betting in 2018. But only a small number include logo placement components, DeBaun said. “We work closely with the more than 4,000 commercial and tribal regulators to protect players and the game,” DeBaun said.
In the U.K., critics are concerned about the impact of betting ads on impressionable teens and problem gamblers. As a result, a voluntarily whistle-to-whistle ad ban is now in place from five minutes before a live event until five minutes after.
Some also want an end to sportsbook advertising on player jerseys. Of 20 English Premier League teams, half allow their players to wear sponsors’ ads on their backs, according to a recent report, “The Marketing Moment: Sports, Wagering and Advertising in the United States” from the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In the lower leagues, 17 of 24 teams have sports gambling sponsors, a practice that hasn’t taken hold in the U.S.—yet—but could happen in the future.
This month, the National Hockey League approved ads on jerseys starting in the 2022-23 season. And last year, the NHL allowed corporate logos on helmets for the first time.
Self-Regulation: Better than the Alternative
Sports betting along with online gaming are embryonic industries in the U.S., noted Brian Wyman, senior vice president of operations and data analytics for The Innovation Group. “We’ll understand problem gambling in those areas more as the industry matures.
“I would note, though, that the very nature of online gaming—in particular, electronic verification of identity and the inability to bet anonymously—makes it easier for the industry to intervene in cases of likely problem gambling,” he said.
It also helps to have advocacy groups like the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), which work to keep problem gambling in check and point people to the help they need, Wyman said. “We know problem gambling exists. So I think that as these industries emerge, the industry and states will work together to produce an appropriate response.”
The AGA has already stepped up, said DeBaun. “Right out of the gate in 2018, we extended our member responsibility code to include sports betting. Then, looking at lessons learned from the U.K., our members worked together on the Responsible Marketing Code for Sports Wagering to set the standard for sports betting advertising.”
The ad industry has restrictions on target audiences, and anyone can file a complaint at AmericanGaming.org if an ad does not meet the standards. In January, for instance, Barstool Sportsbook ran an online ad for its “Can’t Lose Parlay.” NCPG Executive Director Keith Whyte filed a complaint, alleging that “can’t lose,” violated the code, which states that no advertising message “should suggest that social, financial or personal success is guaranteed by engaging in sports wagering.”
Penn National Gaming, Barstool’s parent company, took exception to Whyte’s characterization, saying the term didn’t guarantee a win; its response satisfied the AGA, which closed the case with no further action.
Still, the basic tenets of the code are solid, said Alan Feldman, distinguished fellow in responsible gaming for the International Gaming Institute and co-author of the UNLV study. “Thus far, there have been very few instances of companies violating the principles behind the code, and these have been quickly resolved by the errant company,” he said.
And if the alleged offender doesn’t comply?
“That would be problematic,” Feldman said. “Will jurisdictions impose discipline? Will the industry? Will the leagues? Will the federal government? Clearly, it’s in the industry’s best interests to maintain self-discipline.”
The best time to curb excessive advertising is before it starts, according to the UNLV report, sponsored by sportsbook Entain. There’s already been some early grumbling over the volume and repetition of ads in newly established markets. The report argues that U.S. operators should already rethink how online sports betting is promoted.
Act Before the Backlash
“Advertising is due for a critical evaluation before backlash emerges,” the report states. “Gambling has a right to advertise its products; however, those rights can and should be questioned when they impose upon others’ experiences in a way that leads to direct and clear harm.”
No advertisements should be placed in media outlets or on clothing, toys, games or other products that primarily appeal to those below the legal age for wagering, according to the AGA code.
“Gaming operators are legally obligated to verify users’ ages before they engage with our products, whether it’s sports betting or traditional casino games, brick-and-mortar or mobile. We employ age and ID verification technology to prevent underage gambling,” DeBaun said.
One helpful step is educating sports broadcasters on the issues of problem and responsible gambling. “This is mandated for other important social issues in the workplace, and the same approach should be taken with problem gambling,” the UNLV report said. The report calls for a summit on sports gambling and advertising, especially in an industry with little product or price differentiation.
In 2019, the AGA launched its “Have a Game Plan. Bet Responsibly” campaign, now supported by the country’s biggest sportsbooks (DraftKings and FanDuel), as well as sports organizations like NASCAR, the PGA Tour, the NHL and recently, the Washington Football Team.
The leagues’ participation is a good thing, said Feldman. “I don’t think you can leave the leagues out of this picture. They’ll certainly be playing a role, in the sense of wanting to ensure the highest level of integrity. I can also say from firsthand experience, the leagues have far greater lobbying impact in most state houses and in Congress than the casino industry.”
According to the UNLV report, some critics suggest a whistle-to-whistle ban on in-game advertising, an approach it doesn’t support. “Instead, we believe that these kinds of measures, which are not in place with other potentially harmful products like alcohol, only address a relatively small part of the problems that vulnerable populations face.”
In some states—for example, Tennessee and West Virginia—advertisers must submit ads to the regulatory agency in advance for approval before they’re broadcast or otherwise disseminated.
Feldman expects the states to remain the driving force behind the regulation of advertising—”until or unless the need for uniformity hits a stumbling block and states simply refuse to cooperate. There will be some immediate industry support, with others following with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“As has always been the case, the enthusiasm levels will go up in relation to the threat of increased regulation.”