On eve of launch, AG’s office expresses concerns about MA online sportsbook

bridge covered in autumn leaves while the sun is rising
Image: Shutterstock

The industry will be buzzing today trumpeting the launch of Massachusetts sports betting today. Legalizing and launching sports betting in state is an often arduous process and should be celebrated.

However, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) meeting Thursday cast a pall over the festivities, and for good reason. Representatives from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office spoke to the commissioners and expressed some caution and concern about what they expect to be a deluge of advertising and an inevitable rise in problem gambling.

AG’s office worried about referral deals, push notifications

First Assistant Attorney General Pat Moore kicked things off and quickly established the intent of speaking to the MGC.

“The legislature enacted not just sports wagering as we know that you know, but safe and responsible sports wagering we intend to do our part to hold the operators to the safe and responsible part. Among other things. That means requiring the operators to abide by our consumer protection laws, particularly as to the marketing, promotion, and even the design of their sports betting apps,” he began.

Like some of the commissioners and many industry critics, the AG’s office is concerned about the predatory nature of ads, particularly sign-up offers and referral promotions.

“We are seeing betting apps being promoted through credits, and even referral bonuses, which often lock users in for a particular period of time or till they have spent a particular sum of money. These promotions are not permitted in other industries that pose public health risks, like the sale of alcohol or marijuana, and the burden should be placed squarely on the operators to show why any particular promotion should be permitted here,” Moore said.

Moore then presented a scenario that will likely happen at least once on Friday at launch. One college student in a dorm sees there is a monetary benefit to referring a friend. By day’s end, the entire floor is betting, opening the door for potentially problematic behavior in a vulnerable population.

The concerns were about more than just advertising though. Moore also advocated the commission look at the apps themselves and monitor how features are used to spur on betting.

“Picture a casual gambler who is becoming a more habitual bettor has they tried to tap the brakes. That customer has placed a bet on each of the last three Celtics games and wants to take the night off. Without oversight, an operator will be able to send a nudging reminder notifying you that your team is about to take the floor but you’ve forgotten to bet. Query whether that conduct is safe or responsible.”

AG’s office wants MGC to vet all MA sportsbook promotions

When asked by Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein what the commission can do at this late stage of the game, the office advocated for a couple of things: one was to reiterate how new businesses in the state need to abide by the state Consumer Protection Act, which the office has used to look into everything from e-cigarettes to daily fantasy sports.

Secondly, they advocated for the MGC to vet every promotion operators intend to put forth, especially if that promotion is featured in advertising. Moore and his colleague acknowledged vetting every piece of advertising collateral would create quite a workload but do think the offers needed approval before rolling out.

Finally, Moore noted that he would like to see operators do a better job of utilizing age-gating controls on social media and streaming services.

MGC commissioner reported multiple FanDuel ads violating MA regs

Ads on outlets like Hulu also drew concern from within the MGC. Commissioner Eileen O’Brien reported multiple ads from FanDuel she was served on Hulu that included references to “free bets” and also suggested users could deposit with a credit card, which is something prohibited in the state. The MGC staff said FanDuel was in the process of removing the ads, but noted it could take a couple of days.

MGC applauded FanDuel for being responsive to their requests about the ads, but O’Brien was less impressed. She noted that she was the one who reported these incidents, they weren’t self-reported. Moreover, she was not pleased at the pace it took to get the ads offline.

“They’re responding to us flagging them and we are inundated with ads,” O’Brien clarified. “So, for my view, I’d like you to look into it further. And I think that we as a commission should assess what we’re going to do in response to make sure it’s clear, not only FanDuel, but any other operator doesn’t have either the types or the number of violations.”

There is no formal process established yet for how the commissioners will deal with these violations, but O’Brien and her peers seem committed to implementing better oversight and coming down on violators of existing regulations.

As the national debate around sportsbook advertising continues and the groundswell of support in curbing these ads grows, the launch of online sports betting could be memorable, as this state and its regulators are keen to set a new standard about responsible gambling and curbing predatory advertising.