How Massachusetts is using research to rewrite the gaming playbook

How Massachusetts is using research to rewrite the gaming playbook
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In Massachusetts, like in many states, things are changing fast in gaming.

The state launched digital sports betting in March 2023 and experienced an immediate influx of sports betting products, services and advertising. To say Bay Staters took to online sports wagering enthusiastically would be an understatement.

“It’s been a shock to the system, for sure,” Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health (MCGH) CEO Marlene Warner told SBC Americas at the SBC Summit North America Player Protection Symposium. “Everyone had high expectations for online sports wagering in Massachusetts and the numbers have far, far, far exceeded those expectations.”

With more than 1.6 million sportsbook accounts active in Massachusetts since March 2023, the state has emerged as one of America’s fastest-growing gaming markets. It generated $594.9 million in gross gaming revenue in its first full year, with total tax revenue reaching $118.5 million. That latter figure is double what the state had expected pre-launch.

Massachusetts’ fast progress has been aided by the groundwork the state laid long before its gaming regulation.

Warner said the state government was “really smart” in the amount of money and resources it devoted to developing a research agenda right from the start of the legislative process that welcomed casino gambling in 2011. The key aim, she emphasized, was to work out how to balance the safety of consumers while also bringing in revenue for the state.

“The research also helps service providers and advocates understand what a person who makes the choice to gamble looks like and what kind of behaviors we should expect,” Warner added. “We want to make sure we’re making decisions based on evidence. The same way we ask people who make the choice to gamble to make an informed decision about their gambling, we as advocates and service providers want to make an informed decision about the services we’re providing.”

More players voluntarily self-excluding

Fifteen months is both a long time and a short time. It’s short enough that there is still not much direct lived experience for the state to draw upon for reference and comparison but long enough for some trends to become apparent and some lessons to be taken.

One such trend is that the council has seen what Warner termed a “dramatic” increase in voluntary self-exclusions over the 15 months since the launch of online betting. That can be credited in part to the array of tools Massachusetts provides to its bettors through the GameSense player protection program licenses from the British Columbia Lottery Corporation. From readily available “get help” resources to a live chat function, the state aims to create an attentive, in-person feel to its virtual helpdesk.

While it’s encouraging at face value that more players are showing the self-awareness to voluntarily self-exclude, Warner suggests it’s also indicative that there is still plenty of work to be done.

“The level of desperation has gone up a bit, I would say…” she told SBC Americas on the day of SBC Summit North America devoted to player health.

“The influx made people awaken to the fact this was coming like a tidal wave and we have been trying to utilize that to raise awareness. But it’s still very shiny and new and there’s a great allure to it. Folks get drawn by advertising and promises. Young people and young men in particular don’t always know how to keep it in check, maintain the entertainment value and keep it as a limited option instead of it taking over their lives. Eventually, reality comes crashing in.”

Education session to ponder path forward

Although the legislators and regulators did their homework in advance, as far as regulated U.S. gaming markets go, Massachusetts is still in its relative infancy. As such, more education is needed to ensure players are informed to gamble in a healthy and responsible way.

To that end, the MCGH, in partnership with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), is holding an education session on May 14 entitled Using Research to Rewrite the Gaming Playbook.

The key message is relatively simple: more collaborative work is needed.

Parties including the Attorney General’s office, the MGC, gaming operators with a presence in Massachusetts, community stakeholders, and the Department of Public Health will all be represented. So, importantly, will all New England states. Warner referenced that it’s well-known that some Massachusetts teenagers cross state lines to place bets in New Hampshire, where the legal betting age is 18 rather than 21. “We need to work together collectively and think about the similarities and differences between the states, because it’s complicated.”

Warner emphasized that while research findings will be discussed at the session, the real focus is how to implement the findings through practical application.

Keeping the conversation going is vital

Events like the Player Protection Symposium and the Massachusetts research education session are particularly important because player health can never be allowed to leave the spotlight.

As Massachusetts’ online gaming market continues to grow in sheer size and evolve as a landscape, there’s plenty more to be done. Warner said that while BCLC’s GameSense is an extensive program with a track record of success, the brands and platforms that operators use and the MGC uses need to be tied together more closely when it comes to responsible gambling.

Warner’s prevailing message is that it’s imperative that all of the good research and educational work doesn’t take place in the shadows. Ensuring player protection remains top of mind and in the spotlight is key to the efficacy of the programs.

“We need to talk about this, conduct education for kids and for parents and for at-risk players. We’ve seen things die down a bit but that’s worse in some ways because then not as many folks are talking about it. The players are already there in the system playing and it’s harder to have public conversations. And that’s when the legislature forgets, that’s when the department of public health forgets. That’s the harder piece, and we have to just keep doing what we can.”