Igaming Focus: In search of balance

July 27, 2023 8:00 AM
  • Jake Pollard, CDC Gaming Reports
July 27, 2023 8:00 AM
  • Jake Pollard, CDC Gaming Reports

Mainstream advertising is the most visible sign of the gambling industry’s presence, but acts as the entry point to the search for regulatory balance in regulated markets.  

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As the second quarter results season gets into full flow, some of the high profile U.S.-facing bookmakers can look forward to reaching profitability in key states. But the mood music around the industry, its image and how it is perceived, remains much the same. 

Indeed, while industry stakeholders can congratulate themselves on a job well done, the speed at which sports betting has been regulated across the U.S. would have been unthinkable not long ago. There is also a sense that for all the progress that has been made in the past five years, an anti-gambling backlash is just waiting to be unleashed.

The reason for this potential backlash is simple and, for anyone following how the industry is evolving, understandable. It largely comes down to the visibility of sports betting around sporting events. Whether on TV, computer and mobile screens, or social media platforms, those who object to the strong presence of betting operators all over the media have no difficulty in finding examples they can show to prove their point. 

The amount of betting advertising and content being produced – to get players to sign up or use sporting topics as a way to promote betting (according to some at least) – is hard to keep up with.   

Balancing act
Looking at the most direct relation between sports and betting: where bookmakers advertise their products during sporting events or in stadiums, it seems clear that U.S. leagues and teams haven’t quite worked out how to balance their embrace of regulated sports betting. 

From fully-fledged approval and allowing the broad presence of betting content, to the industry and leagues limiting how many adverts are broadcast, they are clearly aware how the major presence of betting logos and advertising can impact their image.

In addition, there have been a number of unauthorized betting-related behaviors from players and staff that have negatively impacted the industry and caused the public to question the integrity of the sport. Without wanting to minimize such cases, they are not new and have happened for as long as there has been professional sports – but recent scandals involving top level athletes are just the ammunition critics of the industry need to keep it under pressure.  

Reports that the NCAA in Iowa is investigating “unusual logins” from students at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University outside of gameday events, and that the same NCAA has logged 175 infractions of its sports-betting policy since 2018 and has 17 investigations on the go,  show that the issue is very much active. 

Players uncovered
In addition, whenever professional athletes have been found to bet on sports, whether in matches or on sports they are involved in, the default response from sports leagues has been to punish them with severe bans. 

While understandable up to a point, such responses also leave much to be desired in that they appear to show little understanding of why the athletes were wagering. They also leave the sports bodies open to criticism for what many see as their hypocritical and contradictory approaches to sports betting. 

As they accept millions of dollars in sponsorship and commercial partnerships with bookmakers and betting data companies, they can hardly be surprised when professional athletes and players are then found to enjoy a sports bet or three. 

In other words, even if they are banned from betting on their own sports, top level athletes are also human, while their stadiums and shirts (certainly in a market like the UK) are adorned with logos from gambling companies. The other obvious point to make is that these are only some of the players to have been uncovered and there are likely many more who are doing the same. 

How much is too much?
For what it’s worth, and as has been argued in these columns previously, what many object to is not that gambling companies advertise, but the amount of advertising around sports teams and events. 

In Europe this point was emphasized recently by a survey carried out by the Football Supporters’ Association of England and Wales, which found that 73% of supporters were concerned about the amount of gambling sponsorships.

As this article explains, the FSA survey follows news that 35% of Premier League teams will be sponsored by gambling companies next season. Martin Cloake, former co-chair of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust, emphasized the point when he said fans don’t object to betting itself but to “the amount of advertising” and what needs to be tackled is “the normalization of betting”. 

Unintended consequences
In the UK the debate is taking place in an environment where there are highly publicized and regular incidents of gambling harm and flouting of responsible gambling guidelines, with Betfred being the latest culprit (see Igaming Focus news items for more). Such incidents have led to an atmosphere where there are so many claims and counter-claims about the industry that it is hard to know what regulatory or legislative vehicle could deliver an environment that all stakeholders would be happy with. 

As a way to show good will, the UK industry has agreed to stop (front of shirt) sponsoring with Premier League clubs, moves that have also been imposed in the Netherlands and Belgium. In the latter two markets, however, the moves are largely political and the result of anti-gambling lobbying. 

And while some politicians might congratulate themselves on this turn of events, they have also led operators to cancel numerous partnerships with affiliates from one moment to the next, which has led those affiliates to turn to unregulated operators to make up for the loss of business. This has been happening in Germany for some time already, and serves as a good illustration of how difficult it is to find a balanced regulatory environment for all stakeholders, regardless of political motives. 

Striking a balance between player protection, offering strong entertainment options for  consumers and viable environments for businesses is an ongoing challenge across all regulated markets. The U.S. has done a very good job of adapting to broad regulation in a short space of time, but these topics will keep recurring as the search for equilibrium continues.