BOSTON (SHNS) – Regulators called together representatives of the sports betting industry, Major League Baseball, and local broadcasters to get a lay of the sports wagering advertising and marketing landscape as they gauge where to set the guardrails on ads designed to entice people to gamble their money on sports.
Even before sports betting was legalized here this summer, members of the Mass. Gaming Commission and its staff signaled a serious interest in getting a handle on the industry’s advertising practices, which have been criticized as overly-saturating and irresponsible. It is still illegal to bet in Massachusetts, but the commission is working towards getting in-person betting up and running before the Super Bowl and launching mobile betting by March Madness. And with more than a dozen sports betting licenses available, the commission is preparing for a possible flood of advertising.
The state’s sports betting law requires the Gaming Commission to impose regulations that prohibit any ads, marketing or branding that “is deceptive, false, misleading, or untrue, or tends to deceive or create a misleading impression whether directly, or by ambiguity or omission;” that the commission determines “to appeal directly to a person younger than 21 years old;” that the commission “deems unacceptable or disruptive to the viewer experience at a sports event;” and billboard or public signage advertising that “fails to comply with any federal, state or local law.”
As they prepare to write and approve the regulations that will govern sports betting advertising here, the commission on Monday convened a roundtable with representatives from local broadcasters, the American Gaming Association and MLB.
“Most, if not all, broadcasters have internal rules as to how many spots for an industry or an advertiser can air next to each other or within a stop set, which is a set of commercials or within an hour or period of time. And I would hazard to guess that most of our broadcasters would continue to follow their internal rules so that you don’t have an MGM, a DraftKings and a FanDuel spot running back to back,” Jordan Walton, executive director of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association, said. “We do that because our broadcasters are beholden to their listeners and viewers, and to annoy a viewer or listener to the point where they change the channel is exactly the opposite of what our broadcasters want to do. So it’s a balancing act that they each go through, but it’s an important one.”
For MLB games, the league restricts broadcasters to 10 sports betting ads within the “game window,” which includes pre- and post-game coverage as well as the game itself, according to Quest Meeks, MLB’s vice president and deputy general counsel. No commercial break during a game can have more than one 30-second betting ad, he said.
On NESN, the regional sports network that broadcasts most Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins games, sports betting ads are limited to no more than six per MLB telecast in line with the league’s own rules, and the network similarly restricts betting ads during NHL games, President and CEO Sean McGrail said.
And NESN has also “made an active decision to only offer inventory to four different gaming operators inside our pro broadcasts,” he said. Another NESN executive told the Gaming Commission members Monday that they need not worry about Bruins games becoming over-saturated with betting ads this winter. Cosmina Schulman, NESN’s senior vice president of broadcast and digital partnership, said the regional network “would never take” ads from every licensed sports betting company in Massachusetts.
“We’re limiting it right now to four, but even if you take it a step further our inventory wouldn’t even allow us to … we don’t even have that much available inventory at this point in time,” she said. “We’re 100 percent sold out right now on the Bruins today. So we don’t even have that type of inventory to offer to the sports [betting] operators.”
NESN also has the ability to (and does) bifurcate its signal so that each of the six New England states gets its own feed. McGrail said NESN has been using that power to run responsible gaming ads in Connecticut, which recently legalized sports betting. But while NESN (which is owned by the Red Sox and Bruins) has the ability to decide which ads it will run and when, that is not the case for all networks that broadcast sports.
Todd Brown, vice president and general manager of local station Boston 25, said that the local station basically acts as a pass-through for NFL games. So just about everything a Massachusetts resident sees when they tune in for an NFL game on Boston 25 is dictated by the station’s parent network Fox, with the exception of local news and weather breaks.
“I do not have the ability in my broadcast chain, or the right, to run over the top of what Fox broadcasts. So I’m really kind of a conduit really,” Brown said. “I do have local avails, which I do control and I have control of that content. But for the most part, no, I don’t. I don’t have the ability to regionalize or go over the top of any type of network programming.”
Commissioners Eileen O’Brien and Brad Hill asked what would happen if Massachusetts establishes regulations that are more strict than the status quo around sports betting advertising and then a national network like Fox tries to run an ad that would conflict with what the state allows. Brown said he thinks the ad would air all the same and likened his local affiliate to a McDonald’s franchise.
“I’m the franchisee for Fox. And so if they want to serve Big Macs, I have to serve Big Macs,” he said. He added, “As far as the content of those ads and where they’re placed, I don’t as a local affiliate have the power to circumvent that.”
Brown also reminded the commission that outlets like his also have to be mindful of federal restrictions and oversight on their broadcasting license.
“The number one rule is obviously to protect the license,” he said.
In 2015, it was the ubiquity of the ads for DraftKings and FanDuel on television, the internet and at public places like South Station that helped daily fantasy sports break into the mainstream. But it also put the activity onto regulators’ radar screens and led them to impose restrictions on it. A review of DraftKings and the industry in general launched by Attorney General Maura Healey eventually led to penalties for DraftKings and FanDuel, and consumer protection regulations for daily fantasy sports.
Almost every industry official who participated in Monday’s roundtable argued that advertising can also be a force for good in addition to being an important tool for attracting new customers.
“It’s not just about consumer and customer acquisition, but it’s an important opportunity for us to get the [responsible gaming] message to core audiences,” Casey Clark, senior vice president at the AGA, said. “And so looking at advertising not just as a monetary or commercial opportunity, but as an opportunity to advance RG is really critical.”
While sports betting is what spurred the Gaming Commission to take a deeper dive into advertising restrictions and practices, Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said Monday that she and her fellow regulators are also working with the Department of Transportation to deal with billboards from out-of-state casinos that she said do not meet the Mass. Gaming Commission’s requirements.
“There’s some billboards up of casinos who advertise in Massachusetts who are actually conducting casino gaming in other neighboring states and they do not include responsible gaming messaging, which we require,” Judd-Stein said. “So I think that’s being addressed right now with MassDOT, I’m hoping.”