‘There’s no limit’: one congressman’s solitary crusade to rein in sports betting
Democrat Paul Tonko is pushing to halt a ‘public health crisis’ from engulfing the country – starting with a nationwide ban on ads
As Las Vegas prepares to host Super Bowl LVIII sports betting is preparing to celebrate its remarkable shift from the illegal fringes of American sports to the heart of its establishment. In Congress, one man is not cheering.
Congressman Paul Tonko fears the industry has already gone too far. “There’s no limit to this,” he told the Guardian. “You can’t have this wild west environment.” So far Tonko is a rare voice of dissent in Washington, another arena where the new gambling establishment is gaining ground.
The gambling capital of the world is playing host to one of its largest sporting events for the first time in February – less than six years after the supreme court set the stage for sports betting’s surge across much of the United States.
The transformation of official attitudes to online gambling has been head-spinning. Barely a dozen years ago, US authorities were still arresting and jailing online gambling executives. Now, in most of America, placing a wager has never been so easy.
This now-legal sector’s sprint must be stopped, according to Tonko, who has become its fiercest critic on Capitol Hill. The congressman is calling for a federal crackdown to halt a “public health crisis” from engulfing the country – starting with a nationwide ban on advertising.
The crusade has so far been a solitary one. No other member of Congress has yet publicly endorsed his campaign against betting ads, launched nine months ago. But Tonko is not prepared to throw in the towel.
Over the course of an hour-long interview, the Democrat of New York let rip at a sector he believes must be reined in, accusing it of “preying on” the vulnerable, targeting ads at recovering addicts and putting “profits over people”.
Back in May 2018, when the US supreme court struck down a decades-old law which had prohibited legal sports betting across much of the country, it knew the ruling would be divisive. Supporters of the ruling believed it would prompt a financial boon for states and “critically weaken” illegal platforms, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the court’s opinion. Opponents feared it would “hook the young on gambling” and corrupt professional and college sports.
The sports betting industry loudly highlights potential signs that its supporters were right. The American Gaming Association (AGA), which represents legal gambling companies, estimates they paid $13.5bn in taxes to state and local governments last year.
So far the opponents of legalization have tended to speak more quietly. Signs of climbing youth addiction rates are more likely found in treatment clinics and helpline call centers than in political press releases.
Tonko is trying to turn up the volume. “I’m very academic about this job,” he said. “And if I see something as a looming crisis… then I should respond.”
The congressman was drawn to scrutinize the burgeoning gambling market after hearing “routinely” from younger constituents about a “constant bombardment” of ads. This is a “known addictive product” which, as far as he’s concerned, should be regulated like any other.
At 74, Tonko noted that his generation was not “much of a target” for the sector’s marketing blitz. “But high schoolers, young children, college students and, believe it or not, people that were on the list as people in recovery were a targeted list of populations that sportsbooks went after.”
With online sportsbooks now live and legal in more than two dozen states, Tonko is alarmed that this liberalization has triggered a sharp increase in compulsive gambling rates. “It’s an issue that needs to be addressed before we are overwhelmed by pain and suffering.”
Back in February, on the eve of the last Super Bowl, Tonko proposed the Betting on our Future Act, based on legislation that banned tobacco advertisements in the 1960s. It is designed to “protect the innocent” from the betting commercials that have flooded television, radio and the internet in recent years. “We didn’t outlaw smoking,” he said, “and we’re not outlawing gambling here.”
Days later, with 115 million people tuned into the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, and companies reportedly shelling out up to $7m per ad to reach them, gambling giants dug deep. DraftKings, one of the biggest players in sports betting, recruited a cadre of celebrities to promote its special offer: a “FREE BET” for all customers. “Man, that’s big,” the comedian Kevin Hart said during its advert. Only the small print (displayed in the last seven seconds) explained it was impossible to withdraw winnings from such a “non-cashable” wager.
The wider industry continues to spend heavily. The top four operators – FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM and Caesars – spent $825.3m on advertising last year alone, according to data from the advertising intelligence groups Vivvix and Pathmatics, and an estimated $417.2m on adverts in the first eight months of this year; more than the same period of 2022.
These digital gladiators are still battling to dominate this nascent arena. Their extensive marketing campaigns have made gambling more visible than ever before; their innovations have made it more accessible, too. Regular prompts and opportunities to gamble have made the practice “far more destructive”, argued Tonko, who believes legal operators want “free rein” to do as they please. This is a market with “no parameters”, he claimed, laying out his case for swift action.
So far, however, support for his proposal has been muted. Privately, some in Washington question whether advertising restrictions would make more sense than outright ban. The pushback has been blunt.
The congressman’s comments “ignore the hard work and commitment of thousands of state and tribal gaming regulators who work every day to safeguard consumers, uphold marketplace integrity, and enforce the law”, Cait DeBaun, the AGA’s vice-president for strategic communications and responsibility, said. “The only ‘Wild West’ out there is the unchecked illegal market enabled by failed federal legislation, which handed bad actors a monopoly for almost three decades.
“Offshore sportsbooks pad their pockets by targeting kids, college students and those with gambling problems. Anyone interested in protecting vulnerable Americans should focus their efforts on strengthening and enforcing existing laws to stop illegal gambling.”
The industry has made some changes. The AGA’s marketing code, for example, was updated in March to prohibit use of the term “risk free”, and clarify that ads should be “designed to appeal primarily” to people aged 21 and over. Insiders deny this move was prompted by anything in particular. (Asked if it still uses the term “free bet” in ads following the change, DraftKings did not respond.)
“As legalized gaming expands, our commitment to responsibility continues to grow and evolve in tandem,” said DeBaun. “The changes to the Code enacted by AGA members demonstrate this commitment by raising standards and introducing increased protections for college-aged audiences who are more vulnerable.”
Such action is not enough for Tonko. “Intervening here, I think, is the just and right thing to do,” he said. The congressman is focused “for now” on advertising, but in time believes his colleagues should consider the best ways to both prevent and treat compulsive gambling.
Congressional hearings could explore what should be “off limits” for this industry, he suggested. “There will be ripple effects of all sorts that, I hope, will be reviewed, and given intense examination. And if it warrants public policy, let’s do the bills. Let’s do that legislation.”
Tonko is not sure the current safety net for problem gamblers is sufficient. “We do a lot to fund efforts to address people with alcohol, tobacco and heroin” issues, he said. When it comes to gambling, “you’ll tell me there’s an 800 number. How strong is it? How functional is it? You don’t treat any mental health disorder, any addiction, [with] a simple telephone number.”
Media companies selling ads, gambling operators pursuing customers and states collecting tax revenue “all stand to gain” from sports betting’s rise, Tonko observed. “But at what price?”
Toward the end of his interview, the congressman trailed off. “Look, I have a horse track in my district,” he said. “I’m not against gambling.”
Tonko visits the Saratoga course, in upstate New York, from time to time. His staffers reckon the congressman most recently placed a bet last summer.
But attending a track to wager on which horse finishes first seems quaint in an era when smartphones have enabled myriad bets – from the length of the longest touchdown to the number of passes two players might complete – during a single football game. The congressman believes tougher regulations are needed to reduce the odds of addiction trapping a new generation.
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