Virginia Sports Bettor Bill of Rights Should Just Be a Start

Virginia Sports Bettor Bill of Rights Should Just Be a Start
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As a constituency, sports bettors, or any group of gamblers, don’t attract a lot of sympathy and attention from folks in government, and that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, as sports bettors their ambition isn’t saving the rain forest — it’s covering the spread. Let’s be frank, sports bettors are mainly about self-interest.

But they are consumers — consumers who contribute to a growing multi-billion dollar segment of the American economy. As such, sports bettors do deserve some protections in their particular marketplace just as any other consumers who buy houses and cars or purchase insurance policies or invest in equities.

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And now, there’s a first official recognition that sports bettors are entitled to a modicum of respect. When Virginia’s Lottery Commission approved regulations for its nascent sports wagering industry on Sept. 15, included was a Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights. It spelled out five areas where sports gamblers receive some protection, both in their dealings with gambling operators and even from themselves.

The five areas are: integrity and transparency in wagering; data privacy and security; the right to self-exclude; protection of the vulnerable (including underaged persons and those susceptible to disordered gambling); and the right to recourse in disputes.

Actually, when you think about it, these are all pillars of the legal gambling industry’s arguments as to why sports gambling should be legalized and regulated. Yet, Virginia stands alone as a state to adopt those principles as mandates.

The organization that has been pressing for inclusion of such a Bill of Rights is the Sports Fans Coalition, a smallish group (claiming 40,000 members) funded principally by online ticket seller StubHub, and led by 28-year old Brian Hess, a Virginian himself.

After failing to gain traction with the gaming industry establishment, Hess got the ball rolling by organizing a symposium at Georgetown University that included consumer advocates, addictions experts, an attorney for online gaming interests, academics and even Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.

“We could look at other countries (with sports gambling) — where were their pitfalls and how do we avoid them here. What should consumer protections look like,” Hess said of the exploration that group embarked on. “And after we digested that whole conversation, we came up these five things that should be included in the sports wagering effort.”

'Transparency and Integrity'

From a pure betting point of view, Hess said, “In my opinion, if the sportsbooks want us to take a risk, they should be willing to take risk, too, and I should have access to all the same information and intelligence that they have so I can make the most informed bet. That’s the cornerstone of the first item in the Bill of Rights, transparency and integrity.”

In Virginia’s version of the Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights that concept translates to the following language: The amount wagered on the bet; the odds at which the wager is offered, and the payout amounts. Lost was original language that would have required gambling operators to divulge handle and how odds are calculated, after feedback from the gambling industry.

However, there’s a lot more to the Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights, including grappling with the dangers of addiction. The Bill of Rights and Virginia gaming regulations spell out procedures for gamblers self-excluding (for periods of two years, five years and lifetime) and there’s a requirement that gambling operators be proactive when they spot serious problems arising.

For the Bill of Rights to happen, though, the concept of protections for sports gamblers needed what Hess called a legislative “champion” and that turned out to be Del. Marcus Simon, a Democrat representing Fairfax County and Falls Church.

“As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court basically took down (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act), I saw the train coming down the track and that sooner or later, we were going to have gambling in Virginia,” Simon said. “And if we were to do it right, we had to be fair to the consumers so they could feel it was a fair and transparent product that was preferable to what was available offshore (in the illegal market).”

Missing from the discussion regarding the Virginia Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights was the American Gaming Association. Although the AGA has advocated principles that are mentioned in the Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights, the industry group that represents the interest of commercial and tribal casinos and gaming suppliers, did no lobbying nor did it participate in the public comment on the regulations. Some gaming companies did comment and those led to a few changes, such as alterations in the type of information supplied to gamblers.

Simon said he was OK with the modifications to the Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights.

“It was tweaked but I expected some pushback from the industry,” he said. “But the changes that were made were more a reflection that the industry has a better understanding of how (sports wagering) works than regulators do.”

State Responsibility Important

Importantly, Simon said, is that state endorsement of sports gambling carries state responsibility.

“If it’s going to have the imprimatur of the state and we’re going to say that this thing is OK, then there ought to be basic protections written in so that people at least feel that this is going to be run fairly,” Simon said.

For the gaming industry’s part, it would probably prefer to self-regulate as much as possible and avoid government mandates that increase the cost of doing business which, in turn, makes it harder to compete with illegal offshore operators.

Yet, if Virginia’s codified principles dovetail with the industry’s overarching message of safe, responsible gaming then Big Gaming should get on board in seeing such concepts woven into law. Those concepts include markets where odds are transparent; where private information is protected and not bartered; where operators intervene on behalf of disordered gamblers; where advertising and marketing do not deliver a distorted message; where the impressionable young are not being cynically influenced; and where there’s a forum for disputes.

The Virginia Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights may be a first, but it should not be the last.

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