Three Issues That Shaped Sports Betting in America in 2021

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Three Issues That Shaped Sports Betting in America in 2021
© USA Today

Note: This is part of a series reviewing the major sports betting stories of 2021.

As legalized sports gambling has continued to evolve in America since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in 2018 the federal law that had prohibited most states from legalizing sports betting, a handful of looming themes have emerged. In some cases, the issues are potentially problematic. In other cases, they are inevitable movements within the industry that have taken on a life of their own.

Here are three issues that shaped sports gambling in 2021 and will likely continue to direct the course of the industry.

Concerns About Sports Gambling Advertising

From the outset, gambling operators have been aggressively advertising their products. But as more states launched sports betting in 2021, that advertising has become more pronounced, especially on television, in each new jurisdiction.

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With sports gambling now operating in 30 states plus Washington D.C., such advertising has proliferated to the extent that even the American Gaming Association, the trade group that represents gambling interests, is cautioning the industry to rein in its commercials. Television advertising has been singled out for several reasons, but largely because it reaches underage audiences.

The danger, AGA CEO Bill Miler pointed out at the Global Gaming Expo in October, is this: “We have to get this right because we’ve seen what happens when it goes wrong.”

Miller was referencing to various actions in the U.K. and in Europe to curtail sports gambling advertising when it was perceived to be getting out of hand or targeting vulnerable audiences.

In the U.S., politicians and regulators have already noticed the incessant advertising and are grumbling.

Dan Hartman, director of the Colorado Division of Gaming, said he’s already hearing from lawmakers, even though sports gambling has been in operation just since about mid-2020.

“They are saying, ‘This is too much, we did not expect this much,’” Hartman said. “Sportsbooks need to find a balance because the last thing you want is to have advertising legislated.”

Free Spending in Name of Competition

In 2021, the word many gaming executives used to describe the spending practices of some sports betting operators was “unsustainable.”

That was how outgoing Wynn Resorts CEO Mike Maddox described the spending arms race among online sports betting operators – a race his company was backing away from.

MORE IN YEAR END SERIES: Ten moments that impacted gaming.

The math has been either dazzling or alarming, depending on one’s point of view. DraftKings, publicly-traded on the NASDAQ, has consistently reported quarterly losses in the range of $300 million and greater on its earnings calls. But CEO Jason Robins has been undaunted, contending that capturing market share was all-important.

Caesars Sportsbook CEO Tom Reeg took up the challenge in an earnings call in August, saying that his company was prepared to spend $1 billion over 2½ years to develop the digital side of the company. Reeg colorfully described the current state of online sports gambling as the “wild west.”

Other operators, such as FanDuel and BetMGM, have been pushing their products with attention-grabbing advertising and lavish promotions to lure and retain customers.

MORE IN YEAR END SERIES: How the three biggest states – California, Texas and Florida – are faring in their efforts to get sports betting launched.

With New York poised to be the new online sports betting battleground as the industry turns the page on a new year, the heavy spend on marketing and promotions would appear to be a continuing trend.

Pro Leagues Embrace Sports Betting

The stance professional sports leagues hold today regarding sports gambling is in contrast to their steadfast opposition from the past, revealing a breathtaking turnabout of philosophy.

That the NFL announced in early December that it will hold a Super Bowl at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium in 2024 was a beyond-belief irony considering that, not so long ago, the NFL blocked the city of Las Vegas from even advertising during the Super Bowl telecast.

Also in December, the Pro Football Hall of Fame proudly announced that Rush Street Interactive would be opening a sportsbook in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Village in Canton, Ohio.

There’s hardly a sports stadium or arena in America that isn’t festooned with advertising from gambling operators.

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The Superdome in New Orleans is now the Caesars Superdome and will have the gambling company’s emperor profile logo on the roof, a perfect marketing image for blimp shots during football telecasts.

Not content with merely allowing sportsbooks to plaster advertising on their buildings, sports teams are in the process of having actual sportsbooks in the immediate proximity of the action and are arguably becoming de facto partners.

This marriage of Big Sports and Big Gambling was bound to happen because of the money being paid to teams and the heightened “fan engagement” that gambling brings to sports. It started as flirtation but in the last year became a union enthusiastically consummated and fans can expect a long honeymoon.

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