January 17, 2023

  • William J. Pascrell III, Partner at Princeton Public Affairs Group

Conceptualizing a strong, operator-led responsible gambling program

Bill Pascrell argues that a strong commitment to shared industry standards and a proactive approach to media and public communications can help U.S. operators avoid the fates of their European counterparts

Anyone who has been working in the gambling industry for more than a month has likely heard the phrase “responsible gambling” more times than they can count. The concept has become referred to in so many different situations, for so many different purposes, that it can be difficult to pin down the definition of what it means to gamble responsibly.

The U.S. gambling industry is more culturally and economically significant than ever before. 36 states have legal sports betting markets1; U.S. commercial gaming revenue reached $4.89 billion in August, a new record for the month; and August marked the 18th consecutive month with positive year-over-year gaming revenue growth.

As gambling continues to surge, and as more Americans become drawn to placing bets, it will become increasingly important for the industry to practically define responsible gambling, incorporate it into every aspect of their operations, and protect their customers. For the very survival of the U.S. industry, nothing is more important than getting this right.

Defining responsible gambling

There is perhaps no educational institution more respected by the gaming industry than the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) International Gaming Institute. Their definition of responsible gambling2 is simple: it means “taking breaks, not using gambling as a source of income, only gambling with money that you can afford to lose, and setting limits for yourself.” In short, responsible gambling is “using gambling for fun and entertainment’s sake,” not as a source of income.

The definition is simple, but it can obscure an important truth: the onus is on gambling operators, not bettors, to ensure responsible gambling is achievable and accessible. Operators are the very entities that facilitate gambling, and as such, they play the largest role in ensuring bettors’ safety.

With that in mind, what does a strong, operator-led responsible gambling program look like?

When industry comes together

On September 22nd, six of the largest online gaming operators in the U.S.—Bally’s, BetMGM, DraftKings, Entain, FanDuel, and MGM Resorts International—came together to agree to the first industry-led responsible gambling standards3 in the country.

The coalition of operators, brought together by Entain, defined 12 principles4 that include commitments to prevent underage and excluded individuals from participating in any form of gaming; to provide customers with informed choices about gaming through easily understood responsible gaming tools; and to continuously conduct research to track the impact of this collaboration.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the 12 principles, the full version of which can be read at the link below:

  1. We take active steps to prevent underage and excluded individuals from participating in any form of gaming within our products.
  2. We help patrons make informed choices about their gaming.
  3. We support the adoption and effective promotion of a unified nationwide responsible gaming toll-free helpline.
  4. We abide by applicable standards of socially responsible advertising.
  5. We provide our customers with tools to play responsibly.
  6. We abide by all self-exclusion rules and regulations, and provide resources to individuals who make the choice to self-exclude.
  7. We encourage patrons to set a budget that they can afford and never play beyond their means.
  8. We encourage patrons to set time and financial limits on their gaming and stick to them.
  9. We believe in a shared responsibility approach to addressing problem gaming. We work with policymakers, academic experts and researchers, problem gaming treatment organizations, advocacy groups, our partners, and our customers to promote responsible gaming and address problem gaming.
  10. We support funding for evidence-based problem and responsible gaming research.
  11. We provide employees with responsible gaming training upon hire and regularly thereafter.
  12. We are committed to evaluating and continuously monitoring our responsible gaming programs and initiatives.

As a Trustee for Entain Foundation U.S., I believe strongly in the work that Entain and other industry operators are doing to promote responsible gambling. While these 12 principles don’t cover every possible aspect of an operator-led RG program, they lay out a strong foundation on which the industry can build a truly effective, unified front to tackle problem gambling and protect their customers from addiction-related harm.

As noted by Martin Lycka, my colleague at Entain Foundation U.S. and Entain’s Senior Vice President for American Regulatory Affairs and Responsible Gambling, the principles are “truly a first for this market and a significant step for addressing problem gaming on a consistent basis.”

The benefits of being responsible

The 12 principles announcement is a clear example of how operators can validate their claim to being focused on responsible gambling.

The media environment surrounding the legal gambling industry often portrays the space in a negative light, with operators prioritizing their profits at the expense of their customers’ safety. Operators that wish to shed this impression can do so by taking real, impactful actions to educate consumers and promote responsible gambling.

Globally, Entain Foundation has committed over $132 million over a five-year span to promote responsible gambling, sports integrity, and compliance within the gambling industry. While the industry will likely always have detractors, it can be difficult to argue with institutions that have a clear, proven track record of emphasizing player safety and well-being.

Public education through media

Media engagement is perhaps the best way to educate bettors and the general public on the benefits of playing with responsible operators.

Earned media coverage serves as a particularly powerful source of validation of betting platforms’ safeguards and commitment to responsible gambling. Members of the general public primarily learn about the legal gambling space through reading the news. As such, journalists’ views of gambling help shape their coverage, which in turn guides public sentiment. By engaging directly and honestly with journalists, operators can help generate public, regulatory, and cultural support for the industry.

Beyond organic coverage, which is never guaranteed, many companies have successfully educated the public on responsible gambling through social media. Wager Score, a platform that converts 1% of every dollar bet on gaming partner sites into charitable, tax-deductible donations, prompts its target audience to “Bet Smart, Give Back.” The first-of-its-kind technology has caught significant attention through its social media-driven content strategy, particularly on TikTok.

How operators can co-exist

While the 12 principles announcement stands out as an example of how responsible companies can collaborate with each other, to the benefit of bettors and the industry as a whole, these entities face another challenge: how can they coexist with irresponsible operators?

By and large, responsible operators should avoid doing business with black market platforms that don’t have basic safety guidelines in place. Such dealings can threaten their ability to gain public support, work with regulators, and develop trusting, impactful relationships with the media. This is an approach that I suspect most industry executives can stand by.

A more difficult problem arises with major, legal operators who, while not operating illegally, do not prioritize responsible gambling and player safety to the extent that they should. Some of these companies have substantial public followings and power within the industry, and it can be difficult to avoid associating with them altogether.

Responsible operators will generally do well by making clear, unvarnished statements on their approach to player safety, and not adjusting their standards to those held by their competitors. While betting companies may not sing from identical hymn sheets, they can move towards basic agreements on reasonable operating guidelines- and ultimately move forward together.

On regulators

The gambling industry’s regulators have a clear responsibility to enforce their guidelines, even at the expense of individual operators who choose not to abide by basic standards. For the sake of bettors, taxpayers, and the preservation of the industry as a whole, it is imperative that regulators advance the execution of responsible gambling protocols.

There will always be debates over which responsible gambling regulations are needed to ensure a safe, practical industry. There is no uniform standard for the perfect approach to a piece of gambling legislation and how it should approach issues like advertising standards, credit card payments, or in-game bets. Ultimately, it is up to regulators to enforce the rules that are set down and agreed upon by lawmakers. Their role in ensuring a responsible industry is of the highest importance.

A call to action

I like to refer to responsible gambling as “sustainable gambling.” The reason is simple: American gambling operators will be plagued by continuous crises, like those faced by European companies, if they don’t take on an industry-wide dedication to protecting bettors. The very sustainability of the industry is dependent on its leaders’ commitment to responsible gambling.

The 12 principles are an excellent path forward for our industry’s leaders to define responsible gambling, articulate its best practices, and adopt them in all areas. There is much, much more to do, and I believe we have the right people in place to build a sustainable, responsible gambling industry that prioritizes its customers’ safety above all else.