In November 2014, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote an op ed in the New York Times
NYT calling for the legalization of sports gambling to allow fans to place small, friendly wagers on games they enjoy. If that were the way the sports gambling industry actually advertised their products, perhaps we would be in a better place. However, the messaging about sports gambling in this country is getting darker and more concerning—especially as the separation between gambling businesses and journalists has become more obscure, and more articles are published that may at first seem like traditional journalism, but actually serve to promote gambling behaviors—all without clear disclosures as to their nature.
To illustrate this point, Darren Rovell, who is a former sports business reporter for ESPN, has amassed an incredible more than two million followers on Twitter based on his historic success breaking sports business news. However, after leaving the world of traditional sports business writing, Rovell was hired by the Action Network—a website that offers sports betting information and advertises sports betting websites. Of course, many still perceive him as a traditional journalist.
Yesterday, Rovell posted an article on the Action Network website, which he then tweeted to his more than two-million followers. The article describes a purported third-grade elementary school teacher who he claims bet more than $90,000 on Morocco making the World Cup quarterfinals, and won more than $1,000,000 when they did so. Whether this story constitutes newsworthy sports business journalism is debatable. However, its negative impact on some readers—especially given its embedded sports gambling links and absent any conspicuous disclosures—seems far less so.
Although most state gambling regulations disallow the advertising of sports gambling to minors, there are no regulations in place on affiliates of sports gambling operators who write articles, or post articles on Twitter, which give the impression that it is somehow normal or healthy for someone to place a full-year’s salary on a single, low-probability sports bet.
While Rovell is far from the only person who writes articles of this nature, he is by far the most conspicuous based on his highly recognizable brand name and the links to sports betting websites that sometimes appear mid-article. And Rovell’s recent article was particularly concerning for reasons that extend to many similar articles published by employees and agents of gambling affiliated entities.
First, the article heroizes financially risky behavior. Beyond the purported winner’s self-acknowledgement that he is “a regular degenerate dude,” the article did not acknowledge the substantial risk of someone of moderate means placing a $90,000 bet, especially where the better admitted he knew nothing about the players or the game itself. The article touted the positive result for this particular better, but not how most people of moderate means who place a bet of this size and lose would likely find themselves in financial ruin.
Second, the article may reasonably lead impulsive individuals to emulate the behavior of Rovell’s protagonist. Indeed, if one young man can throw down $90,000 on something he knows little about and walk away with seven-figure winnings and a positive story circulated in the mainstream, others may be more likely to try to do the same. Indeed, the article makes this type of gambling success story seem reachable, as opposed to an aberration.
Finally, this article disregards the effect of such a story of those who already suffer from mental health challenges including pathological gambling behaviors. While individuals aware of their inclination to engage in pathological gambling behaviors may choose to avoid casino settings or reading articles posted on gambling tout sites, a Twitter posting from someone who was once known as a very serious sports business reporter may obscure one’s perception of the nature of the clickbait.
For all of these reasons, sports gambling regulators need to take a serious look at their adoption and enforcement of rules limiting sports gambling advertisements. Neither Rovell’s article posted on the Action Network nor even his Twitter account includes the standard default language providing information for help for those suffering from gambling addiction. Nor does the article provide the kind of disclosures that are required when a writer provides financial or investment advice. While neither Rovell nor the Action Network may be required to provide this information based on current state law, they should be if we want sports gambling to thrive in America without substantially harming our most vulnerable populations.
Marc Edelman (Marc@MarcEdelman.com) is a Professor of Law at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and the founder of Edelman Law. He has advised hundreds of entities on legal issues pertaining to launching and operating fantasy sports contests and authored the law review articles “A Short Treatise on Sports Gambling and the Law” and “Legalized Sports Wagering in America.”