Say What? The Five Worst Takes From The Sports Betting Hearing In Congress

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What happens when you mix underinformed legislators and ranting advocates with sports betting? You get Thursday’s hearing in Congress.

A House subcommittee conducted the first sports betting hearing since the Supreme Court rescinded PASPA in May. Stakeholders on both sides provided testimony, and the NFL presented a case that stands for the view of most sports leagues.

Some witnesses offered logic and insight; others, less so. There were some uninformed, misinformed, and downright misleading statements tossed around, too. Get a look at the five wildest thoughts put out there Thursday:

Racing to the bottom?

NFL executive vice president Jocelyn Moore testified, and she took her shots at state-level regulation.

“Since the Supreme Court’s decision, states are rushing to promote sports betting. And we are witnessing a regulatory race to the bottom.”

Race to the bottom? Where have we heard that before?

Oh yeah, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) used the same phrase last month in an update regarding his plans to introduce federal legislation. “To do it right,” Hatch said, “we need to make sure that state regulatory frameworks are not a race to the bottom.”

It’s a catchy line, but it’s hard to argue that’s what is happening in the US right now.

Delaware and New Jersey launched sports betting very soon after the SCOTUS decision, true. But their legislation had been in the works for years. And Delaware is even holding off on online/mobile wagering while it gathers more information. Pennsylvania sports betting became law nearly a year ago, and it still hasn’t begun.

To call any of this a rush is to mischaracterize. There’s also the “to the bottom” part to pick apart.

Again, states so far have been exceedingly cautious. In each case, legislation has always followed significant exploration. Every state that offers sports betting has existing experience regulating other forms of gambling, too. And we know of several instances in which lawmakers and regulators worked with colleagues in other states to share ideas about sports betting.

What Moore likely meant is that states are racing to deny leagues control over the gaming industry. She also testified that the NFL is not advocating for sweeping changes to federal law at the expense of state sovereignty before asking for exactly such changes.

Official league data as the only reliable source?

There was little question the NFL would make its pitch for the mandated use of official league data. This data has become the focus for sports governing bodies as they fight for relevance in the mechanics of betting.

Here’s Moore again:

“Consumers who choose to place wagers should know data is timely, accurate, consistent across markets — which can only be assured if the data comes from sports leagues or their licensees.”

That first part is agreeable all around. Every bet should be placed with confidence that it’s rooted in accurate data.

As far as the second part, though, reliable data is available from a variety of sources. Box scores are printed in every newspaper, for starters, and online tools excel at compiling more granular data. Despite its apparent concern about so-called ghost games, nobody is inventing results for NFL games.

This is the part where Moore contradicts herself by asking for policy changes at the federal level. Courts have previously held that statistics from sporting events are part of the public domain and available for free use. The leagues want to see an updated federal mandate to either circumvent or supersede existing precedent.

The leagues do have partnerships with companies that collect, compile and distribute their official set of data. But even the big one the NFL uses, Sportradar, has itself argued against information monopolies.

States are laboratories of fraud?

Les Bernal testified as the national director of Stop Predatory Gambling. Bernal’s organization is one of the leading opponents of all forms of commercial gambling, very much against the government sanctioning what he calls a “big con game.”

At the same time, Bernal did find a rather aggressive way to advocate for federal guidelines surrounding sports betting.

“Over the last 30 years, the record is clear. When it comes to gambling policy here in America, states are laboratories of fraud, exploitation, and budgetary shell games.”

Bernal didn’t provide any examples to support his claims. Bernal was working on the strange tack of arguing the merits of illegal operators over the regulated industry. Here’s part (full quote here):

“There’s no illegal operator who’s sending free gambling wagers by direct mail to your constituents to lure them to gamble like the legal operators are doing today.”

Bernal’s motives go well beyond sports betting, and he took the opportunity to rail against debt collection, state lotteries, sponsorships, and gambling advertisements.

His points aren’t entirely lost, but that line about laboratories of fraud was a chilly take.

Honey, go get Daddy’s wallet

Jon Bruning was the other clear opponent of state-regulated sports betting to testify, representing the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling.

For the most part, Bruning was more reasonable than Bernal in his arguments. As the former Nebraska attorney general, he understands that states have limited resources and authority to chase down offshore gambling enterprises.

There was this crazy little hypothetical, though, following up on a question about perceived advertising practices:

“Imagine that company — it’s called Betfair — imagine they decide to target 15-year-olds in the Milwaukee area. Right now, which you can do with geolocating. And they start targeting them for online gambling.”

Go ahead and imagine that, because it will never happen. This was a scare tactic tailored to the Chairman’s home state of Wisconsin, plain and simple.

Here’s more:

“Kids push a button and say ‘I’m 18.’ They might be 14, like the story in the UK. Kids grab dad’s credit card, say, ‘I’m John Bruning. I’m 49 years old.’ They punch in — my 19-year-old could do that. My wallet’s laying there, I’m taking a nap on a Sunday afternoon. It’s happening all around the country.”

This is really not happening all around the country. Even if there are isolated instances of children finding ways to access online gambling platforms, there are also cases of youngsters sneaking into R-rated movies and even buying cigarettes and alcohol, accessing firearms, and other prohibited activities.

State-level legislation considers and addresses underage gambling. Regulators monitor compliance diligently, and penalties for allowing underage gambling are severe. The same goes for problem gamblers and those excluded for a number of other reasons. And the tools in place to catch such cases are more robust than Bruning realizes.

Nobody is going to let 15-year-olds bet on sports — not in Wisconsin, and not in any other regulated US market.

The one thing we can all agree on?

The top-level takeaways made us wonder if everyone was watching the same hearing.

The questionable headline from the Associated Press story reads: “Republicans favor new federal regulations for sports betting.”

By our count, only two GOP committee members asked questions: the chairman and Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL).

Speaking of the chair, he also saw things quite differently than many onlookers. Here’s how Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) began his closing remarks:

“I think the one thing that all of you agree on is that for Congress to do nothing is the worst possible alternative. So this means we have some work to do.”

Wait, what? That’s not at all representative of the testimony from Nevada Gaming Commission chair Becky Harris and AGA senior vice president Sara Slane.

They didn’t get much mention in this piece, because they weren’t responsible for the most misguided comments. They represent 40 percent of the witness panel, though, and spent their entire time arguing flatly against federal intervention when members even let them finish answers before cutting them off.

Here’s Slane:

“Fortunately, states and tribes already have the regulatory infrastructure in place to make legal sports betting safe and successful… Because of the active, robust state and tribal gaming oversight, gaming is one of the most strictly regulated industries in America.”

And here’s Harris, citing the words of her Nevada predecessor:

“We have been in this business for decades and haven’t had any problems. What we have here is a regulatory process specifically to monitor what happens on both sides of the counter. This is all we do, and we’re good at it.”

So yeah, that’s a strange take from the chairman. Hopefully he and the rest of the committee paid more attention to the testimony from the two women than it appears they did.