Massachusetts Regulators Express Concern With Penn-Barstool Tie-Up

December 7, 2022
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Massachusetts regulators have deferred a potential vote on granting a sports-betting license to Penn Entertainment’s Plainridge Park Casino, citing concerns about the company’s Barstool Sports brand.

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Massachusetts regulators have deferred a potential vote on granting a sports-betting license to Penn Entertainment’s Plainridge Park Casino, citing concerns about the company’s Barstool Sports brand.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission held a hearing Tuesday (December 6) to review Plainridge Park’s application for a retail sports-betting license. Part of that plan includes a Barstool-branded retail sportsbook.

In addition, the license will allow the company to tether up to two licensed mobile sports-betting operators, one of which will be the Barstool Sportsbook.

Several commissioners expressed concerns about Barstool’s reach toward those under age 21 and cited a New York Times series released last month that was critical of Barstool and its founder Dave Portnoy, with commissioner Nakisha Skinner calling the Barstool tie-in “the elephant in the room.”

“We have an obligation to reconcile what is very available, publicly, as to Barstool, and really, it's the significant personality attached to Barstool, and what we're going to do about it as we think about this application,” she said.

“I’m concerned about some of the historical marketing associated with Barstool and when you look at some of the coverage this year, and in particular the recent coverage in the New York Times about some of the conduct of Barstool,” added commissioner Eileen O’Brien, citing an anecdote from the series about Barstool’s tour of college campuses where Portnoy shared that he had wagered $100,000 on the University of Georgia to win the college football championship.

“I would like to have a discussion about that and some of the things that are brought up in the article in terms of marketing and advertising that maybe is going toward college age students and then some of the other types of advertising and marketing that you guys have hitched yourselves to.”

Chris Soriano, chief compliance officer for Penn Entertainment, said that the issue of responsible gaming around college campuses is an industry-wide concern that remains an evolving area.

“I think, as you see wagers being taken on college sports, general content shows that take place near college campuses, and otherwise so this is something I think that the entire industry is looking at, and it's an important point for the entire industry to be looking at,” Soriano said. “My point being is this question could be asked and this dialogue could take place around many others, not just Barstool.”

“We of course take very seriously that we will not target those who are underage that we will not encourage signups promotions, otherwise to anyone who is underage,” he continued. “And we have lots of processes in place that if someone who's underage should see an advertisement and decide that they want to sign up for an app, they'll get flagged as underage, they'll get blocked from the system.”

Erin Chamberlin, senior VP of regional operations for Penn, added that the company has avoided partnership agreements with universities. another problem area flagged by the Times.

“What we are not doing is specifically sponsoring any colleges or universities from a marketing perspective with any sports betting agreement,” Chamberlin said. “You have not seen Penn Entertainment enter into any of those types of agreements very purposely.”

“We are very cognizant that folks will come through those channels and under 21 folks will be disproportionately recognized there and so, we've made a very clear decision to not enter into those types of agreement,” she said.

Soriano and Chamberlin also highlighted responsible gaming messages crafted by Barstool personalities that are designed to appeal to a younger betting audience compared to standard responsible gaming messaging.

“I think we're all faced with listening to the concept sometimes of the national sports betting ad that ends with the really small print with a whole bunch of state disclaimers with someone speaking super quickly about the different disclaimers,” Soriano said.

He added that the company is working with Barstool on a series of new responsible gambling advertisements, including having “personalities” associated with the brand discuss their gambling wins and losses.

“I have seen that it cuts through the clutter, I would say, in terms of these advertising opportunities,” added Chamberlin. “That’s not entirely the only thing we do, we clearly do all of the other things as well, but I think that’s in addition to the more standard industry-wide approach that we’ve taken.”

Cathy Judd-Stein, chair of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, pushed back, however, on the idea of the Barstool personalities talking about their losses in addition to wins as being effective responsible gaming messaging.

“Losing a whole lot means you probably wagered too much, right?” she said. “So the idea that is addressing losing is somehow a responsible gaming measure, it's hard for me to get my head wrapped around.”

The commission met in executive session following Tuesday’s public meeting to discuss the issue in more depth so Penn could share more data that it considered trade secrets regarding Barstool’s reach toward potential underage players.

The commission is set to meet twice more this week to consider applications from MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor for their respective retail sportsbooks, and is set to begin considering the mobile application attached to the three retail facilities next week.

Untethered license applications will be considered during a series of meetings in January. The commission set a goal of launching the retail sportsbooks in late January, ahead of February’s Super Bowl, and the mobile sportsbooks in March, ahead of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

No timeline was given when a vote will be taken on the Plainridge Park license.

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