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In Sunshine and in Shadow

As iGaming continues its expansion quest, RG efforts must remain a central focus for all stakeholders

In Sunshine and in Shadow

The actual or hypothetical expansion of iGaming in the U.S. has for several years been the hidden context and between-the-lines theme of so many of the conversations that take place around the industry. It’s the destination all roads seem to lead to, the Polaris that guides trends and business models alike.

For operators and suppliers, online gaming is the holy grail of offerings, with high profit margins and lower costs than its land-based counterparts; for (some) lawmakers, it’s panacea for ever-present budget woes; and for players, it’s simply a convenient, modern way to play their favorite games in a legal and regulated environment.

But despite its many benefits, it also carries a substantial consideration for responsible gaming (RG), and that has been and continues to be one of the biggest factors that detractors point to when outlining its potential dangers. Unlike other well-established pitfalls like tax revenue allocations and fears of land-based cannibalization, though, RG efforts are the one thing that the industry has the most control over, and those efforts will only increase in significance as iGaming continues its El Dorado-like quest into new markets moving forward.

An increased emphasis on RG is inherently expensive and may shave a few whiskers off of projected revenues for the sake of sustained play, but it’s a sacrifice worth making for U.S. operators in the long run, especially considering the regulatory turmoil currently brewing in the U.K. and elsewhere.

 

Win Some, Lose Some—Responsibly

The regulated U.S. marketplace has entered its second decade, and now that the latest round of legalization efforts in this year’s legislative sessions have fallen flat, the industry has reached an inflection point from which it can look back and assess its wins and losses.

Generally speaking, the advancement of technology could perhaps be counted as both—iGaming has made it easier than ever to bet, but it has also given RG professionals some fancy new tools and a whole lot of KYC data to better inform the decision-making process.

“Online platforms offer advantages by providing readily accessible responsible gaming tools for players to set personal limits,” says Dr. Jennifer Shatley, president and CEO of Logan Avenue Consulting and executive director of the newly formed Responsible Online Gaming Association (ROGA). “Additionally, they facilitate seamless integration of responsible gaming programs into the customer experience, enabling personalized promotion of responsible gaming efforts.”

Shatley notes that “RG policy is intricate, but important, requiring ongoing assessment to ensure effectiveness,” and this is best achieved through “research, data analysis and player feedback,” among other factors.

The most influential online operators are acutely aware of this and are “constantly seeking fresh and innovative approaches to inform best practices,” she says.

Such is the case with BetMGM—the MGM-Entain joint venture has emerged as a leader in RG investment and innovation, and over time the company has evolved to look at RG as a way to better understand and connect with its players rather than just check boxes and fulfill requirements, according to Chief Compliance Officer Rhea Loney.

“BetMGM has evolved its approach to responsible gambling from a model focused on meeting regulatory and legal obligations to a multi-faceted strategic model that goes above and beyond those obligations by focusing on sustainability through player empowerment and support,” Loney says. “This model is built on investments in the areas of employee training, player education, player interactions, responsible marketing, responsible gambling tools and product features, community engagement and partnerships, and supporting academic research.”

Coinciding with Shatley’s point about research and continued assessment, the company “recognizes the importance of an evidence-based approach to responsible gambling,” Loney explains. Additionally, in 2022, BetMGM donated $180,000 to fund marketing research at the International Center for Responsible Gaming, and last year it partnered with nine NFL franchises to feature RG messaging prominently throughout their respective stadiums. Earlier this year, the company also released a new advertising campaign centered around NHL star Connor McDavid, “who shines a light on the importance” of BetMGM’s RG tools for bettors.

Another important aspect of this movement is that problem gamblers require funds in order to keep playing, meaning that payment providers have also become an interesting facet of the RG landscape.

According to Steve Ritchie, chief revenue officer for Pavilion Payments, the challenge for operators and payment companies in the online sector as opposed to land-based is that they must attempt to “develop responsible gaming tools that are as effective as simply running out of cash.”

This is no simple task, but modern, fully integrated solutions make this analog-to-digital evolution easier and more seamless.

“We want to give patrons as much control over their gaming payments as possible, which includes responsible gaming aspects,” Ritchie explains. “We mentioned configurable spending limits as a technology that can aid in responsible gaming, but cooling-off periods and voluntary self-exclusion are some other ways for payments providers like Pavilion Payments to boost responsible gaming efforts.”

 

Building a Unified Front

The continued maturation of the U.S. iGaming industry has inevitably resulted in a more competitive marketplace, but as time goes on, the fight against problem gambling has become more unified than ever.

This evolution has been aided by the integration of RG-focused consultancies and third parties, and one of the most prominent examples of this is RG24seven, a training firm under the BMM Innovation Group umbrella headed by CEO Wendy Anderson.

Anderson notes that the firm’s “virtual training is adaptable and inclusive,” and helps to “equip gaming employees with the knowledge and skills they need to promote responsible gaming and support patrons” in making better play choices.

“Our responsible gaming training is designed with the most renowned responsible gaming experts in the industry to help gaming employees identify problem gambling, acknowledge who can be affected, leverage sources of help, and more,” she concludes.

Collaboration has also become increasingly important between operators themselves, and on March 27 ROGA was unveiled, signifying a new emphasis on shared investment and best practices. The new association is composed of seven of the industry’s leading operators: BetMGM, FanDuel, DraftKings, Hard Rock Digital, Penn Entertainment, bet365, and Fanatics Betting and Gaming, all of whom have pledged to contribute a combined $20 million into the project in the first year alone.

As the association’s inaugural executive director, Shatley agrees that even though “all the individual member companies have made great strides in promoting their own responsible gaming programs, there is a consensus among the seven ROGA member operators that certain aspects require a collective effort,” which is why the initiative is so important to the sector’s overall success and growth.

Of particular interest to ROGA is the idea of sharing data in order to ensure that potential problem gamblers or self-excluded gamblers are deterred from hopping between platforms.

“By committing to establishing an independent certification program and agreeing to create—via an independent clearinghouse—a database for information sharing, ROGA is demonstrating a proactive approach to RG,” Shatley says, adding that such measures reflect “a growing emphasis on prioritizing player well-being in the online gaming industry.”

With two-plus decades of experience in the field, Shatley says the development of ROGA and its mission are “truly encouraging,” and not just another PR play to curry favor.

“I wouldn’t be joining ROGA if I didn’t see this as a major opportunity to drive meaningful initiatives,” she says.

For BetMGM, Loney maintains that the program is another example of the company’s “forward-thinking approach to RG,” and will result in the advancement of research, best practices and accreditation for itself and the rest of the founding partners, who currently account for approximately 85 percent of the online sports betting and iGaming market in the U.S.

“BetMGM is committed to going above and beyond regulatory standards and believes a strong responsible gambling program is critical to business success and sustainability… The company is committed to building upon these achievements and meeting the challenges of tomorrow,” she says.

Another RG resource that has grown significantly is telehealth counseling services, including partnerships with Kindbridge, a U.S.-based gambling-focused behavioral health and research clinic. When preventative measures aren’t enough, these services can step in and directly assist players who may be experiencing problem gambling symptoms.

These telehealth resources are crucial for iGaming specifically, given that the players are not typically located at a physical casino and therefore are outside of the purview of staff.

According to Loney, BetMGM “was the first operator to engage with Kindbridge,” and through that partnership, the company is also providing former players who self-excluded or were closed by BetMGM due to problem gambling concerns a direct link to a problem gambling intake and treatment plan.

These services, she says, are currently provided to players in Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ontario, and are made available to players at no cost.

Similar collaborations are also a priority for RG24seven, which has access to and connections with influential organizations not just in the U.S. but around the world thanks to its affiliation with BMM.

“Joining forces through partnerships such as Better Change in the U.K. and collaborating with organizations like BMM Testlabs and the American Gaming Association, we extend our reach to diverse markets from the Americas to Europe and beyond, allowing us to leverage technology and foster a culture of responsible gaming on a global scale,” Anderson says.

 

The Fight Continues

Moving forward, lawmakers and their constituents will continue to debate the pros and cons of iGaming legalization efforts, but the ultimate goal is for the state of RG to be considered a positive rather than a negative.

But even if RG may still be progressing and evolving, the same cannot be said for the illegal market, which has been operating for decades without any consumer protections or harm minimization protocols. By expanding the regulated market, players may still enjoy mobile gaming while also accessing the plethora of RG resources and services mentioned throughout.

“One of the good developments in recent years has been the emergence of a highly regulated, legal marketplace,” Shatley says. “Companies that are operating in the shadows are less likely to integrate responsible gaming practices into their operations. That is an important lesson for the industry.”

She maintains that continued RG innovation is necessary in order to ensure that “gaming remains a fun and recreational experience—as it’s intended to be.”

Similarly, Ritchie argues that providers can also play an increased role in advancing RG—not only that, but they can also work to convince naysayers that sophisticated technology is an opportunity to be capitalized on rather than a threat to be mitigated.

“What we hope we have made clear is that technology is as much a part of the solution as some believe it to be part of the problem,” he asserts. “As payment providers, we see it as our job to provide responsible gaming tools that allow patrons to make decisions that are best for them.”

Continued training and education will also play a pivotal role moving forward, as Anderson explains that achieving a “safer gaming environment that goes beyond land-based and reaches online platforms” will require “awareness among all gaming employees,” not just a select few.

“By investing in education and training for employees, as well as implementing robust responsible gaming measures, we can help to alleviate the risks or fears associated with online gaming and create a safer environment for all participants,” she says. “Our focus is on empowering all gaming employees to recognize the signs of problem gambling and intervene effectively by knowing the proper sources of help.”

Jess Marquez is the managing editor of Global Gaming Business. A lifelong Nevadan, Marquez has communications experience across multiple sectors, including local government. Prior to joining GGB, he was the communications and advertising director for a prominent personal injury law firm based in Las Vegas and Seattle. He also founded and hosted The Pair O’Dice Podcast, a weekly show that focused on sports betting news and predictions. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019 with a B.A. in journalism. Outside of work, Marquez is passionate about professional sports, classic literature and leatherworking.

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