When Penn Entertainment fully acquired Barstool Sports last month, the baggage that comes with the sports media company also came with the deal. Because of Barstool’s controversial history, promoting responsible gambling doesn’t appear to be too high on the list.
Since Barstool is so established and has such a large following, Penn had the luxury of reduced marketing costs. Barstool names such as Dan “Big Cat” Katz and Dave Portnoy each already have 4.4 million Twitter followers alone. It makes Penn’s job that much easier.
However, Penn often has to put out fires when Barstool makes a controversial post.
It’s one thing to be controversial, but to be that way about responsible gambling is where Penn can potentially lose credibility.
Barstool Sportsbook promotes violence on social media
The first weekend of March Madness brought the country incredible games and fantastic stories. Plenty of bettors wagered tons of action all weekend.
Some bettors had bets they were lucky to win and others who suffered bad beats.
Apparently, Katz took a bad beat and a tweet from Barstool Sportsbook’s Twitter account showed Katz repeatedly smashing a table with a baseball bat and flipping it over.
Some Stoolies thought it was great content, but others called out Barstool for the irresponsible nature and cited the phone number for the National Council of Problem Gambling (NCPG) to anyone that feels they have a gambling problem.
The issue with that type of content is that the behavior displayed in the video is regarded as acceptable after losing a bet.
Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the NCPG, told PlayPennsylvania in December that violent content is dangerous, especially for underage kids. It normalizes that this type of behavior is warranted after a loss.
Whyte commented to PlayPennsylvania through email in regard to the Barstool Sportsbook video.
“Implicitly promoting or normalizing extreme anger after losing a bet is irresponsible messaging.
“It is important to show bets that lose, to provide a more realistic impression of the wins and losses; the highs and lows of gambling. However, we recommend against showing violence or destruction because it can create an impression that violence or destroying things is a normal response to losing a bet. It is not. The video portrays an abnormal response to losing, showing loss of control, extreme anger and violence. Not appropriate and may be harmful.”
Barstool Sportsbook sent out the video on Twitter on March 16 at 11:25 p.m.
The tweet is still up and currently has 311,500 views.
Barstool Sportsbook responsible gambling messages are hollow
About a month after Penn bought Barstool fully, Penn announced that the Barstool Sportsbook and Casino achieved responsible gaming accreditation under the Responsible Gambling Council’s RG Check Program.
According to Penn, it became the first US operator to voluntarily undergo this accreditation. It is one of the most comprehensive responsible gambling accreditations in the world.
“PENN is committed to being at the forefront of responsible gaming and achieving this accreditation for our online platforms further strengthens our top of class RG program,” said Chris Soriano, Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer for PENN Entertainment. “We have and will continue to be proactive by investing in valuable training and resources to ensure that we are providing the safest possible environment for players to responsibly enjoy gaming. Electing to undergo, and receiving accreditation following a thorough review of our operation, demonstrates that we’re actioning the highest standards of RG programming.”
The latest tweet Barstool shared above may counter Soriano’s quote about providing the safest possible environment.
Penn has a responsible gambling page on its website and specifically has a section for “responsible marketing and advertising.” Part of it reads:
“We’re all about promoting new ways to have fun. But we also know marketing and advertising that promotes gaming needs to be careful about the way it’s depicted. We refrain from making false claims about the winning probabilities of our games and include messaging that promotes responsible gaming.”
There have been some controversial gambling posts that Barstool has sent out that are contrary to Penn’s statements about responsible gambling.
Sarcasm rarely works for responsible gambling messaging
Operators using sarcasm in promotional material is an extremely gray area for responsible gambling. Oftentimes, it’s hard to pull off.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has issued an adjudicatory hearing regarding Katz’s “Can’t Lose Parlay” Barstool Sportsbook often promotes. As of right now, Barstool has discontinued the saying on all platforms.
Penn has defended the sarcastic phrase.
“It’s meant to be funny, it’s not meant to be pushing something viewed as ‘can’t lose,’” Penn CEO Jay Snowden said in December 2022. “He’s one of the worst gamblers in the world.”
Whyte also brought up the fact that the video of Katz smashing a table could have been sarcasm. It may not have been spontaneous because of the Barstool backdrop, the filming was perfectly timed and Katz was wearing goggles.
Sarcasm creates more questions than answers.
“Barstool Sports has been defending their ‘can’t lose/can’t miss’ parlay tweets as recently as the day Massachusetts launched sports betting by saying that everyone should know they are being sarcastic,” Whyte said. “The concern I’ve expressed publicly is, for someone who doesn’t follow Barstool Sports and who comes across this video, is this video also supposed to be sarcasm? And if so, how is the viewer supposed to know?”
Whyte said it’s hard enough to pull off humor in general marketing because likely not everyone will get the joke. And that gives sarcasm even less margin for error, especially for responsible gambling.
“In my experience, it’s almost impossible to hit the right tone on a sarcastic RG message,” Whyte said. “It often comes off as trivializing and dismissive to the message itself, and leaves the audience confused if the RG part is supposed to be taken seriously or not.”
Should regulators hold PA sportsbooks accountable for specific content?
Regulators in Ohio and Massachusetts have not been bashful in issuing fines and strict advertising regulations.
Ohio has fined Penn and DraftKings Sportsbook a combined $700,000. Penn got fined for promoting the Barstool Sportsbook app to underage students at the University of Toledo. DraftKings received a fine for allegedly mailing ads to underage individuals.
Massachusetts has some of the strictest advertising regulations in any state. It even talked about banning advertising in stadiums because not everyone in the stadium is of age to gamble. Regulations do pose a ban on ads or promotion of specific wagers.
Pennsylvania, which launched online gambling in 2019, finally has joined Ohio and Massachusetts on language used in promotions. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) banned operators from using the term “free bet” in any marketing material.
The PGCB has been lenient with operators in the state, only issuing four online gambling fines since 2019. Ohio has fined four operators already since launching in January.
It’s a good start to see these three states, especially in close proximity, come together with a consistent message and low tolerance for advertising mistakes.
Regulators might have to start addressing social media content, which falls under the promotion category. Do regulators have to start addressing destructive behavior with punishments? It might have to in order to avoid further damage.