Sportsbook Operators Duck Betting Limits Forum in Massachusetts, Citing Business Reasons

The absence of active operators meant the discussion about limits was itself limited right from the start.

Geoff Zochodne - Senior News Analyst at
Geoff Zochodne • Senior News Analyst
May 21, 2024 • 15:13 ET • 7 min read
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A climactic showdown it was not, but there was some food for thought.

All of the biggest names in online sports betting took a pass on a highly anticipated meeting in Massachusetts on Tuesday regarding the wagering limits bookmakers allegedly impose on their customers for winning too much or too cleverly, among other things.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) hosted the roundtable regarding "Sports Wagering Operator Wager Limitations," and representatives of sportsbook operators were expected to attend and offer insight into the industry practice. 

Ultimately, only one sportsbook operator showed up to the meeting, Bally Bet, which is not even live yet in the commonwealth. But the absence of all active operators, which they said was over concerns about discussing confidential and proprietary information about risk management, meant that the discussion about limits was itself limited right from the start.

Frustration and anger

That did not sit well with some commissioners. So while the MGC did not change any rules or policies during Tuesday’s meeting, and it may never, commissioners are not done with the subject of limiting sports bettors. Although the MGC believes operators have the right to limit bettors who try to skirt the rules, their larger concern is restricting players who are just good at wagering.

Moreover, the commission is subject to an open-meeting law in the state requiring them to conduct as much business as possible in view of the public. That can sometimes mean commissioners take a lot of time to make decisions, but it may also mean operators will eventually have to explain themselves in a public setting.

“I hope that we can continue this discussion in whatever form or fashion the operators are comfortable with and that meets our obligations under the open meeting law,” commissioner Nakisha Skinner said. “Because I do think we have not scratched the surface. In order for us to even have future conversations among this body at a public meeting, there's a lot of information that we just don't have.”

Commissioner Bradford Hill said he shared in Skinner’s “frustration” in how the meeting went.

“And I will go so far as to say anger that I have today for not being able to get a lot of information that I thought we would be able to get today to start this conversation,” Hill added. 

The absences from operators and comments from commissioners mean that the issue of limiting sports bettors is not about to fall off the radar of the MGC anytime soon. While it is a sensitive subject for bookmakers, it is a recurring complaint among sharper bettors who are restricted to paltry wagering limits. The MGC is arguably the first legal sports betting regulator to probe the issue so deeply, and it appears it will continue to do so at future meetings. 

There are 10 licensees for sports betting in Massachusetts at the moment, three casinos and seven online operators. The state launched legal sports betting in early 2023.

Members of the MGC had touched on the sometimes-touchy subject of limits back in March, when commissioners voiced an interest in getting more information about the practice.

“We did get some outreach, just so the public knows, through emails,” interim MGC chair Jordan Maynard said during a meeting. “And there were several folks who said, ‘Hey, I'm betting pennies when I'm putting in the bet.’ And so, what's the notification? And if you're turning off a winning wagerer, are you turning off a losing wagerer?” 

The idea of a public roundtable was then floated and acted upon by the MGC, which had also pondered the issue as far back as the summer of 2023. Meanwhile, the regulator has been receiving more and more feedback from bettors who were limited by bookmakers, and not just so-called “sharps” or professionals who wager for a living.  

“The comments overwhelmingly indicated that regular patrons, individuals who casually or recreationally wager, are limited simply for winning, winning in the ordinary course,” Skinner said. “And, to me, that's a much different conversation that affects many more individuals, many more citizens of this commonwealth, than the handful — I don’t know how many, forgive me — of sharps that might be sort of gaming the system from the operators’ perspective.” 

Exactly how many people are being limited is one piece of information the MGC is lacking. Citing bookmakers, the Washington Post reported in November 2022 that “genuine sharps” may only make up less than 1% of the betting population, but that limiting policies could affect as much as 10% of players. Operators could provide more data, but they did not on Tuesday, at least not publicly. 

While nearly all sportsbook operators were absent from the forum, they outlined their reasons for skipping it in correspondence to the commission. In general, their chief concern was talking about risk management strategies they perceive as business secrets they want to keep from sharing. 

“As the leading sports wagering operator in Massachusetts, DraftKings believes that its perspective would be helpful to any policy discussion about wagering limits and it would welcome the opportunity to further educate the Commission on this topic,” the Boston-based bookmaker said. “However, any meaningful discussion on wagering limits would necessarily involve disclosure of the company’s confidential risk management practices and other commercially sensitive business information.” 

DraftKings and other operators suggested alternative and private meetings instead. Some also noted they had spoken with the commission already or provided written materials. 

ESPN BET-operator PENN Entertainment Inc., for example, turned in answers to the five topics of discussion the MGC put on its agenda, such as how and why a bettor is limited on its platform.

“Per the house rules of both Plainridge Park Casino and Penn Sports Interactive previously approved by the Commission, PENN reserves the right to make changes to the site, betting limits, payout limits and offerings,” PENN’s deputy chief compliance officer and regulatory affairs counsel Samantha Haggerty wrote. “PENN may limit a patron for various reasons, including taking advantage of or manipulating the sportsbook or abusing promotional play.” 

Justin Black, appearing on behalf of Bally's Interactive, said Bally Bet does not limit players based solely on their winnings (although he was questioned by another panelist if their service provider, Kambi, could say the same).

"Rather, it's based on underlying factors that are proprietary to Bally's from a risk perspective," Black said.

Despite the concerns of operators, the MGC and its legal counsel saw the roundtable as an appropriate venue for the discussion, even if the operators did not. 

The roundtable ultimately touched on a more contentious aspect of limiting, which is when bettors are restricted after winning, not for trying to “abuse” promos. 

“There is definitely a disconnect when players are limited to why they were limited,” said “Captain” Jack Andrews, a professional bettor and co-founder of sports-betting education site Unabated. 

That limiting feeling

Andrews said that "operators tend to deny that they limit people due to winning," and that most bettors who get limited are not notified. Instead, they just find themselves trying to place a wager and getting it rejected over and over again until they discover their new limit. 

Andrews added that in Massachusetts, no operator lists its betting limits on their platform. Although some sportsbook operators do, and use a “low margin” model of taking most bets and adjusting their odds accordingly (albeit as they offer fewer wagering markets), Andrews said the cost of entering the Massachusetts market is high. The state has a 20% tax rate for online sports betting, among other financial requirements, which may keep the likes of Circa and Prime Sports from joining the fray.

However, in a casino, a sharper player may get restricted from a certain game, such as blackjack, but can still play other games, Andrews said. In sports betting, the limits apply to all events, such as the restrictions Andrews said he faced in merely trying to wager on the Super Bowl coin toss.

“Not that I wanted to bet it, but that just goes to show you that the limits are pervasive across the board,” Andrews said. “And it really creates a not-so-great experience for any bettor, especially if they're limited falsely for being a winning bettor, if they just got lucky over a stretch and find themselves limited, which happens a lot.”

Another perspective on the issue came from Brianne Doura-Schawohl, a consultant who specializes in problem and responsible gambling policy. She spoke of an instance in Washington, D.C., where a player was limited for what they were told were problem or responsible gambling concerns, but was really due to their winning ways.

Doura-Schawohl suggested there should probably be more limiting done on an RG basis. However, she cautioned “that it can be just as detrimental to the wider public to use that as a reasoning” for limiting when it is not truly because of problem gambling.

Maynard said on Tuesday that there is a concern that if operators are limiting bettors who play by the rules, it could incentivize players to turn to the illegal market.

“We don't want to drive people that don't have problem gambling issues into the illegal market,” Maynard added later.

What next?

The MGC plans to make betting limits a recurring topic of discussion at its meetings going forward. Whether the regulator decides to go beyond talk remains to be seen.

If the MGC were to impose restrictions on limiting bettors, though, they were warned it would have an effect on what bookmakers could offer to players.

PENN's letter to the commission said that "a law or regulation prohibiting or limiting operators’ ability to allow limits would lead to a large reduction in the amount of wager opportunities offered, reduced limits for all patrons (rather than just individual patrons who are manipulating or abusing the system), less sports and leagues available to wager on, and potentially, a reduction in available operators entirely."

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