It has not been a banner few months for the perception of Washington D.C. sports betting.
Over the summer, the District of Columbia passed a budget that will not allocate funds to problem gambling programs. The move was surprising and subsequently derided—including by some of the best online sportsbooks in the United States. Here is Legal Sports Report’s Matthew Waters with the full details:
“The District of Columbia passed a budget Tuesday that stripped annual funding for problem gambling that comes from DC sports betting taxes. Stripping the funds from the fiscal 2024 budget came despite responsible gambling advocates urging the District and Mayor Muriel Bowser to reconsider. It appears the money will divert to programs for substance abuse and behavioral health. The Sports Betting Alliance, which represents DC operators like BetMGM and FanDuel, said internal problem gambling efforts work best when supported by public programs.”
This is a big deal that has lacked adequate justification. When legalized sports betting in Washington D.C. was first approved back in 2018, the allocation of tax revenue to anti-gambling programs and measures was part of the selling point. It invariably helped sway those who were still on the fence about whether to green light sports gambling.
Granted, times change. We’re basically a half-decade removed from that time. More than half of the United States has now legalized some form of sports betting. Sentiment on this issue could have shifted. Emphasis on could have. Because it didn’t. It hasn’t. And it probably won’t.
Directing shares of sports betting revenue to problem gambling programs is standard practice for states that have legalized gambling. These allocations tend to be larger in states legal online sports betting. The District of Columbia, while not a state, falls under that umbrella. Several online sportsbooks have Washington D.C. sports betting licenses, which makes this decision even more curious, if not outright wrong.
The Justification for Pulling Washington D.C. Sports Betting Revenue from Problem Gambling Programs Remains Insufficient
While this was probably never a decision that would be met with any sort of widespread approval, Washington D.C. sports betting officials didn’t do themselves any favors. The reasons given for this decision were less than satisfactory. And that’s putting it kindly.
Two driving forces stand out above all others. The first, and perhaps most important, is honestly laughable. Over the past three years, the District of Columbia and Department of Behavioral Health collected $600,000 in tax revenue generated from sports betting that was earmarked for problem gambling. They reportedly never spent a cent of it to jump-start any new initiatives or programs.
Talk about terrible optics. Not only is $200,000 per year, on average, a pittance when it comes to online sports betting revenue, but spinning the failure to spend any of it the intended use as a defense mechanism is an abject failure on so many levels.
Secondly, Washington D.C. seems to think diverting those funds to substance abuse and behavioral health someone inoculates them against criticism. That logic doesn’t track, either. Those are admiral causes, but this shouldn’t be a one or the other proposition. They should be able to increase funding for those causes separately.
The fact of the matter is, any state with legal sports betting has a moral obligation to help prop up public problem gambling programs.
The National Council of Problem Gambling Absolutely Skewered Washington D.C. for This Decision
Perhaps the strongest rebuke to the District of Columbia came from the National Council of Problem Gambling. Here’s the statement they released in the aftermath of this decision.
“NCPG is profoundly disappointed in the Mayor for proposing, and the District of Columbia Council for passing, a budget that strips all funding set aside for problem gambling treatment and research in the District. Those who will suffer the greatest consequences of this policy failure are the estimated 12,000-15,000 District residents who currently suffer from a gambling problem, as well as their friends and family who are faced with the collateral consequences of a gambling addiction. NCPG calls on the Mayor and council members to immediately remedy this situation. Lives depend on it.”
This is a strong response. And it comes amid the American Gaming Association (AGA) devoting more of a focus to problem-gambling awareness.
As we’ve seen more states try to hold gambling operators in check, with sports betting in Ohio leading the charge, the AGA has started releasing figures on how often problem-wagering resources are utilized. The results are quite interesting. Essentially, the AGA says most sports betting know of the problem-gambling programs available. However, the vast majority also don't necessarily know how to use or access them. Others, meanwhile, admitted there was too much of a stigma attached to them. They didn’t want to acknowledge they had a problem. Or they simply just believed they didn’t have one.
This is an issue in itself. States clearly need to do a better job of outlining how to access problem-gambling resources. They also, though, need to start educating people about the importance of them and doing whatever they can to peel away the stigma attached to using them. For Washington D.C. to scrub funding for the exact programs that, frankly, are already working from a deficit is truly damning stuff. We’ll have to see whether the direct and far-flung criticism culminates in a policy change. Hopefully, it will. But given the decision to eradicate what should be considered mission critical funding in the first place, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the opposition doesn’t register among Washington D.C. sports betting decision-makers.
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