Massachusetts Regulators to Hold Adjudicatory Hearing Over ESPN Anchor’s “Risk-Free Investment” Remark

Written By Mike Breen on June 12, 2024
Massachusetts Discusses ESPN risk-free fine

Massachusetts regulators are requesting an adjudicatory hearing to address comments made by ESPN host Rece Davis that referred to a recommended March Madness bet as a “risk-free investment.”

The offhand remark allegedly violates state rules forbidding Massachusetts sports betting advertising to include phrases like “free of risk.”

At a June 6 Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting, commissioners recommended scheduling a subsequent hearing on the matter. The hearing would determine if PENN Entertainment, parent company of Massachusetts sportsbook ESPN Bet, should receive any penalty for the comment. 

MGC to Discuss Penalty for ESPN host’s “risk-free investment” comment

The incident occurred in March at the end of an ESPN Bet-branded segment during College GameDay, in which betting analyst Erin Dolan recommended the best bets to make on second-round games in the NCAA basketball tournament. 

Dolan suggested betting on Northwestern University to score under 60.5 points in its March 24 game against eventual tournament champs UConn. 

Davis, the host of College GameDay, responded to the pick:

“You know what? Some would call this wagering, gambling. The way you’ve sold this, I think what it is is a risk-free investment.” 

Northwestern would go on to score just 58 points in the matchup.

Davis later clarified his remark in a post on X. He assured followers that his comment was “tongue-in-cheek”, reminding them that a risk-free bet “does not exist.”

Massachusetts Gaming Commission requests formal investigation & hearing

The June 6 MGC meeting saw the four commissioners unanimously agree to hold an adjudicatory hearing on the issue. The Investigations and Enforcement Bureau will serve as a witness at the hearing and complete an in-depth investigation beforehand.

Commissioner Eileen O’Brien said she had been anticipating discussion concerning this issue with ESPN Bet and ESPN personalities:

“This is something I’ve been waiting to come up. I want to see, is this a one-off, have there been other references in this vein. It’s an area that I . . . am concerned about, sort of this cross-pollination between ESPN commentators and the lines and the betting and the commentary they make. I would like (IEB) to do a deep-dive . . . and come back to us with a fulsome report.” 

If the commissioners determine punishment is necessary, PENN could face penalties. Pending the results of the investigation and hearing, this penalty could likely take the form of a monetary fine. At worst, it could result in the suspension or revocation of ESPN Bet’s license to operate in Massachusetts. 

MGC penalized Barstool Sportsbook last year for “Can’t Lose Parlay” offer

O’Brien and fellow commissioner Nakisha Skinner said the ESPN Bet/ESPN matter reminded them of a noncompliance issue raised last year involving Barstool Sportsbook. 

When Massachusetts sports betting launched in March 2023, PENN was partnered with the Barstool Sports media company. PENN ultimately severed ties and shut down Barstool Sportsbook, launching its ESPN Bet sportsbook in November of last year. 

A Barstool Sportsbook “Can’t Lose Parlay” promotion caught the attention of the MGC, which had concerns over the “risk-free”-like language of the offer. The parlay was created by Barstool personality Dan “Big Cat” Katz. Katz markets himself as a self-professed bad gambler, and Barstool followers affectionately refer to him as such.

Although the company quickly pulled down the offer in Massachusetts, during an MCG hearing over the “Can’t Lose Parlay”, Barstool representatives argued that the phrase was obvious satire. The commissioners pushed back, noting their job to protect even a small amount of customers who might not be in on the joke. The MGC has yet to publicly announce Barstool’s penalty for the misstep.

MGC previously discussed bet recommendations from ESPN personalities

During a February MGC meeting, commissioners discussed the possibility of clarifying regulations regarding media personalities connected to sports betting operators recommending specific bets. 

The MGC has since discussed a regulatory update that would permit associated entities to be linked with bet recommendations. This rule would only apply, however, if their connection to the operator is properly disclosed.

Lawyer Mina Makarious, who works on Massachusetts gambling regulatory matters, is one proponent of the change. She noted that the questions raised by the MGC’s sports wagering division regarding the PENN/ESPN partnership were a particular inspiration for the idea.

Photo by Dreamstime /PlayMA
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Mike Breen

Mike Breen is an Ohio-based professional writer who has more than two decades of experience covering sports, news, music, arts and culture. He has covered online sports betting, responsible gambling, and other gambling initiatives for a variety of markets over the last couple of years. That now includes PlayMA.

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