PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Legislators considering whether to allow sports fans to wager on games from a mobile app heard arguments for the expansion and concerns about it on Thursday, in a hearing that was focused in part on efforts to help problem gamblers.
The bill, introduced by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio in their respective chambers, would expand Rhode Island’s infant sports betting program from an in-person activity to a digital one, allowing anyone inside state borders to place bets on a location-enabled mobile device.
The bill would require sports fans to register for an account in person at one of the state’s two casinos before having access to the app, which would allow the casino to check ID and run names through their database of problem gamblers who are excluded from gaming.
Gov. Gina Raimondo has also incorporated mobile gaming into her Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget, estimating it would bring in $3 million in state revenue if implemented in January, halfway through the fiscal year. The state estimates mobile gaming would bring in $8.5 million the following fiscal year, in part because more sports wagering takes place in the second half of the calendar year. Rhode Island’s sports betting law gives the state 51% of the revenue.
At a House Finance Committee hearing Thursday night, Lincoln resident John Mongelli urged the panel of representatives to set aside more money to help problem gamblers, particularly if they do choose to expand access to gaming to mobile phones.
“The closer you are to a place of gambling, the more possibility you’re going to gamble,” Mongelli said. “It cannot get any closer than a cell phone in your pocket to gamble 24 hours. Here it is, I don’t even have to leave my bed.”
Division of Lottery Administrator Gerald Aubin told lawmakers the state has hired a full-time problem gambling coordinator and is contracted with the United Way to answer a 24/7 hotline. Callers are referred to treatment centers or clinicians, and the state will pay for treatment if a person does not have insurance coverage.
“There is no limit, no cap on how much we will pay to address this problem,” Aubin told the committee.
Mattiello said he thought problem gamblers would be the ones most willing to take a drive to the casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton.
“I think if you’ve got a gambling addiction, you’re going to be the individual that probably drives out to Twin River versus the casual user who might just do it because it’s accessible on the phone,” Mattiello said in an interview with Eyewitness News. “It could be a concern, gambling is always a concern. But it’s an activity that is legal, that has proliferated our society and therefore I hope our citizens enjoy it.”
Nancy Murray, the program manager at Rhode Island’s Problem Gambling Services, says about 1-2% of the population is affected by problem gambling, and the organization helps about 35 people per month. She said there has been no uptick in calls since the start of sports betting in November.
If Rhode Island legalizes mobile sports betting, the daily fantasy sports company DraftKings plans to submit a bid to become the mobile app vendor, according to attorney Julie Pearlman.
Pearlman said DraftKings is operating sportsbooks in other states like New Jersey. She testified Thursday that the company wants to eliminate the in-person registration requirement because it could limit access to the new legal gaming option.
“People aren’t going to want to go to the casino to register,” Pearlman said.
She also suggested giving vendors a larger share of the revenue of mobile gaming, up to 42%, giving Twin River only 7% and leaving the state at 51%.
“For the mobile operator to market and attract the customers,” Pearlman said. “There’s a lot of cost associated with that so that would offset that cost.”
The House Finance Committee did not vote on the bill Thursday night.