Gaming regulators decided Tuesday not to stand in the way of Plainridge Park Casino getting an in-person sports betting license, but they also opted to put the Plainville slots parlor's application on a slightly different footing than others to allow Massachusetts Gaming Commission investigators more time to review the involvement of Barstool Sports.
The commission's 5-0 vote to clear Plainridge to seek a temporary retail sports wagering license keeps the Plainville facility on track to start offering in-person betting in "late January" just like MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor, but it creates an additional step for the slots parlor and commissioners agreed only to a "preliminary" finding that the company is suitable to offer sports betting here rather than the "durable" suitability findings granted to the two casinos. Plainridge must now formally request a temporary license.
The approval to seek a temporary license and the preliminary suitability finding allow the company's licensing to move ahead, but it also allowed regulators to instruct the commission's Investigations and Enforcement Bureau to dig into concerns that some commissioners have with Barstool, a media company that features controversial and crass personalities, being the primary brand for a Massachusetts sports betting operator. For more than a year, Plainridge's quarterly reports to the commission have included a Barstool logo and commissioners raised their concerns about that even before sports betting was legalized.
"The concern that I have about Barstool and the relationship with PPC, Penn and now [Penn Sports Interactive] has a lot to do with branding and not simply responsible gaming," Commissioner Eileen O'Brien said. She added, "I raised the issue as far back as Q3 of '21 when you started branding MyChoice and Barstool on the quarterly reports for PPC that you would present to this commission. And I raised the fact that tying your brand to that brand brought in the good, the bad and the ugly that came with that brand. And I still have that concern. And I have that concern historically on what that brand is and reaching out to a demographic that was helpful to your company. It is also a group that is particularly vulnerable to addiction, albeit over the age of 21 for the most part."
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Led by the self-professed "degenerate gambler" David Portnoy, the Boston-founded Barstool has long been a controversial brand with its "blackout" parties, the company's refusal to remove a naked picture of Tom Brady's 2-year-old son from its website, and a history of crude remarks from Portnoy and other Barstool personalities.
In January 2020, Plainridge parent company Penn Entertainment bought a 36 percent stake in Barstool and is on track to assume 100 percent ownership of the Boston-founded company next year. Plainridge General Manager North Grounsell told commissioners this month that his Plainville facility's sportsbook is going to be "a Massachusetts-centric fully integrated Barstool-branded sportsbook and restaurant."
To defend Barstool, its involvement as the primary marketer for Penn's sports betting offerings, and its importance to Penn's bottom line, Penn President Jay Snowden joined Tuesday's meeting and addressed the commission for nearly 25 minutes on the separation between Barstool Sports the media company and Barstool Sportsbook the betting company.
"To be clear, neither David Portnoy nor anyone else at Barstool has any control or decision-making authority over the operations of either the retail or online operations of Barstool Sportsbook. All decisions, directions and influence over the operations of sports betting are made entirely by Penn team members who are authorized to do so and are licensed to do so as required. Barstool is solely Penn's media and marketing partner and will continue to operate as such once Penn acquires 100 percent of Barstool in February 2023," Snowden said. "Barstool has been a successful partner and they are a critical element of Penn's unique omni-channel strategy ... Our relationship with Barstool is one of the reasons we've been able to significantly grow the younger 21 to 45 year-old-age segments of our casino database over the last two years, leading to meaningful revenue growth in our retail casino operations."
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Commissioner Jordan Maynard said he thought that Plainridge had met the "clear and convincing" standard for a "durable" suitability finding and was uncomfortable treating Plainridge differently from Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield, both of which were given "durable" findings of suitability and awarded betting licenses. But he also said that he "can count to three" and would vote to advance PPC's application with a "preliminary" suitability finding to move it along in the process since that was the sense he got from a majority of commissioners. Commissioner Brad Hill said he agreed with Maynard.
During Tuesday afternoon's hearing and in a letter submitted to the commission, Snowden detailed the problems that Penn has with a recent New York Times article that commissioners had cited earlier this month when they first wrestled with the Barstool question and decided to defer a vote. He also said commissioners likely had not heard the full story about the company, and presented information about Barstool's charitable work and diversity among its executives, and statistics showing that the great majority of Barstool's audience is generally above the legal betting age of 21.
"I could not be more proud of our partnership with Barstool. I think that I've shared a lot of information today that I'm guessing many of you did not know or had not come across, because when you just Google 'David Portnoy' or you Google 'Barstool Sports' you're going to get clickbait first. The first 15 things that come up are going to be the most controversial issues that have ever come up around David Portnoy or Barstool Sports," Snowden said. "That is not what Barstool Sports and David Portnoy are all about. So we would welcome that conversation. Again, the only thing I would ask for, commissioner, is an open mind. That's it."