With the NFL playoffs now underway, many sports fans will be betting on their favorite teams with their phones — that is, if they live in New Hampshire or Rhode Island or any one of 11 other states around the country.
The US Supreme Court cleared the way for legal sports betting beyond Nevada back in 2018, and many states leapt right in, hungry for some extra tax revenue. But the Massachusetts Legislature works at a more deliberate pace. In this instance, that measured approach might help, allowing Massachusetts to learn from other states and maximize the benefits of online sports betting for the Commonwealth.
New Hampshire is the latest to get into the sports betting game, kicking off its new relationship with DraftKings on Dec. 30. Today anyone over the age of 21 who is physically in the state of New Hampshire and has downloaded the DraftKings app developed for that state will be able to place a bet on a professional sports team. Granite State officials estimate they will reap between $7 million and $10 million a year.
The Boston-based DraftKings, which started life as a fantasy sports business, recently announced its merger with a European operation and its plans to go public as it expands into the newly legalized world of sports betting — though the firm also just disclosed losses of $114 million for the first nine months of 2019. The company has already designed mobile sports betting platforms for Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and operates physical betting operations in Iowa, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York.
Rhode Island provides a good example of how Massachusetts can learn from the mistakes of others. The Ocean State was early to allow sports betting at its two casinos, but now requires those who want to bet online to physically travel to a casino to activate an account. That no doubt makes the casino operators happy, but if the issue is maximizing revenue for the state, it’s not a winner.
One genuine concern here — as exists with any proposed expansion of gambling — is not to do anything to jeopardize the enormously successful Massachusetts Lottery, which last year collected a record $5.5 billion in revenue and sent $1.1 billion in profits to cities and towns. But Massachusetts shouldn’t be leaving money on the table as neighboring states get into the fray. State officials have estimated that the take from sports betting here could total about $35 million a year. Not a game-changer, but worth having in the coffers.
With the start of betting in New Hampshire, there is a certain air of inevitability about sports betting in Massachusetts. It’s important that the Commonwealth take advantage of this momentum while ensuring that online sports betting is a well-run industry, with the greatest possible shared financial benefit to residents.
Governor Charlie Baker filed his bill on the subject last January. It got a hearing before the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee along with several similar proposals back in May.
Baker’s approach is a sound one. It would allow sports betting at the state’s two resort casinos in Everett and Springfield, and at the Plainridge Park slots parlor, and permit an online component through an operator like DraftKings. All of which would be regulated by the existing state Gaming Commission. It would also outlaw betting on college and any other amateur sports. Sure, it will exist in some states, but the wider the net, the more difficult it will be to police.
The bill would also prohibit athletes, coaches, managers, referees, trainers, any “director of a sports governing body or any of its member teams,” from placing a bet on their own sport or having an ownership interest in, or being employed by, a licensee that offers sports betting. Preventing such conflicts of interest and providing guardrails to abuse are an important part of why the state needs to craft its own path to regulating sports betting.
The downsides of yet another form of wagering are obvious, and glitzy new technology makes sports betting even more attractive to problem gamblers. But the days are long gone when Massachusetts could isolate itself from the country’s cultural trends.
Legislators should ensure that that they maximize revenues to the state and guarantee efficient and honest regulation for this new frontier in the gaming industry. With basketball and hockey playoffs ahead, it need not take six months for Beacon Hill to figure it out.