Wake up, Massachusetts sports bettors.
With 19 sports-wagering bills in the hopper and a half-day hearing coming up Thursday before the Mass. Legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, it’s time to start paying closer attention to the gathering global economic and cultural forces knocking ever more persistently at the State House door.
Because you have questions about legal sports betting and why it’s taking so long to arrive in Massachusetts, we have answers.
Seriously, why has it taken so long?
Buddy, this is Massachusetts. You always take the “over” on passage time for legislation. It took four years for Beacon Hill to OK casinos. Governor Charlie Baker filed his first sports-betting bill in January 2019, but the Legislature showed little appetite to make it a priority. After some discussion and limited movement between the two chambers, the topic took a back seat to more pressing issues when COVID-19 hit. Now it’s back.
The Supreme Court ruled that states could legalize sports betting more than three years ago. Are other states on the slow track like Massachusetts?
Massachusetts does have company, but nationwide, momentum is clearly moving toward action. When Baker filed his bill, eight states had legal sports betting. Now 30 states have either implemented sports betting or authorized it, plus Washington, D.C. With New York and Florida joining Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, and New Jersey, the biggest states are hopping on board.
Put it this way: If this were a presidential election, the sports-betting states would have already won the Electoral College, 304-234. And that’s without California, Texas, and Georgia.
What’s happening in New England?
It’s a regional pincer movement, which is a bigger driver of the current discussion on Beacon Hill than any tax revenue the state is missing out on. When it comes to Massachusetts’s six closest neighbors, Rhode Island was first to get started in 2018, followed by New Hampshire a year later; both allow online betting, so if you’re over 21, have a phone, a hunch, some disposable income, and are standing a couple of feet inside the Rhode Island or New Hampshire border, you can place your bet in those states and those states collect the taxes.
Connecticut recently approved it and likely will be up and running by the fall. One can place bets at New York casinos, but online betting isn’t coming until later this year at the earliest.
Like Massachusetts, Vermont’s and Maine’s sports-betting bills are still sitting in committees.
By waiting, isn’t Massachusetts missing out on a lot of tax revenue from sports betting?
No, it’s really not. If we go by Baker’s estimate of $35 million in annual tax revenue from sports betting, that represents .12 percent of the $28.44 billion tax-revenue forecast in the state’s fiscal 2021 budget. Other projections range between $20 million and $90 million, but even if it winds up on the high end, that’s not some kind of game-changing budget balancer.
If it’s “only” $35 million a year for the state, why is this getting so much hype?
Because we’re talking about sports, an unparalleled entertainment option that provides copious amounts of live, unscripted, and compelling content and bountiful revenue that can be further monetized via sports betting. Sports betting means big money for not only the states but for the private stakeholders who see betting as another way to increase fan engagement in the face of other entertainment options.
After decades of shunning and shaming, all of the major pro sports leagues have heel-turned to place an ongoing lip-lock on the gaming industry. When you factor in the media companies that want to keep viewers and readers engaged, the advertisers and the data, tech, and security companies needed to supply the infrastructure for a seamless live betting experience, it adds up to a multibillion-dollar-a-year play in the US. All these industries are engaged in a 50-state lobbying operation.
Again, what’s in it for Massachusetts?
There are powerful local interests involved, such as the three casino operators, and the owners of the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins who very much want to see sports betting in their home state. And then there’s fast-growing Boston-headquartered DraftKings, which along with its rival FanDuel dominates online sports betting. Of DraftKings’ 3,236 active employees, 996 of them work in Massachusetts.
What’s Thursday’s hearing about?
“This hearing is going to be a rundown of all the different stakeholders and sides to consider as we move towards, hopefully, putting in place a safe and legal sports-betting program,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, committee co-chair and sponsor of one of the 19 bills. Expected to appear are representatives from the three statewide casinos, DraftKings, the five major pro sports teams, the Mass. Gaming Commission, the Mass. Lottery, academic experts, and sports-betting opponents.
Who’s opposed to sports betting and why?
Athletic directors and other leaders at UMass, Boston College, Harvard, and Boston University among others maintain that legalization poses unacceptable integrity risks. There are serious concerns about the consequences of addiction and problem gambling, especially for a younger generation of sports fans. The issues are not minor, and the opposition will be heard. Any bill passed is expected to contain substantial guardrails such as online account cut-offs, cooling-off periods, and abundant services and help lines.
Within the State House, what’s the dynamic like?
The House to date has been far more gung-ho about pushing out a bill. Senate leadership has been more coy, with Senate President Karen Spilka telling Bloomberg Radio in March that she was waiting to see what kind of bill the chambers would produce before throwing her support — or not — behind it. She wants any bill to serve as a “national model.”
The lottery is not an opponent per se, but its concerns will have to be addressed. It sees sports betting as something of a competitor — one that would launch with the online sales capability that the lottery has been seeking.
Do Massachusetts residents want sports betting?
A poll released Wednesday suggests 61 percent do, although it has to be mentioned that the poll was commissioned by two of the state’s three casinos, Encore Boston Harbor and Plainridge. Sports betting opposition was at only 24 percent, with 15 percent undecided. The three reasons cited most often for supporting sports betting were the benefit to the economy, personal responsibility, and because bettors are going to bet whether it’s legal or not.
What would a Massachusetts sports-betting bill look like?
A strong online component looks like a lock, which is good news for DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, and others. There’d be sportsbooks at Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge. Allowing retail outlets like bars to have their own sportsbooks as well as embedding or attaching sportsbooks within TD Garden, Fenway Park, and Gillette Stadium will create a healthy debate.
Baker’s and Lesser’s bills don’t allow for betting on college sports, but there may be room for a compromise if a hybrid provision is included with no betting allowed on any in-state team.
Is a bill going to get passed?
Looks very likely.
The fastest a bill could be both passed and implemented is probably by this fall, but next spring may be more realistic.
That doesn’t sound so soon. Could it take even longer than that?
Hopefully by now you won’t be stupefied to hear that it could. Let’s place the “over” at early 2023. Talk then.