Here’s how long the Massachusetts Legislature has been weighing bills to legalize sports betting: Tom Brady has won a Super Bowl with the Patriots, left the team, won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers, retired from football, and then came back.
Since the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a federal law that banned sports betting, 30 states and the District of Columbia have gotten into the business or are in the process of doing so. But not Massachusetts.
There is no organized opposition to legal sports betting in the state. All major sports franchises and casinos support it. So do Governor Charlie Baker and the state House of Representatives, who would like to capture some of the money flowing into bordering states or onto offshore betting websites.
The hesitation lives in the state Senate, where some lawmakers fear that easier access to wagering in Massachusetts — which has the highest average lottery spending per capita in the nation — could put people at risk of losing their money.
“Massachusetts is surrounded by states that have jumped at the opportunity to legalize sports betting, but Massachusetts residents must still cross state lines to participate,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano wrote in a statement. “We have a real opportunity to take long overdue action.”
The most recent iteration of a bill that would legalize sports betting in Massachusetts, where the Legislature approved casino gambling more than a decade ago, has sat dormant since last July, collecting dust in the Senate Ways and Means committee.
Antonio Caban, a spokesman for Senate president Karen Spilka, framed the legislation as a much lower priority than other issues.
“The Senate has made clear on several occasions that it continues to work on the issue of legalized sports betting in the Commonwealth,” he wrote in a statement. “It is disheartening that this issue seems to have generated more discussion amongst Beacon Hill watchers than the real challenges people in Massachusetts are facing on a daily basis which we are striving to solve, such as child care, mental health, and climate change.”
Senator Jamie Eldridge, a longtime opponent of expanding gambling, said sports betting could lead to increased addiction, and have an outsized negative impact on working-class people, views he said were shared by a few of his colleagues.
Across the country, sports betting is on the rise. According to the American Gaming Association, Americans spent approximately $9.27 billion on sports bets in January 2022. More than $1 billion was wagered in New York alone, which became the largest sports betting market in the country, according to the association.
The sports-crazed Northeast swiftly leaned into the trend after the Supreme Court decision. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania launched sports betting in 2018 and New Hampshire and New York launched their programs a year later.
Fifteen states introduced sports betting legislation in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“The fact that the Commonwealth hasn’t legalized it sticks out like a sore thumb,” said Dustin Gouker, an analyst for gaming website PlayUSA. “It doesn’t quite line up.”
The implementation of sports betting has varied widely from state to state, and there are differences among bills filed to legalize it in Massachusetts. Some states only allow casinos to offer sports betting, while others allow other facilities to be eligible for a license. Most states allow a combination of in-person and online betting, but not all. When it comes to college sports, many states allow betting, though some don’t allow bets to be placed on in-state college programs.
There is also a range when it comes to upfront licensing fees, which can span from $20 million in Illinois to none in Arkansas, Delaware, or New Hampshire.
Last July, the House passed legislation that would authorize the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to grant licenses at in-person facilities like casinos or racetracks and would also allow for mobile gaming app licenses. The bill also allowed betting on college sports, but not wagers on the performance of individual college athletes.
It was supported by the major sports leagues, local teams, operators like DraftKings and FanDuel, and the state’s casinos, which have poured money into venues that could easily become massive sports books.
At Encore Boston Harbor, the casino’s 400-plus-seat space is being used as a restaurant and bar.
“If/when the legislation passes, we would be ready to operate a sports book within a few weeks,” spokeswoman Rosie Abrams said, who said the WynnBet Sports Bar could easily become the WynnBet Sports Book. “We would need to hire and train employees, but the space itself is ready.”
The House has voted to authorize sports betting twice — in 2020 and 2021 — but in that time, it has never emerged in the Senate for public discussion or debate.
“You have a couple state senators who have always been pretty aggressive about the fact that gambling isn’t a way that a state budget should be funded. The most progressive senators are against it and religious conservatives are against it,” said Father Richard McGowan, a gambling expert who teaches at Boston College. “It’s interesting, because everyone in between says you might as well.”
Spilka has prioritized mental health during her tenure in the Senate, and in 2011, she voted against casino gambling.
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health said the council has been actively lobbying the Legislature to include mechanisms to help prevent problem gambling for sports bettors, particularly those wagering for the first time.
“People think they know their home team and emotionally, it might be easier for people to throw money down on sports because they feel they have expertise,” said spokesman Phil Sherwood. “We know sports betting is happening in Massachusetts. . . . But it’s not happening in a transparent way where consumers have the protections and have access to resources if something goes awry.”
There is a sense among political analysts that the Senate won’t warm to the idea anytime soon.
Senator Michael Rodrigues, chairman of the chamber’s Ways and Means committee, said earlier this month that he is “fine” with sports betting legislation, but he later walked back the comment, writing in a statement that his words were meant to convey that he “was fine with how the process was proceeding, not that I was in favor of a particular bill as is, or the legalization of sports betting generally.”
“As I conveyed . . . I am actively meeting with stakeholders and members on the legislation in the committee and, as I have with all major legislation, I will work to listen to and incorporate senators’ feedback and release a bill if and when it is ready and there is support of the members,” the powerful senator wrote.
It’s a hesitation that extends to the two major Democratic candidates for governor; neither Attorney General Maura Healey nor Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz would tell the Globe whether they support or oppose legal sports betting. Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty both said they do.
Experts say that being slow to pass sports betting legislation does result in money being left on the table, but the impact may be exaggerated.
In his re-filed proposal to legalize sports betting, Baker estimated $35 million in annual revenue could come in from sports betting, which is a drop in the bucket of a $45.6 billion budget.
“There really is not downside to delaying,” said Paul DeBole, a political science professor at Lasell University who studies New England’s casinos. “What [passing the bill] is going to do is save people from throwing their kids in the car and driving to New Hampshire.”
According to DraftKings, which employs more than 1,000 workers in Massachusetts, approximately 28 percent of their New Hampshire Super Bowl bettors had Massachusetts addresses.
Senator Eric Lesser, who sponsored the legislation in his chamber, said his bill is ready for a vote when senators decide to take it up.
“We have gone through a multi-year process and have engaged in hundreds of meetings,” said Lesser, who serves as the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. “If or when our colleagues begin to feel comfortable, we can move on a very strong product that we will be proud of.”
Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.
Samantha J. Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.