Sports betting went live this week in Massachusetts, with celebrities like Celtics legend Cedric Maxwell placing $100 on the Philadelphia Eagles to win the Super Bowl and former Patriots cornerback Ty Law upping the ante with a $240 bet on the Kansas City Chiefs to win, as well as a $1,000 bet on the Celtics to win the NBA championship.
The goal of all the hoopla is to get ordinary people to wager their money, too — which Matilda Bonfardeci of Revere happily did with a $100 bet on the Chiefs. “I have no idea,” she said about the meaning of the money-line option she chose to place the bet. “I think it means you’re a safe bet, I’m not sure, but it was very easy and simple to do.” But in gambling, there is no such thing as a safe bet. If the Chiefs win, Bonfardeci wins her $100 back plus $100 for a total of $200. If the Chiefs lose, she loses $100.
Massachusetts is now all-in with the risk that all gamblers take, whether or not they fully understand it. A state that once banned card playing, dice, and gaming tables has now legalized casino gambling and sports betting. The turnaround in thinking began in 1971 with the creation of a state lottery.
Still, for decades after that, efforts to expand gambling were stopped by opponents, including liberal Democrats who saw it as regressive policy that hurt the poor. Then, in 2007, Governor Deval Patrick, a liberal Democrat, began a push to legalize casino gambling. His first effort failed. But he and the gambling industry did not give up and were helped by the misfortunes of Salvatore F. DiMasi, the powerful speaker of the House who opposed gambling but who resigned in 2009 (and was later convicted on federal corruption charges).
“Governor Patrick supported it, the best lobbyists in Massachusetts were hired by the industry, and Sal DiMasi, who was the most prominent political opponent, left the speakership. That was a winning trifecta for casino gambling,” said John Sasso, a longtime strategist who was not involved in the legislative effort to legalize casino gambling but who is known for playing poker at the table and in politics.
In November 2011, Patrick signed the Expanded Gaming Act into law, which formally opened the door to the industry in Massachusetts. From a revenue standpoint, the results are a success. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission recently reported that Massachusetts has collected about $1.2 billion in total taxes and assessments from its three licensed casinos — Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park Casino — since the opening of each gaming facility. With sports betting, the state will get 15 percent of adjusted gross sports wagering receipts ( defined as receipts minus winnings paid out to participants and federal excise taxes) and 20 percent of those placed online. Online sports betting, which has not yet started, is on track for a March launch.
The Rev. Richard McGowan, who teaches finance at Boston College and has written several books on the gambling industry, says the leap to sports betting reflects a combination of political and cultural realities: Americans are sports crazy. And politicians have figured out it’s easier to raise money from gambling than to do it by raising taxes. Meanwhile, “the ethics that people operate under have changed,” said McGowan, from “the ethics of sacrifice,” which involves doing or forgoing something for the common good, to “the ethics of tolerance — you should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm someone else.” That makes it easy for non-gamblers to conclude that if someone else wants to gamble their money away, “Fine, I’ll pay less in taxes,” he said. Conversely, instead of paying taxes directly to the state, gambling enthusiasts would apparently rather spend their money on gambling, a portion of which the casino then pays in taxes to the state.
Massachusetts is now the 33d state to legalize sports betting, making it part of what is essentially a populist movement. “The people have spoken,” said Scott Harshbarger, a former attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who in 2014 led an unsuccessful campaign to repeal the Massachusetts law allowing casinos to operate within the state. Gambling is “a popular thing, leaving all of us moralists to stand on the sidelines,” he said. Given the demand for gambling, he said, “now the question is, can you regulate this effectively to eliminate corruption and potential harms that come with it?” McGowan, too, said he hopes the state “takes the addiction issue seriously.” And he warns, “Wait for the first (game) fixing ... The Achilles heel is the integrity of the games.”
The former athletes who promoted sports betting at the Encore launch paid lip service to the concept of safe betting. But gambling is inherently risky. People who want to restrict their gambling can also ask the gaming commission to ban them temporarily or permanently, but that requires self-awareness about a problem.
Let’s hope that here in Massachusetts, sports betting is mostly a form of entertainment and revenue to the state and not an addiction for those who can least afford it.