State officials are renewing their push to make Massachusetts State Lottery games available online and through mobile phone applications, a move they hope will attract a new generation of gamblers.
Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, whose office oversees the lottery, announced in a speech Wednesday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that she would file a bill in the Legislature that would create an “iLottery.”
“This is a critical economic opportunity that Massachusetts cannot afford to let fall by the wayside,” Goldberg told the business group. “iLottery will make our products more accessible, so we can appeal to younger players while we continue to serve our existing customers.”
Important details remain unclear, including which games would be available online, how high any spending caps might be, whether the games would be tethered somehow to retail shops, and how the lottery will verify online players are 18 or older.
Goldberg’s office said it planned to submit a fleshed-out bill to lawmakers by Nov. 2. An earlier bill that would have created a committee to study an online lottery died in the Legislature this summer.
In arguing for Internet-based lottery products, Goldberg stressed the importance of lottery funds to cities and towns, which use the money to fund a variety of services.
While the lottery is coming off a record fiscal year — $989.4 million in profits — Goldberg warned the figure was inflated by unusually large jackpots that are unlikely to reoccur. An aging customer base and increased competition from casinos are threatening to erode the sums paid to municipalities, she said, pointing to the popularity of daily fantasy sports as evidence that younger people crave online gambling products.
“Any good businessperson will tell you that you cannot wait and see how the competition plays out,” Goldberg told the chamber. “We must continue to update and diversify our lottery games in order to protect our long-term growth.”
The state lottery already offers a smartphone app, but it can only be used to enter previously-purchased losing tickets into a “second chance” drawing.
Massachusetts convenience store and gas station owners strongly oppose the proposal. They feel betrayed by Goldberg, arguing they have been instrumental in the success of the Massachusetts lottery and that an online lottery system would hurt sales of scratch tickets and other products gamblers buy in their shops.
“We’re very concerned,” said Joanne Mendes, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association. “We’re just not convinced that Massachusetts needs to go down this road at this juncture.”
Goldberg’s announcement also drew condemnation from anti-gambling groups, which said online lottery games will harm those with gambling addictions and appeal to teenagers.
“This is disgusting behavior on Deb Goldberg’s part,” said Richard Daynard, president of Northeastern University’s Public Health Advocacy Institute. “Anything that makes it easier for people to bet and lose their money is going to have a disproportionate, adverse effect on poorer people.”
Goldberg countered that digital lotteries actually make it easier to set spending limits and enact other controls on compulsive gambling. In the past, she has proposed “cooling-off periods,” bans on players raising self-imposed spending limits for some period of time after meeting them.
Another benefit for the state: officials can analyze players’ habits and use the data to fine-tune games for maximum appeal.
Internet lotteries are already ubiquitous in much of Europe, where social attitudes toward gambling are generally more permissive. In the United States, though, fewer than a half-dozen states offer them.
In 2014, Michigan unveiled online scratch tickets, draw games, and Keno. Players there can deposit money on the state lottery’s website directly from their checking accounts and claim prizes up to $50,000 without leaving home. Online sales have totaled more than $147 million since the system’s debut, Michigan lottery officials have said, and retail sales have increased, not decreased, over the same period. Minnesota’s lottery introduced an iLottery around the same time, but was forced to terminate the games after the Legislature and advocacy groups objected.
But critics note that most states with online lotteries still derive the vast majority of their revenues from traditional retail transactions. In Kentucky, for example, officials expect that of nearly $1 billion in projected total sales over the current fiscal year, just $7 million will come from online players.