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Mass. lottery sees opening in debate over sports bets

At a hearing before the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, lawmakers asked state Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, who oversees the lottery, whether she envisions some role for the agency in a sports wagering program.
At a hearing before the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, lawmakers asked state Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, who oversees the lottery, whether she envisions some role for the agency in a sports wagering program. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff/File 2016)

The debate over sports betting in Massachusetts could provide an opening for the state lottery to bring some of its games online, a longtime goal of the agency that desperately wants to modernize its products.

Leaders of an influential legislative committee suggested Tuesday that there may be an opportunity for the Massachusetts State Lottery to run some digital sports offerings if the state legalizes gambling on athletic contests.

At a hearing before the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, lawmakers asked state Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, who oversees the lottery, whether she envisions some role for the agency in a sports wagering program.

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She described it as an “intriguing idea,” but said her main goal is to make sure the lottery can compete in whatever landscape emerges from the deliberations on gambling expansion.

She said that could mean the lottery offering online games that are unrelated to sports, and taking payments in cashless transactions through gift cards or debit cards. The Legislature would have to approve such changes.

“There are only so many entertainment dollars,” Goldberg said. “The customer that’s emerging is a customer who is already thinking about daily fantasy sports and sports gaming. So we want to be on a level playing field.”

Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat who is cochairwoman of the joint committee, said at the hearing the lawmakers have been discussing the idea of allowing the lottery to run “parlay” games, in which players bet on the outcomes of multiple games but only get a payout if all their selections pan out.

Ferrante said parlay games could provide an entry point to the industry for small businesses such as bars or restaurants. Some of those businesses already depend on games such as Keno for foot traffic.

The lottery could offer parlay games even as casinos and daily fantasy companies such as Boston’s DraftKings operated their own sports books.

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Citing the experience of Rhode Island, several people at the hearing said the continued success of Boston’s sports teams might be a potential problem spot for any Massachusetts-centered sports betting operation. In February, Rhode Island’s sports books actually lost money, as New England Patriots fans cashed in on Super Bowl bets.

Rhode Island was the first state in New England to move forward with sports betting after a Supreme Court decision last year that allowed the practice to expand beyond Nevada. And it is one of a handful of states that is running the program through its lottery.

Gambling industry advocates in Massachusetts have argued that they’re in better position to operate games because their national reach gives them the financial wherewithal to balance out losses they suffer in one region when the hometown team comes through.

Horse racing interests have also been pushing for a role in the emerging sports betting industry.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker has proposed a measure that would allow people to wager on pro games in person at casinos or online through other licensed operators. The administration says such a system could generate $35 million in annual state revenue. Casinos and daily fantasy operators are pushing for a similar setup. This week the state’s three casinos suggested a program that would only allow established Massachusetts casinos and daily fantasy companies to offer sports books.

But plans for expansion have also met with skepticism from those who oppose legalized gambling, and key legislators have said they’re not sure they want to move forward at all.

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Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and a cochairman of the committee, asked a group of professional sports representatives Tuesday whether they thought legalization ran the risk of changing the fan experience that has made sports so crucial to the state’s culture.
Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and a cochairman of the committee, asked a group of professional sports representatives Tuesday whether they thought legalization ran the risk of changing the fan experience that has made sports so crucial to the state’s culture. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)

Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and a cochairman of the committee, asked a group of professional sports representatives Tuesday whether they thought legalization ran the risk of changing the fan experience that has made sports so crucial to the state’s culture.

“It seems to me that there’s an existential risk, which is that if all this minutiae that we’re debating gets mixed up, then we’re risking something that’s irreparable,” Lesser said.

Alex Roth, associate counsel for the National Basketball Association, said the hard truth is that illegal gambling is happening already on a black market that is relatively easy to access online.

“This is the reality we already live in,” she said. Roth said legalization, done right, would “take an unregulated, unscrutinized market and bring it into the light.”


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.