Delaware North, the multibillion-dollar hospitality company whose chairman, Jeremy Jacobs, owns the Boston Bruins and TD Garden, wants to offer sports betting in Massachusetts, should state lawmakers legalize it.
The company’s interest, detailed Wednesday at a legislative committee hearing, injects a major player into the still-simmering debate over whether and how the state should allow betting. It also immediately sparked questions about whether Jacobs’s involvement as a professional team owner — and chairman of the NHL’s governing board — would pose a conflict in the emerging industry.
Amy Latimer, president of the Delaware North-owned TD Garden, told the Legislature’s Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies that company officials already operate nine casinos and betting facilities in seven states and “know the product and the fans.”
Saying the company does not want “any appearance of conflict of interest,” Latimer said it would not operate a sports book but rather partner with a mobile provider “that will enhance the fan experience.”
“We view sports wagering as a great opportunity for us to engage fans and get the casual fan interested in sports in a new way,” Latimer said in prepared testimony to the committee. “We understand gaming, sports and the customer, and Delaware North would like the ability to participate as a sports wagering provider.”
In the year since the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the practice to expand beyond Nevada, the state committee has been weighing legislation, including a bill from Governor Charlie Baker to allow people to wager on professional games at casinos and online.
But several key lawmakers have not indicated whether they think the practice should be legal at all, muddying the path toward sports betting in the state. A two-day hearing on potential legislation drew a wide array of interests to the State House this week, including the state’s casino operators, daily fantasy sports companies like DraftKings, and state Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, who oversees the Massachusetts state lottery.
Many sports executives have been careful about addressing the prospect of sports betting. But Jacobs has been vocal about the possibility of expanding it in Massachusetts, saying in January that legalized betting “has the potential to increase fan interest and engagement.”
Latimer on Wednesday argued that professional sports teams are well-equipped to offer betting, given that “fans trust our brands.”
“Professional sports franchises inherently know their customer best,” she said.
But whether the state would allow the entrance of a figure such as Jacobs, who is majority shareholder and chairman at Delaware North, remains to be seen.
Representative Kenneth I. Gordon, a Bedford Democrat who serves as vice chair on the committee that’s weighing sports-betting legislation, said he wants Delaware North officials to further explain how they would avoid a potential conflict.
“The concern is that you have the owner of a team whose employees, the players, essentially report to him. And now if he gets the opportunity to engage in a betting interest, he would have a stake in making a profit through betting on things that he can control,” Gordon said. “It’s a real issue.”
Baker’s bill, for one, specifically bars a “director of a sports governing body or any of its member teams” from having an ownership stake or working for a licensee that offers sports betting. Aides to the governor did not directly respond to questions about Delaware North’s interest Wednesday, but referred back to the bill’s language.
In New Jersey, policy makers approached the question by prohibiting the Golden Nugget casino from accepting wagers on NBA games at its sports book because its owner, Tilman Fertitta, also owns the Houston Rockets.
When Washington, D.C., officials legalized sports betting last year, they allowed for sports books inside the city’s arenas and ballparks.
Daniel Wallach , an attorney and codirector of the Sports Wagering and Integrity Program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said that a “reasonable solution” would be to bar Delaware North from accepting bets on the Bruins.
“I think if you carve out Bruins games, it becomes a non-issue,” Wallach said.
“There’s always potential conflict. But I think any such concerns can be eradicated through transparency.”
Chris Grove, who follows sports betting closely as managing director at the research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, said concern about conflicts has become a “live issue,” but he questioned whether it extends beyond negative optics.
“It’s clear why it feels like a conflict,” he said. “But our sense is, when you actually dig into the issue, you don’t find lot of meat on the bone.”
Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who chairs the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, sounded a cautionary note.
“There’s a lot we don’t know yet. It raises obvious questions that the committee needs to dive into,” he said of Delaware North’s interest.
“I think one of the most important elements of any potential sports-betting package is going to be ensuring the integrity of the game.”