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Don’t count on legal sports gambling in Mass. this football season

Sports betting has been less lucrative than expected in Rhode Island, where tax revenue fell far short of expectations.
Sports betting has been less lucrative than expected in Rhode Island, where tax revenue fell far short of expectations.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/file/Globe Staff

Hoping to place a legal wager on the Patriots this season in Massachusetts? Don’t bet on it.

Massachusetts lawmakers say they are in no rush to legalize sports betting, embracing a deliberate — some might say glacial — legislative pace even as casinos and other gambling interests ramp up pressure and neighboring states such as Rhode Island, New York, and New Hampshire have moved quickly to cash in on the burgeoning industry.

Part of lawmakers’ hesitation stems from concerns that sports betting, even in a region known for its intense fandom, might yield a relatively small amount of tax revenue in the context of a $43 billion state budget. Lawmakers note that in some of the 18 states where sports gambling has been authorized, revenues have fallen short of expectations. Rhode Island, in particular, serves as a cautionary tale, receiving just $2.2 million in tax revenue from sports bets last fiscal year after expecting more than $23 million.

Lawmakers said they are also grappling with the nuts and bolts of legislation that would aim to protect the integrity of sports, shield consumers from predatory companies, and close down black-market bookies. They are debating whether to allow betting on college athletics as well as professional leagues, how to tax bets to maximize revenues, and whether to restrict sports betting to casinos or allow bets online or through the lottery.

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“There’s no commitment to put a bill forward until we’re confident we can resolve all the issues,” said Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the cochairwoman of the committee examining the issue.

State Senator Eric P. Lesser, Ferrante’s counterpart on the committee, offered a laundry list of questions that need to be addressed before they can craft a sports betting bill.

“I certainly appreciate the interest this is generating,” the Longmeadow Democrat said of legalization. “But if a bill moves forward, it needs to be carefully crafted.”

A Supreme Court decision in May 2018 opened the door for all states to legalize betting on sports. The state’s three casinos — MGM Springfield, Plainridge Park Casino, and Encore Boston Harbor — along with daily fantasy sports and online betting giant DraftKings all back legalizing sports betting at casinos and online.

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Gambling interests say a broad sports betting law that allows people to bet on games at casinos and online will not only bring in direct tax revenue, but boost business at casinos and in the technology industry.

“An open, competitive legal mobile sports betting market that permits real competition among experienced operators is the best way to stamp out the illegal market, protect consumers, generate tax revenue, and continue job growth for the benefit of all Massachusetts residents,” Boston-based DraftKings chief executive Jason Robins said in testimony to the Legislature in May.

Michael Mathis, the president of MGM Springfield, which is just minutes from Connecticut, said this month that sports gambling would be important to the casino’s business and “it’s a bit of a race with some of the surrounding jurisdictions.”

In some of MGM’s other markets, “we’ve seen as much as a 10 percent increase to the rest of the business” when sports betting has been legalized, with patrons staying longer and going to restaurants, he said.

Those arguments have not lit a fire on Beacon Hill, where, over a year after the Supreme Court decision, lawmakers are still working through the complexities of legal sports betting.

Ferrante and Lesser declined to put a timeline on when a bill might come out of their committee, which could begin the process of legislation going to each chamber, and eventually to Governor Charlie Baker.

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He supports legalization and offered his own sports betting legislation in January. A Baker spokeswoman, Sarah Finlaw, said Baker offered a proposal “to make Massachusetts competitive with other states, and hopes to see the Legislature take up a bill before the end of the session.”

Lawmakers’ formal session ends in July 2020, and even sports gambling supporters said priorities like transportation are far higher on their list than whether someone can legally bet on the Bruins and Celtics this fall.

“Is it a policy priority for me? No. Is it as important to me as many other things? No,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger of Belmont. “But I’m prepared to support it.”

Ferrante, the cochair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, rattled off the revenue numbers from several states that have legalized sports betting and focused on Rhode Island. The state initially projected it would generate $23.5 million in taxes from sports gambling during the 2019 fiscal year, but took a major hit from the Patriots winning — and covering the spread — in the Super Bowl, and brought in a meager $2.2 million. (Rhode Island estimates that sports betting will bring it $23 million in taxes in fiscal year 2020.)

Ferrante noted the significant upfront costs of creating a sports betting infrastructure and said “we want to make sure that the bill put forward would generate revenue and not require any subsidy from the Commonwealth.”

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The chairwoman also pointed to New Jersey, a national success story, which brought in $25 million in tax revenue from sports betting from August 2018 through July. Massachusetts would likely have a smaller market, she said.

There are politics at play, too, in the State House, where chamber leaders wield outsize power. Neither Senate President Karen E. Spilka nor House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has conveyed a sense of urgency for legalizing sports betting.

DeLeo “conceptually” supports legalization, “but it requires the appropriate regulatory structure — and revenue stream,” said his spokeswoman, Catherine Williams.

A spokeswoman for Spilka, who notably voted against casino gambling when it passed in 2011, declined to comment about the senator’s position on legalizing sports betting.

And some progressives in the Senate, which is seen as more liberal than the House, are already voicing concerns.

“It’s not like people aren’t already gambling on sports. But when you legalize it, you invite in big-money players whose goal is truly to addict new people,” said Senator Patricia D. Jehlen of Somerville. “I’m worried about expanding the number of problem gamblers and about the ‘gamble-ization of sports.’ ”

Senator James B. Eldridge of Acton said he would vote against legalizing sports betting.

“I just see it as another regressive tax that, more likely than not, falls on working families,” he said. “It’s not a significant amount of revenue and therefore a distraction from raising taxes on the wealthy or closing tax loopholes for large corporations.”

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Gambling analysts encourage looking at the full sweep of additional revenue sports betting might bring in, with customers who might never otherwise set foot in a casino betting on the home team.

“It attracts a different demographic and creates the ability to market to that demographic and get them into the casino,” said Michael Pollock, a specialist on sports betting at the Spectrum Gaming Group consultancy. “They will spend money in multiple cash registers once there . . . nightclubs, hotels, restaurants.”

Still, he said, it’s wise for any legislature to be deliberate.

“Once that switch is flipped and it’s legal,” he said, “you can’t undo it.”


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.