The odds are shrinking that Massachusetts lawmakers will legalize sports betting this year. The State House passed a sports betting bill in July but the Senate has yet to act. Sen. Eric Lesser, co-chair of the Economic Development Committee, said that “We’re doing our best to balance, obviously, the fun of sports betting with some of the elements that we have to keep mindful of and be mindful of when you’re talking about a gambling product. Like any bill, you’ve got a process of working with the duly elected members of the chamber on their different issues and their concerns. When there’s a consensus, when we feel like we’ve gotten to that point, I do feel confident that something will move forward.”
This year marks the third year in which Massachusetts lawmakers have failed to pass Vegas casino online or land-based casino sports wagering legislation. Senate President Karen Spilka said the Senate Ways and Means Committee “is looking at it” but she has publically noted in the past that she doesn’t see either retail or online casino sports betting as a legislative priority during COVID-19, leaving Senate members who do support sports betting hanging.
Some of the blame has been placed on other, more pressing issues that are taking the Senate’s time such as voting on a redistricting map and developing a major surplus and federal aid spending bill. But not everyone is convinced that it makes financial sense to ignore a potentially huge source of revenue, especially in the face of the state’s dire financial situation. “There’s been a full plate, but this has absolutely been a top-tier issue,” Lesser said. “It’s been something that many of us have been working on on an almost-daily basis and there’s very active conversations going on. It’s very much a live issue.”
It seems that there’s still a chance that the Senate could advance the proposal for a floor vote before the 2021 session ends on November 17th. But there’s not a lot of optimism. “I do think we’re getting close, but I do think front of our minds and a big priority for me is going to be making sure those consumer protection and game integrity issues are really front and center” said Lesser
A number of legislators want to see some issues resolved before they OK a sports betting bill. One issue concerns the use of credit cards to make bets. Some legislators want to limit online betting to debit cards or transfers from a bank account to ensure that the bettor isn’t going into debt in order to place the bill. Lesser’s Senate bill prohibits the user of a credit card to place a mobile sports bet though the House’s bill would allow credit card wagers.
How college sports would play out in a sports betting state is also an issue of concern. The bill approved by the Massachusetts House would allow bettors to wager on the outcome of college sporting events through not on individual athletes. Many observers find this concerning because they believe that college athletes, who are not paid, are especially vulnerable to being compromised in a sports betting environment. The version of the bill presented to the Senate would not allow wagering on college games.
Jerold Parisella who pushed the bill in the Massachusetts House opposes the Senate imposing restrictions on college sports wagering. Bettors might, he said, take their sports bets to other states for college sporting events – sports betting is legal in multiple neighboring states to Massachusetts including Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and New York – which would lower tax revenue that should come to Massachusetts.
College sports are a popular sports betting option – after the Super Bowl, NCAA March Madness gets the most wagers. “They’re going to just continue going to New Hampshire, continue going to Rhode Island, go to Connecticut or use the offshore books which allow that,” said Parisella. “We want to give them a product that’s legal, that’s regulated, that provides consumer choice.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, a supporter of sports betting legalization, agreed. “There are a whole bunch of states that are pretty far around the bases, down the field,” Baker said in an interview with the Greater Boston Herald. “I know people who live in Massachusetts who drive to New Hampshire just to do it. I don’t know why we wouldn’t just incorporate the very basic framework that’s been adopted by most of these places so that people in Massachusetts can play and generate the revenue associated with it and make sure some of it gets put to good use to help people who are dealing with gambling issues and other issues like that.”
House Speaker Ronald Mariano believes that, by creating legislation that cuts out college sports, revenue could plummet by $25 to $35 million annually.
Lesser is still ready to negotiate, especially if it means the difference between passing a sports betting bill and not. He’s considering allowing the bill to move forward without college sports betting and then revisit the issue later. “Obviously, March Madness and the bowl games are big business. A lot of people bet on that,” said Lesser. “We’re not denying reality, but there also needs to be an acknowledgement on the other side of that that it is different when you’re dealing with 18- and 19-year-old unpaid college athletes versus pro teams.”
Sportsbook DraftKings has reported that about 30% of their New Hampshire business comes from Massachusetts residents who cross the border to place bets. It’s clear that the appetite is there among Massachusetts residents to make sports betting a lucrative industry with major revenues for state coffers.
On the day of the Patriots’ season opener, Gov. Charlie Baker expressed his hope that state lawmakers would give him a sports betting bill to sign in the near future. “Great to see the @Patriots back!” he wrote on Twitter. “We filed a bill in 2019 and again this year to legalize sports betting in MA – it’s time to act and get this done. MA is losing out to many of our neighbors on this one.”