As the clock ticked to the end of the eighth hour of Thursday’s Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting, the decision that sports betting operators have most been anticipating had still not been made, prompting Chair Cathy Judd-Stein to utter these words: “I am very concerned about our decision making and our inability to move forward.”
Massachusetts lawmakers came to an agreement on statewide mobile wagering on Aug. 1, and nine days later, Gov. Charlie Baker made it law. The MGC held its first public meeting on the topic on Aug. 4, during which commissioners warned the public that the process would be deliberate, and probably slower than anticipated.
Since then, the commission has held six public meetings, including one at which operators were invited to offer thoughts on whether retail and digital launches should be staggered or simultaneous and on how to handle a legal idiosyncrasy that caps the number of permanent digital wagering licenses at seven but does not cap the number of temporary licenses. Most operators said they favored a single launch date for all types of wagering. On a parallel track, staff has been developing rules, creating an application, and doing the administrative work needed to prepare for a go-live.
Thursday’s meeting ended with no launch-related decisions and the commission instead opting to task its staff with reworking a proposed timeline overnight and returning for a vote at noon ET Friday. On Thursday, commissioners did vote to approve taxing daily fantasy companies retroactive to Aug. 10, to post a scope-of-licensing survey Friday, and to open the proposed application for a public-comment period that will run 10 days, from Oct. 7-17.
Different priorities, slow process
Throughout the process, operators have all but begged for some clarity on timing. Operators need ample time to complete applications, rejigger technology to meet unique requirements in new jurisdictions, and develop everything from house rules to responsible gaming plans.
The MGC has been unable to come to a consensus on a start date or on whether or not to launch retail and digital wagering simultaneously.
The new law allows for three types of wagering licenses: retail and mobile licenses for the state’s three casinos (Category 1), retail and mobile licenses for the state’s two horse racetracks (Category 2), and seven untethered mobile licenses (Category 3). Barstool Sportsbook (Plainridge Park), BetMGM (MGM-Springfield), and WynnBET (Encore-Boston Harbor) have market access through their physical locations, but more than 40 operators have expressed interest in the remaining 12 digital platforms. Five of those will be tethered to casinos or racetracks and seven will be stand-alone licenses.
Massachusetts needs to speed up the sports betting thing @nfl season getting underway @nba about to start and the @mlb playoffs are about to start tired of traveling 10 minutes to Connecticut to place bets 🤣
— j.Cruz 🇵🇷 (@unrlBlue) October 6, 2022
Thursday’s meeting revealed a deep rift that Judd-Stein may have best characterized when she said that some commissioners “felt faithful to the law” while others “felt faithful to protecting consumers.” It also appeared that some commissioners felt faithful to operators, though none explicitly said that. Judd-Stein showed her own hand when the discussion turned to the idea of agreeing on a retail launch date but leaving the digital launch decision temporarily open-ended.
“I am uncomfortable,” she said, “but I am trusting. I am going to be upset if we vote today [on a retail date] but then it’s months later” for digital.
“I’m going to have to have some assurances that it won’t be months.”
Super Bowl launch highly unlikely
Commissioners Brad Hill and Jordan Maynard appeared to be pushing hard for a digital launch date ahead of the Feb. 12 Super Bowl, while Commissioner Nakisha Skinner repeatedly said she felt the launch date should be built around how long the process will take rather backing it up from a “predetermined date.” She emphasized — more than once — that staff, headed by Executive Director Karen Wells, should be driving the process rather than the commissioners insisting on a start date around a key sporting event like the Super Bowl or the NCAA’s March Madness.
The people don’t seem excited about a timeline that might not allow for legal sports betting in Massachusetts in time for the SuperBowl https://t.co/8AqpLUlv7a
— Mike Mutnansky (@MutWEEI) October 6, 2022
When pushed to say what would be the latest date on which the MGC could launch any kind of wagering before the Super Bowl, Wells pointed to Feb. 10, just two days before the biggest single-day sports wagering event of the year. Massachusetts need only look to New York, which launched online operators on the final weekend of the 2021-22 NFL regular season, to see what kind of struggles can occur on a particularly heavy wagering weekend.
Hill, who two months ago said at a public meeting that this process would take time, said Thursday he remained hopeful about a pre-Super Bowl launch but seemed to agree that sometime before March Madness might be more reasonable.
Members of the normally staid and conservative commission often spoke over each other, used accusatory tones, and repeatedly misunderstood each other and Wells.
As the meeting wore on, Wells and the MGC’s legal department were clear in saying they could promulgate rules and vet applicants in time for a January retail launch and a February digital launch — both initially proposed by staff on a timeline — but that the commission would have to “assume the risk” for doing so. Several staff members made it clear that they felt the commission had those start dates in mind, so they built a timeline around those dates despite feeling the timeline is aggressive.
The risk, according to the legal team, essentially means dealing with the fallout from a rush job and understanding that a quick turnaround favors major operators, which have experience completing applications and getting to market fast.
The commission repeatedly balked at taking that risk and eventually chose to sleep on the decision.
“Speed is not the sole measure of performance,” Commissioner Eileen O’Brien said. “The issue is with a date-determined timeline vs. best practices … and we have to think back and see what we’re giving up.”