When professional sports shut down on March 12, the Boston Bruins were in first place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and the Boston Celtics were in second in the NBA’s Atlantic Division. The Boston Red Sox were just a month into spring training. And a week later, superstar quarterback Tom Brady announced he was leaving the New England Patriots after 20 years and six Super Bowl rings.
The COVID-19 crisis and Brady’s departure turned sports-crazy New England on its head. But if there is a glimmer of hope in the land of chowdah and baked beans, it is this: There appears to be a decent chance that sports betting will be legalized in New England’s most populous state by the end of the year.
“We’ve been working on this for a few years now, and we feel like it’s been properly vetted,” said Senator Brendan Crighton, who favors legal sports betting. “All the states around us are doing it, so why are we letting the black market thrive here? I think going with a more flexible bill is the way to go. And it has a [good] consumer protection piece.”
Coronavirus could slow progress
Of course, Crighton qualified his comments, given the coronavirus crisis.
“Things have changed with coronavirus, so whatever track this is on, that might be a little different. And the annual budget, too, it could end up as part of that, as well,” he said. “I don’t know what the appetite for non-essential legislation is right now.”
Tom Brady officially says goodbye to the New England Patriots in new IG video pic.twitter.com/PhwsANkFR0
— Tampa Bay Tommy (@Tommy6Rings) April 6, 2020
The Massachusetts General Court meets year-round, but the “formal” session ends on July 31. Throughout the rest of the year, lawmakers continue to meet, discuss and vote, though Crighton said controversial issues are usually handled in the formal session, and that that has not been extended in the history of Massachusetts state government.
Around New England since the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2018, Rhode Island and New Hampshire have both legalized sports betting, including statewide mobile. Maine nearly did, too, before Governor Janet Mills vetoed legislation in January. The legislature tried to override the veto but failed.
MA lawmakers, slow-and-steady
Through all of this, Massachusetts lawmakers have spent plenty of time talking about sports betting. Governor Charlie Baker endorsed it in early 2019, and a dozen bills were filed at the start of the 2019 session. But then legislators threw the brakes on, saying they wanted to be cautious and careful.
“As I think has been well reported, this is a complex issue,” Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante told the media in 2019. Her committee, Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, will handle sports betting as it moves forward. “It is an issue we want to be very diligent with and we want to make sure that if Massachusetts is to go forward with this, that we do it properly.”
At the start of 2020, sports wagering amendments were crafted, and then the latest coronavirus stormed the world.
An NYPD escort for the @Patriots truck filled with protective equipment for our cops and healthcare works here in NYC who are on the front lines of the #COVID19 pandemic. Grateful to my hometown team for their generosity during this crisis. pic.twitter.com/JeTGQh07vr
— Bill Bratton (@CommissBratton) April 3, 2020
“I would like to see it move along in the process, and it seemed like the House was ready to act on it, but until we get a handle on corona, I don’t expect it’s going to move all that quickly,” said Crighton, who is a co-sponsor of the amended bill. “One of things we have talked about it is that while it has taken a long time for us to get on board, it’s given us a chance to see what’s worked and what hasn’t.”
To that end, the latest iteration of sports betting is HB 4559, which combines pieces of 11 previously filed House and Senate bills. It includes statewide mobile wagering with remote registration and would allow for plenty of competition. It is the kind of bill, operators say, that they would wholeheartedly support.
Reasonable taxes, statewide mobile, no college ban
The bill was favorably reported out of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies in mid-March, and it is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee.
Details of the bill:
- $500,000 application fee plus $500,000 initial license fee for full-service casinos for an S1 license. The license is good for five years, and includes three mobile skins;
- $500,000 application fee plus $500,000 initial license fee for slot parlors for an S2 license. The license is good for five years and includes two mobile skins;
- $500,000 application fee plus $500,000 initial license fee for stand-alone or “open” mobile platforms for an SM license. This license is good for five years;
- Horse tracks can apply for an SH license for $50,000 plus a $100,000 initial license fee to have retail operations only. The licensing fee is good for one year;
- Tax rates would be 10% of gross gaming revenue for retail sports betting and 12% for mobile sports betting;
- As a workaround to banning college sports, the new bill would allow for betting only on Division I college sports, including on Massachusetts-based teams. The bill bans betting on Division II, III, NAIA, etc., college teams;
- Betting on Olympic sports, amateur sports, eSports and fantasy sports is prohibited;
- There are currently no official league data or royalty requirements in the bill.
‘Integrity helpline’ and other consumer protections
Another detail of the bill that Crighton pointed out is the “integrity helpline” that will be available for everyone from athletes, coaches and team employees to the general public. The hotline is part of several consumer protections, including a self-exclusion list.
The bill also specifically prohibits certain kinds of advertising and marketing. It bans sports betting ads on vehicles, including buses and trains, or at public-use transportation facilities, such as taxi stands, bus stops, train stations and airports.
The current bill would allow the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to set a cap on maximum wagers. Operators will likely push back on the cap, as they have in other jurisdictions.
Massachusetts currently has two Las Vegas-style casino — the MGM in Springfield near the Connecticut border, and the Encore in Boston — as well as a slots parlor in Plainville, about 20 minutes from the Rhode Island border. All three pay the state a hefty percentage of gross revenue — 25% from the casinos and 49% from the slots parlor. The state is also home to daily fantasy and sports betting giant DraftKings, which is the sole operator in New Hampshire and has a foothold in five other states.
Lawmakers are working off the idea that sports betting could bring $25 million in new revenue to state coffers. And while that amount may not have seemed critical when the economy was chugging along, in the current climate it could be an appealing way to generate funds without a new tax on residents.
“I think it could be taken up this year,” Crighton said. “Twenty-five million didn’t seem like that much when we had a budget surplus, but now when we want to get people back to work…
“And when people have been starved from the sports they love, this might be welcome.”