Missouri lawmakers held their first hearing on legal sports betting hearing Wednesday, backed by 14 stakeholders in favor of legalizing with just a few speakers opposed, including one who doesn’t oppose legalized wagering but would like to see revamped legislation.
Reps. Dan Houx and Phil Christofanelli jointly introduced HB 556 and HB 581, which they say are identical and would allow for statewide mobile wagering. The bills include the same language as the bill that passed the House with 115 votes in 2022 only to be killed in the Senate.
Houx, Christofanelli, and their supporters kept their comments brief in asking the House Emerging Issues Committee for support. The committee did not vote on the bills, and committee members had few questions. The somewhat jovial atmosphere of the hearing, with a few jokes cracked about the number of supporters and the upcoming Super Bowl featuring the hometown Chiefs, suggests that the bills will pass out of the House once again.
“The reality is, anybody right now can download an app and bet in the state of Missouri,” Christofanelli said when introducing his bill. “The problem is, there is no regulatory oversight and revenue is going overseas to places and countries that don’t have our best interests in mind. I think [the revenue] should stay in Missouri.”
Missourians trying to get on Kansas platforms
After the introduction, committee member Ashley Aune said, “My constituents want this. It is a true point of frustration for folks.”
That frustration could be reaching a boiling point five months after neighboring Kansas launched retail and digital wagering, thereby winning the latest “border war” between the states. Kansas City straddles both states, making it so that plenty of urban dwellers are crossing the state line to place bets in Kansas.
According to statistics from geolocation service GeoComply, it has blocked about 8.7 million attempts from consumers in Missouri to log onto Kansas platforms since the start of the NFL season. On the day the Cincinnati Bengals played at the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship, GeoComply blocked 4,751 attempted transactions in and around Arrowhead Stadium in Missouri while 1.14 million geolocation transactions occurred in Kansas the same day. The company also tracked 245 accounts that crossed from Missouri into Kansas.
At Thursday’s hearing, every major operator, either in person or via proxy, threw its support behind the new bills, as did six professional sports teams: the MLB St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals, the NHL St. Louis Blues, the NFL Chiefs, the MLS Kansas City Sporting SC, and the National Women’s Soccer League Kansas City Current. On behalf of the leagues, Mike Whittle of the Cardinals stressed the importance of the official league data requirement, the proposed entertainment zones around the stadiums, and cooperation with casinos/sportsbooks when it comes to maintaining integrity.
Among the operators in favor of the legislation is PENN Entertainment, which owns two Hollywood-branded casinos in Missouri and operates the Barstool Sportsbook platform nationwide. Vice President of Public Affairs and Government Relations Jeff Morris in 2021 created a bridge between the casinos and the sports teams that resulted in the bill that passed the House last year. He was back in Jefferson City for another try.
“As was the case last year, Missouri’s gaming and professional sports industries stand aligned in support of a clean sports wagering bill and urge members of this committee, the House, and the Senate to consider and debate this issue on its merits alone,” he said.
The references to “clean” and “its merits alone” point to stakeholders’ desire to have legal wagering stand on its own rather than be tied to the legalization of video lottery terminals, which has been the desire in the Senate.
“The legalization of VLTs in exchange for sports betting is a compromise we simply cannot support in any form, as it would negatively impact thousands of quality jobs, significant economic benefits, and public education and veterans revenues that our industry provides to the state,” Morris continued in written testimony.
Players associations want to be heard
One argument for legalization came from Ford Galvin of the Current, which now plays at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas but will move into a new stadium in Missouri next year.
“It’s a whole new set of consumers that can be introduced to us, and it would give us the opportunity to expand our fan base,” Galvin testified.
Right now, Missourians are forced to cross state lines or use illegal sports betting sites to place bets.
Let’s create a safe, legal, and regulated sports betting market in Missouri. https://t.co/KbcZuqUVVC
— Sports Betting Alliance (@SBAllianceUS) February 6, 2023
On the flip side, attorney Steve Fehr — brother of Donald Fehr, who shepherded the MLBPA through the 1994-95 players strike and is now the executive director of the NHLPA — said the players associations would happily support legal wagering with some changes to the current bills. Fehr noted that the players associations would like to see more guardrails around player safety and reporting of potential violations, a ban on wagering on players’ biometric data, and several other issues.
“We support legal sports betting, but have some unique concerns,” Fehr said. When asked if any state had addressed all of the players associations’ concerns, Fehr quipped that “no state has adopted all of our wish list. Do you want to be the first?”
That said, some states, including Virginia, Illinois, and Massachusetts, have incorporated some of the suggestions into legislation and regulation.
Among the other opponents was a Missouri resident who said the fiscal note on the bills bore out that Missouri would “be a loser” when it comes to tax revenue from sports betting, as the casinos would take in more than the state.
No date has been set for a committee vote. The Missouri General Assembly went into session Jan. 4 and is set to adjourn May 12. Legislation crossing from one chamber to another must do so by March 9, and the last day for the Senate to introduce legislation is March 1.