The 69 amendments that senators have filed to leadership’s sports betting bill offer some indication of the issues that could dominate the debate Thursday: whether to allow wagers on college athletics, how the framework for sports betting licenses should be structured and how sports betting revenue should be spent.
Some of the amendments appear to address concerns that the state’s three current gaming licensees — Plainridge Park Casino, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor — have with the legislation that emerged from the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday, about nine months after a betting bill passed the Massachusetts House.
“[W]e are very encouraged that the Senate is now considering the benefits of sports wagering legislation. It is imperative that sports wagering expansion in the Commonwealth be done responsibly, with consideration of the framework in place in the existing states that currently allow for legalized sports betting, particularly our neighboring states,” the three licensees wrote in a Wednesday letter to Senate President Karen Spilka and senators.
The licensees highlighted four aspects of the Senate bill they would like to see changed: the proposed tax rates, the limit on one sub-license for existing gaming operators, the ban on collegiate sports betting, and the Senate’s marketing prohibitions.
The Senate bill’s prohibition on betting on college sports is perhaps the most significant difference between the Senate plan and the bill that the House overwhelmingly passed in July. At least five amendments would soften that prohibition: Sens. Adam Gomez (#7), Michael Moore (#20) and Patrick O’Connor (#22) have each proposed a wholesale lift of the underlying bill’s ban on collegiate betting, and O’Connor has also filed an amendment (#23) that aims to allow betting on collegiate sports that involve at least one school from outside Massachusetts.
A total ban on collegiate betting would make Massachusetts an outlier among states that offer legal sports wagering. Oregon does not allow any collegiate betting through its commercial operator, but most states that have legalized betting allow at least some wagers on college sports.
The three New England states that have legalized sports betting limit which collegiate events bettors can wager on. Rhode Island and New Hampshire both prohibit bets placed on games played within their states and on games that involve an in-state team. Connecticut has a similar restriction, but the Nutmeg State allows “futures” bets on in-state teams, so residents can bet on the UConn Huskies to win the NCAA basketball tournament, but cannot bet on individual UConn games.
The Senate’s collegiate betting prohibition also puts the branch at odds with the Massachusetts House and Speaker Ronald Mariano, who drew a line in the sand on Bloomberg Baystate Business last summer and declared that leaving collegiate betting out of any bill “probably would be” a dealbreaker for him.
“I find myself having a tough time trying to justify going through all of this to not include probably the main driver of betting in the commonwealth,” Mariano said the day the House passed its betting bill.
The Massachusetts Senate is debating a bill to legalize betting on sports as neighboring states have done.
A survey conducted by the National Council on Problem Gambling in 2018 found that professional football was far and away the most popular sport to bet on in Massachusetts, with 83 percent of Bay State sports bettors surveyed reporting having put a wager on a pro football game in the previous year. The next most popular sport to bet on in Massachusetts was baseball (32 percent), followed by college basketball (31 percent), college football (28 percent) and professional basketball (19 percent). The survey, however, did not speak to how much money was wagered on each sport.
The Senate’s approach on college sports is in line with a request from the presidents and athletic directors of the eight Massachusetts colleges and universities that have Division I sports programs. The colleges are concerned that betting could create undue pressure and risks for student athletes and could lead to new headaches for athletic departments as they try to ensure no students or coaches inadvertently run afoul of NCAA regulations.
Gov. Charlie Baker filed his own legislation to legalize sports betting in January 2019 and envisioned that betting would be on professional sports contests only. Though he proposed to exclude college sports from any betting bill, Baker told the News Service early last year that he would accept a framework that included betting on college sports because it’s already happening in neighboring states.
Baker’s office said Wednesday that the governor “believes it is time for Massachusetts to take action on this issue to avoid losing tax revenue to neighboring states who have already legalized sports betting,” but did not respond to questions about his current position on collegiate betting.
The prohibition on collegiate betting caught the attention of the sports talkers on 98.5 FM The Sports Hub on Tuesday, with host Marc Bertrand saying that leaving out college betting is “a huge mistake” that could keep the illicit market thriving.
“I think they’re going to find all kinds of ways to make their product less attractive than whatever it is that sports bettors are currently using,” he said, calling the Senate’s vision for sports betting “a loser product that doesn’t catch on.”
Bertrand also took issue with the Senate’s restrictions on sports betting advertising, acknowledging that the sports talk station is “sort of in the advertising business.” The Senate bill would ban sports betting ads immediately before, during and immediately after live broadcasts of sporting events, though O’Connor has filed an amendment (#18) to strike that restriction.
The Senate amendments also seek to change who could obtain a sports betting license and exactly what they could do with it. As released by the Ways and Means Committee, the bill would establish a framework with two categories of licenses: Category 1 licenses that would allow the state’s existing gaming licensees to take bets at their physical establishments and via one digital or mobile platform, and Category 2 licenses that would let up to six other operators take both in-person and mobile bets.
That would allow for a maximum of 10 in-person sportsbooks in Massachusetts (if all licenses are awarded and if the third and final resort casino license is issued by the Gaming Commission), though Gomez filed an amendment (#56) to expand the maximum number of Category 2 licenses from six to 20.
Sen. John Keenan proposes (#43) that the category 2 license type be narrowed so that it allows a holder to offer sports betting through a mobile/digital platform only and that the licenses be available to “any entity that offers sports wagering through a mobile application or other digital platform” and meets the other criteria in the bill. That would allow an operator like Boston-based DraftKings or FanDuel to secure its own license and operate only via a mobile or digital platform.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr has a similar amendment (#46) that would allow Category 1 licensees to operate or partner with up to two digital platforms and would create a Category 3 license type for mobile- or digital-only operators. Sen. Paul Feeney has filed two amendments (#51 and #52) that would make horse tracks and simulcasting centers eligible for Category 1 licenses and to give the same facilities a leg up in the bidding for Category 2 licenses.
As with nearly any bill that is expected to generate revenue, senators have a lot of ideas about how to put the estimated $35 million a year that the activity could generate to use.
Sen. Becca Rausch wants to require (#6) that some of the money in the Public Health Trust Fund be used “to ensure that each elementary and each secondary school in the commonwealth is staffed with at least one school mental health professional, Gomez has proposed (#9) a new framework for the distribution of sports betting revenue, Sen. Su Moran filed an amendment (#16) to dedicate 15 percent of sports betting revenue to early education and care stabilization grants, and Sen. John Velis proposes (#28) to use some sports betting fees, surcharges and penalties to establish a Youth Sports Activities and Education Trust Fund to support youth sports nonprofit programs for underserved populations of children and young adults.
Other Senate amendments include Feeney’s proposal (#32) to allow the Massachusetts Lottery to operate online as Treasurer Deborah Goldberg has for years pushed for, Tarr’s amendment (#4) to lower the Senate’s proposed tax rates to match what the House adopted last summer, and amendments from Tarr (#65) and Velis (#27) to allow veterans organizations to apply for and obtain a limited slot machine license, a provision the House included in its sports betting bill.
The Senate is expected to gavel in at 11 a.m. Thursday for its sports betting debate.