Massachusetts picked the wrong time to begin its first serious push for sports betting legislation.
The Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies advanced its new bill on March 12, the day after the NBA suspended its season because of coronavirus concerns.
Sen. Brendan Crighton, vice chair of the committee, tells Legal Sports Report that he would have bet on Massachusetts sports betting passing this year at the time the bill moved through committee. Now he sees it as a long shot.
“It’s all up in the air now given the crisis we’re dealing with,” Crighton said. “If you talked to me a month ago, this would be a different conversation.”
Lost opportunity to educate lawmakers
The joint committee referred H 4559 to the House Ways and Means Committee. Crighton said that normally triggers an informational campaign to educate the legislative membership on the bill.
The Massachusetts Legislature has yet to debate a sports betting bill. With the legislature’s focus turned to address coronavirus impacts, that debate is unlikely to occur this year.
“All of our focuses are elsewhere right now, so it is going to be hard to bring enough attention to sports betting to get immediate action,” Crighton said. “I’m trying to stay optimistic while focusing on the urgent matters at hand right now.”
Crighton expressed that it seems likely Massachusetts will extend the legislative session past July 31 to deal with coronavirus matters. He doesn’t know if sports betting could fall in that category to be addressed with urgency in an extended session.
“It will probably get pushed to next year, but I don’t have a crystal ball,” Crighton said. “We’re in unprecedented times here. Maybe with more time in the session, there will be an opportunity. It’s too early to tell.”
College betting added to Massachusetts bill
The joint committee took a look at five Massachusetts sports betting proposals, including one from Gov. Charlie Baker last year, before crafting its own bill.
The governor’s bill excluded wagering on college sports. The committee bill allows wagering on college sports, limited to NCAA Division I.
“We strongly feel we need to include college betting,” Crighton said. “If the idea is that we’re trying to move people into the regulated market, we can’t keep out one of the biggest drivers of betting in America.”
He added that it’s a big difference, but he thinks the legislature can convince the governor to accept the change.
The need for Massachusetts sports betting
H 4559 would authorize sports betting for the state’s two resort casinos and one slot parlor casino. It allows for five untethered online sports betting licensees. One would almost surely be DraftKings Sportsbook, which has its headquarters in Boston.
There’s also a license specified for horse racing tracks, which could encourage some shuttered tracks to reopen.
“For the brick-and-mortar casinos, sports betting isn’t going to boost revenues considerably, but it is an amenity that brings people in the door, gets them into restaurants and on the floor,” Crighton said. “With the investment we’ve made in our casinos, I think Massachusetts would be foolish not to bring this into the legal sphere.”
Casino closures could spur discussion
Baker ordered casinos closed since March 14 to encourage social distancing.
Massachusetts sports betting could come up in an extended session as a revenue generator in the state budget and economic boost to the casino industry.
“Hopefully, once we get immediate items under control and look at how to rebuild the Massachusetts economy, we’ll see how this has a place in there,” Crighton said. “Obviously, casinos have been shut down. Workplaces all over have shut down, and a number of those folks interact with gaming in some way.
“Regulating this product could help some of those industries get back on their feet.”