The spread of legalized sports betting in New England is prompting another push to do the same by some politicians in the region’s most populous state: Massachusetts.
Massachusetts lawmakers held a committee hearing on Thursday regarding 19 different bills related to sports betting that have been introduced in the state legislature. Yet despite the abundance of bills, and despite neighboring states already taking wagers, Massachusetts has been unable thus far to pass legislation that would legalize sports betting.
“When it comes to sports, we pride ourselves in this state on the success of our franchises,” said Sen. Paul Feeney, a sponsor of one of the sports-betting bills, during Thursday’s hearing. “What we have seen recently, however, is that one of our chief exports is Massachusetts gaming revenue to Rhode Island, and to New Hampshire, and to other jurisdictions. We have the opportunity to change this quickly.”
Over the course of about six hours, the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies heard (via video) from politicians, regulators and representatives from sports-betting companies and professional sports organizations, among others.
Rep. Shawn Dooley, whose district has a casino and borders Rhode Island, said that the gaming facility is being "attacked vigorously" by the ones on the other side of the Massachusetts state line. Those tactics, he said, include billboards touting Rhode Island casinos with sportsbooks.
“So people who want to go and play at a casino, but also want to do a couple of sports bets or things along those lines, are leaving Massachusetts, literally driving past a Massachusetts casino, going five, six miles down the road, and going to bet at one of the two Rhode Island casinos that are right on the border,” Dooley said.
An untapped market
Massachusetts is also bordered by states that have already legalized sports betting, such as New Hampshire. Another neighbor is on the verge of joining that club, as Connecticut is bringing a legal sports wagering industry online as well.
Legal sports betting does have significant backing in Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker has been pushing for legislative action since January 2019 — a bill sponsored by Baker was on Thursday's agenda — and a recent poll commissioned by two casinos in the state reportedly found that a majority of those surveyed supported the idea.
“I believe that there is an opportunity to act early in the current legislative session to prevent the Commonwealth from continuing to face a competitive disadvantage from other states,” Baker wrote to lawmakers in January in a preamble to his bill.
A member of Baker’s administration, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, appeared Thursday before the committee to reiterate the governor’s support for sports betting.
“Expanding Massachusetts' developing gaming industry to include wagering on professional sports will allow Massachusetts to invest in local aid, while remaining competitive with many other states pursuing similar expansions,” Kennealy told members of the joint committee. “This legislation will bring Massachusetts up to speed with almost half the country and also create opportunities to leverage the state's robust innovation economy as this industry steps out of the shadows.”
Work to do
However, a bill to legalize sports wagering has yet to make it through the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Moreover, testimony given on Thursday highlighted that not everyone in the state is all-in on the idea.
Boston College hockey coach Jerry York said they are “strongly opposed,” and that they hoped colleges would be excluded from any sports-betting bill. The colleges, the coach added, lack the financial resources of the state’s professional sports franchises when it comes to protecting players.
“The players we work with are 18 to 22,” York told the committee. “There are no benefits at all to them if this passes for colleges.”