An emergency meeting called Friday was still not enough for the members of the Gaming Commission to agree on actual dates for the potential launch of sports wagering here, but they were at least able to agree on broad windows of time for the start of in-person and mobile betting next year.
Commissioners agreed to designate "late January" as the launch date for Category 1 sports betting operators, meaning the state's two casinos and one slots parlor, and to designate "early March" as the launch date for Category 3 or mobile operators. The process for Category 2, which includes the state's two simulcasting centers, is on hold as the commission awaits more info from those facilities, officials said.
If the targeted dates are met, Massachusetts bettors would be able to place a bet on the Super Bowl at either Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, MGM Springfield or Encore Boston Harbor in Everett, and then bet by mobile device on the March Madness college basketball tournament. That sort of tournament is the only situation in which bets can be placed in Massachusetts on contests that involve a Massachusetts college or university.
But the commission put a string of caveats on its vote Friday, making clear that the "late January" start of retail betting might have to be reconsidered if the staff working behind the scenes to launch betting runs into "extraordinary circumstances" or if significant issues come up in public comments. And the "early March" start of digital betting may be delayed if the commission gets a large number of applications for the seven mobile licenses it can issue.
"OK, there we go, everyone. Let's make it a party," Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said after the commission's 4-0-1 vote. Commissioner Nakisha Skinner, who made clear that she was uncomfortable with the idea of setting the commission's timeline based on the sports calendar, abstained.
What the commission ultimately agreed to around 3:30 p.m. Friday mirrored the updated recommendation that Executive Director Karen Wells made at the start of the 12 p.m. meeting.
The debate that filled the hours in between largely boiled down to what risks the commission is willing to accept in a trade-off for speed. For example, the timeline that Wells presented Friday assumed that the commission would support an abridged approach to reviewing third-party vendors. But when that discussion came up later Friday, it led to significant debate among commissioners.
Skinnner said she was not comfortable with the Gaming Commission using a less-detailed process for the sports betting world than it does for the casino gambling sector. Commissioner Eileen O'Brien said she had a lot of the same concerns.
"The risk is the same and so in my mind, we should be applying the same rules across the board on the sports wagering side that we have in place for the gaming vendors," Skinner said. "If we are going to require them to be licensed in the first place, I don't see a difference. I don't see a reason to have a different set of rules."
O'Brien offered a compromise that was eventually accepted by the other commissioners: to use the abridged process to start, but to build in a sunset clause that would revert to the commission's more common and more detailed process for reviewing outside vendors on Sept. 1, 2023. That allowed the commission to turn its attention back to its potential timeline.
At one point during Friday's meeting, Wells and the commissioners dove into a discussion of actual launch dates for in-person betting. Wells first proposed a Jan. 26 start date, but Commissioner Brad Hill said he'd rather Jan. 18 and O'Brien thought the group had mostly settled on two weeks out from the Super Bowl, which would be Jan. 29.
That date, Sunday, Jan. 29, was batted around for a while and struck commission staffers as reasonable since it would not overlap with a busy Friday or Saturday night at the casinos. But then Wells got a text message from an unknown number that raised more concerns: Sunday, Jan. 29 is the date of the AFC and NFC championship games, the contests to decide which teams go to the Super Bowl and betting magnets in their own right.
"If you made it effective on that 12 a.m. on the 29th, that would actually be extremely volatile," Sterl Carpenter, the commission's regulatory compliance manager, said referring to the tremendous rush of bettors that would be expected.