A major expansion of the state’s gambling industry is expected to move one step closer to reality Thursday when the Massachusetts Senate debates a bill that would legalize some forms of sports betting.
That legislation differs in some notable ways from a bill that passed the House in 2021 in a nearly unanimous vote. For example, the Senate proposal would not legalize betting on college sports, or allow the use of credit cards to place wagers. It would also tax operator revenues at significantly higher rates than the House plan and set stricter limits on the number of operators who could participate.
Both bills would allow in-person and mobile betting, require participants to be at least 21 years old, and give regulatory authority to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
Sen. Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow), who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, notes that in the four years since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to legalize sports betting, Massachusetts has become something of a regional outlier.
“It’s very widespread already,” Lesser said. “Essentially all our neighbors and basically every state in New England has done it.”
“At the end of the day, we’re not an island,” Lesser said. “This is a product that’s now been proven to be safe and to be something that people can do successfully. ... I see, frankly, a diminishing argument for why Massachusetts can’t get it done.”
The Senate is expected to pass its version when a vote is finally taken. The bill up for debate Thursday was favorably reported out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee recently, and last month, a State House News Service survey of the Senate’s 40 members found that at least 24 support making sports betting legal.
Reconciling the House’s and Senate’s visions may prove difficult, however.
By not allowing betting on college sports, the Senate seems to be heeding the wishes of the Massachusetts state universities and colleges that compete in Division I athletics. In 2020, those schools — Boston College, Boston University, the College of the Holy Cross, Harvard University, Merrimack College, Northeastern University, UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell — warned in a letter that legalizing betting on college sports would create “unnecessary and unacceptable risks to student-athletes, their campus peers, and the integrity and culture of colleges and universities in the commonwealth.”
In contrast, House Speaker Ron Mariano, who has been an outspoken proponent of legalized sports betting, has said he sees the inclusion of college sports as crucial.
In an interview last year with Bloomberg Baystate Business, Mariano said that a refusal to allow wagering on college sports “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 at the time.
But Fr. Richard McGowan, an associate professor of finance at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, questions Mariano’s assessment of the role college sports would play if legalization occurs.
“I think he’s dead wrong,” McGowan said. “To me, the driver will be pro sports in the Boston area.
“If you were in Alabama, or the [Southeastern Conference] area, then oh, yes, I couldn’t agree more with the speaker,” McGowan added. “There, those people love their college sports.”
House leadership has estimated that its framework would bring in about $60 million annually for the state, and that roughly half that amount would lost if betting on college sports is excluded. The Senate Ways and Means Committee put projected revenue from that chamber’s bill at $35 million annually.
If the House and Senate can hammer out an agreement, Gov. Charlie Baker seems likely to sign it into law. He’s previously filed his own legalization legislation, and has included anticipated revenues from sports betting in his blueprints for the state budget.
McGowan, the Boston College professor, predicts that the House and Senate will ultimately reach a compromise that each chamber finds acceptable.
In the casino-gambling debate that culminated in 2011, McGowan noted, “When it was told to Legislature that one of every three cars down in Foxwood and Mohegan Sun [in Connecticut] were from Massachusetts, that’s when you could tell the pressure was on — saying, ‘Why are we allowing that revenue to go down there?’ I think sports gambling is probably going to be the same way.”
John Pappas, the state advocacy director at the online-gaming advocacy group iDEA Growth, also believes the two chambers will strike a deal.
“There aren’t a lot of policy reasons not to do it, but ... the policy still needs to be figured out,” Pappas said.
“If you had asked me my preference, I would tell you that I think what’s contained in the House bill is a far more workable solution,” he added. “But I think there’s obviously room to meet in the middle on many of these issues.”
This story includes material from State House News Service.