The U.S. sports betting revolution has been particularly dramatic in the Eastern states, with New Jersey and Pennsylvania leading the way nationally in terms of market size and revenue and other states, most notably New York, following suit.
But the one surprising absentee from the list of sports betting states in this region is Massachusetts. With the sports-mad city of Boston as its capital, the state would be an ideal location for sports betting to thrive, but so far, legislators have not been able to make it happen. There were hopes that sports betting legalization could be delivered in the previous legislative session, but that ended on January 4th with no progress, which means residents of Massachusetts will continue to have to travel to bet on sports.
They certainly have plenty of options. Four neighboring states: Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island allow sports betting. Given that Boston is less than an hour away from three of these states, Massachusetts is obviously losing a significant amount of business and tax revenue.
Two bills, no progress
As is the case in many states across the US, the failure to introduce sports betting in Massachusetts has largely been due to the impasse caused by competing Senate and House bills.
The House and Senate in Massachusetts have both approved sports wagering bills, but the two bills have key differences that have made it very difficult to find a compromise.
The Senate measure sets the retail sports betting tax rate at 20% and the online sports betting tax rate at 35% and allows for wagering with debit cards or digital payments, but not credit cards. The measure also prohibits betting on college sports and would introduce some of the most stringent marketing and promotional regulations in the country. The law prohibits sports betting commercials or mentions of sports betting sponsorships during televised sporting events in Massachusetts.
By contrast, the plan passed by the House asks for substantially lower rates, with internet sports betting set at 15% and retail sports betting set at 12.5%. It allows for college sports betting, has far looser advertising and marketing laws and allows sports bettors to use credit cards to fund their wagers.
Nine sports betting licenses, one for each brick-and-mortar casino in the state, and six unattached online sports betting licenses would be allowed under the Senate plan. Under the House plan, each state casino would be granted a sports betting license, as well as up to three internet sports betting skins, as well as one license per state racetrack and one online sport betting skin. The House bill also allows an infinite number of untethered online sports betting licenses, subject to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission approving each application.
The two bills represent significantly different approaches to sports betting, with the Senate favoring a more restrictive series of measures, and the House a more liberal approach.
In order to try to move forwards, a Conference Committee was set up on May 19th with representatives from both the House and Senate with the hope that a compromise can be found. At the end of the process, if sports betting is to be legalized, both the House and Senate will have to approve an identical bill, which can then be sent to Governor Charlie Baker to sign.
The conference committee will be the best chance Massachusetts has ever had to legalize sports betting. For the first time, both parliamentary houses have passed sports betting legislation, and despite their differences, there is a clear joint willingness to introduce sports betting in some form, which provides the foundations for a compromise. There also appears to be a sense of urgency this time around, which is important, given that time is fast running out to get the deal done. If the House and Senate representatives can reach an agreement before the legislative session closes on July 31st, the bill will be sent to Governor Baker for signature. If not, legislators will have to start again.
At least they can count on no delays from the Governor. Baker is big supporter of the principle of legalized sports betting, and it is expected that he would immediately sign any measure that reaches his desk. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate the size of the task that legislators face. Both the Senate and House representatives in the Conference Committee will have to make sacrifices on their bills, which are vastly different. Sports betting fans will be watching developments closely over the next few weeks.