The Massachusetts Gaming Commission hosted a sports-betting Q&A on Aug. 18 with the state’s various gambling venues. The commission brainstormed plans to get sports betting up and running with five casino and racetrack licensees.
MA commission talks retail licenses
Sports betting in Massachusetts was signed into law earlier this month, though a launch date has yet to be set. But considering the questions from licensees and commissioners, its debut is expected to be several months away.
Licensees seemed ready to discuss both retail and mobile options for sports betting. The commission, however, kept the focus on retail. In a lengthy discussion, many of the licensees noted planning concerns around codification of regulations, launch timetables and taxation of promo play.
The Encore Boston Harbor threw a curveball by announcing tentative plans to offer drive-up sports betting in their parking garage.
The commission was keenly interested in how licensees were working with other jurisdictions that have licensed sports betting. Commissioners sometimes balked at plans (like parking-garage betting, for example) and expectations of the licensees.
The five licensees in attendance were:
- Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, MA
- MGM Springfield in Springfield, MA
- Encore Boston Harbor in Boston, MA
- Suffolk Downs Simulcast Betting Facility in Boston, MA
- Raynhem Park Simulcast Betting Facility in Raynhem, MA
Licensees envision a portable retail sports-betting experience
While mobile sports betting took a back seat in this discussion, casino licensees expressed the desire to make retail sports betting more mobile. They envisioned sports-betting kiosks as a way to allow customers to enjoy non-gaming entertainment while having a betting option close by.
Encore posed the idea of making kiosks portable so that a ballroom used for a Super Bowl watch party could have a kiosk installed inside or nearby. Other casino licensees seemed to support the idea of kiosks expanding sports betting beyond the actual sportsbook.
Licensees also expressed the desire to allow in-game betting outside of sportsbooks.
Commissioners said they would consider the ideas. They weren’t in favor of Encore’s plans for drive-up betting. Questions about security and whether this could be sustained long term were raised.
Licensees lobbied heavily against taxing promotional play
Licensees did not define “promo play” in much detail at the meeting or how their establishment might employ it. They did, however, express the importance of promotional deals in securing a customer base.
A representative from MGM said it most concretely:
“We are 100% behind excluding promo play from tax reporting.”
Encore and Plainridge Park immediately concurred, citing the need to offset the upfront costs of launching sports betting.
Whether to tax revenue from promotional bets or credit has spawned debates in emerging sports-betting markets across the US. This comes after states like Colorado and Virginia saw revenues fall well short of predictions because operators wrote off huge amounts of money as “promo play revenue.”
The MGC left the question up to the commission, saying:
“It comes down to a matter of policy. It’s an issue the commission will have to decide how the revenue is calculated.”
Commission Executive Director Karen Wells explained the need to educate the public and the licensees regarding how taxation and customer creation represent a tradeoff for the industry.
One of the likely solutions, and one put forth by Encore Boston Harbor, was a sunset provision. It is where operators would have, say, a year to deduct promo offers while building a customer base. After that time, they would be taxed like normal gaming revenue.
Promotional play is more of a factor for online betting than retail sportsbooks: A player at home might pick one sportsbook over the other because of a better sign-up bonus. Casino-goers are more looking for an experience.
Responsible gaming is top of mind for licensees
Licensees uniformly identified responsible gaming practices already in place on their properties and the ease of integrating sports betting into them. Voluntary self-exclusion (VSE), a common way for a person to notify a gambling facility to put them on a Do Not Serve list, seemed easily transferable to sports betting.
Plainridge Park, which is owned by Penn National Gaming, explained that their other resorts offer a “banned from one, banned from all” approach. If a gambler is put on a VSE for one type of game or at one Penn property, they are banned from gambling at all PENN properties.
The commission was asked if VSE lists already on file would automatically carry over to sports betting when it launches. They agreed to address that question at a future meeting.
The commission paid close attention to Plainridge Park at this point, where two different betting ages (18 for horse racing and 21 for sports betting) create a conflict for security. The commission noted that they were “uncomfortable” with Plainridge Park’s ability to adequately supervise sports betting near the horse racetrack.
Commission considers ‘barrage’ of advertising
The constant “barrage” of sports betting and casino advertisements, as Commissioner Bradford Hill called them, was also a clear concern to all licensees and the commission. Hill described the scene of a commuter passing gambling ads for Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts on their way to work.
Wells posed a question to the licensees:
“Advertising prevalence is increasing. Would licensees support limiting advertising across the board?”
Most liked the idea of shielding the public from excessive ads. But Jacqui Krum, senior VP of Encore Boston Harbor, and Commissioner Eileen O’Brien both noted that out-of-state advertisers weren’t meeting the same standards as MA operators regarding language on billboards about responsible gaming.
“We need to be on a level playing field with out-of-state competitors,” Krum said, more to the MA Department of Transportation (which regulates billboard ads) than the MGC.
Hiring for sports betting could double size of staff for some
Both simulcast facilities – Suffolk Downs and Raynhem Park – estimated hiring between 75 to 100 employees each, doubling both their staffs. All venues anticipate a hiring spike with the launch of retail betting. The increases would be in both the sports betting area and in ancillary industries (food and beverage).
Hill, while pleased with the expected employment numbers, expressed skepticism. He noted the current hiring struggles around the country and the lack of dealers in Massachusetts casinos. He said licensees should temper optimism that they will fill their staffs as quickly as they might expect.
Licensees also expressed the goal of hiring most — if not all — of their new staff from within their communities.
Not much clarity on a launch date
North Grounsell, GM of Plainridge Park, expressed the licensees’ lingering questions most succinctly.
“We would like the MGC to provide a launch date, a prioritization of promulgating rules around licensing and then rules around technical standards.”
The rest of the licensees bolstered this statement with confirmation that they could be ready for both retail and mobile sports betting launches with a fair lead time from the MGC.
O’Brien appeared somewhat confused by this request, noting that “we’re not going to be able to give you a launch date of X day going forward.” Perhaps that owed to the MGC still having a long way to go to codify regulations, vet new licensees and answer all current licensees’ questions for both retail and mobile.
Chair Cathy Judd-Stein sidestepped the issue of a simultaneous mobile and retail sports betting launch at the meeting. Keeping the focus on retail suggested that mobile could be launched at a later date.
Judd-Stein did, however, acknowledge the licensees’ concerns about the time frame and the need for the MGC to act with urgency in giving them a launch date so they could be ready.
Doors are now open to potential sports betting licensees
The MGC has posted a Notice of Intent for all potential Category III licensees on its website. The deadline for submission is Aug. 31. In the meantime, the commission will be looking to hire a chief sports wagering commissioner and devote at least one future roundtable to a discussion over responsible gaming.
The meeting in its entirety can be viewed here.