Sen. Eric Lesser wants to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts.
As the Senate’s lead negotiator for the conference committee on economic development, he had the opportunity to make it happen.
The House put sports betting in its version of the bill. All Lesser and the other two Senate members on the committee had to do was agree and Bostonians could be making wicked smart bets on the Celtics by the end of this NBA season.
So why is sports betting still not legal in Massachusetts? Lesser spoke with PlayMA to explain why it didn’t make the bill even though he thinks it’s time for the state to move on sports betting.
“I do think that this year we will see a lot of movement on sports betting, but people didn’t want to hold up this package over sports betting,” Lesser said. “Attaching that to the coronavirus relief package wasn’t going to be the vehicle that worked.”
Why sports wagering isn’t in economic development bill
Way back in July, the House included sports betting it its economic development bill. The Senate did not.
Lesser said from the beginning that he didn’t view this as the proper place for sports wagering.
The Senate saw the bill as an emergency response to the coronavirus depression. The focus was on providing support to the restaurant sector, small businesses and those most disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Lesser said another issue was knowing that the conference report that came out of the committee couldn’t be amended. They didn’t want to negotiate sports betting implementation details in a conference committee.
“While the House had passed sports betting, the Senate had not,” Lesser said. “So a policy that large and high profile is really very difficult to do on an up or down vote.”
MA sports betting discussions have gone on for two years
As the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, Lesser has examined the issue of sports betting for two years.
Right before COVID-19 hit the state, the joint committee created its own sports betting proposal from what it learned.
“I think there had been a good process going in terms of hearing from stakeholders and learning about the issue,” Lesser said. “Then the coronavirus hit and frankly there were just other priorities.”
When the conference committee formed for the coronavirus relief package, there still wasn’t a consensus on sports wagering.
The proposal passed by the House differed from the joint committee’s recommendation and a bill from Sen. Brendan Crighton. Even Gov. Charlie Baker made a sports betting proposal in 2019.
“All the major stakeholders are on board, but they’re not necessarily on board with each other’s versions,” Lesser said. “That issue has to be resolved. A consensus bill has to happen. … A lot of stakeholders have differing views and that’s our job to reconcile all of that. But we couldn’t do that in a conference committee where there’s urgent coronavirus relief that everyone wants to get out the door.”
What’s left to discuss before MA legalizes sports betting
Lesser brought up some of the issues that need to be worked out before Massachusetts passes a sports betting bill.
Figure out appropriate taxes and fees
The House bill asked for a mere $250,000 for a five-year license. Crighton indicated his upcoming bill includes $10 million for an initial license. Both have a 15% tax rate, though the previous joint committee bill wanted a tiered rate for retail and online.
Decide how many online sports betting entrants to allow
Crighton wants retail and online sports betting to go through the state’s three gaming properties and four racetracks. The House bill limited racetracks to retail sportsbooks. It permitted the state’s two resort casinos and one slot parlor to operate online along with four untethered online-only operators.
What to provide professional sports teams and leagues
Professional sports teams have a strong presence in Massachusetts. The Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots participated in a letter asking the conference committee to include sports wagering. But the House bill gave 1% of betting revenue from events in Massachusetts to the venue that hosted them and allowed revenue-share agreements between leagues and sportsbook operators.
Determine what to do about collegiate betting
Local university presidents wrote a letter asking lawmakers to exclude wagering on all collegiate events. Crighton says he will exclude wagering on in-state teams. Industry representatives argue that any prohibition on collegiate betting only keeps bettors going to illegal offshore sites or neighboring states to place their bets.
Lawmaker expects MA to legalize sports betting in 2021
Although Lesser essentially stood in the way of legalizing sports betting in 2020, he believes the state will do so this year.
“Now that the conference committee is over and we’re in a new session, I personally think it’s time for sports betting,” Lesser said. “I think there’s a growing sense in the Senate that it’s time. And I think a bill crafted in the appropriate way with enough safeguards that helps drive jobs and economic growth would get a lot of support.”
Lesser knows Massachusetts casinos have suffered during the pandemic. He thinks that will be a motivating factor for lawmakers to pass a bill.
“The hospitality and casino industries across the board have certainly been impacted,” Lesser said. “It’s very much at the front of my mind that their workforce has been impacted. To the extent that the legislature can help that workforce, especially frontline service workers who have really just been devastated by COVID this past year, I think that will definitely be at the front of the mind for legislators.”
Lesser added that Massachusetts lawmakers also noticed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speak of his intent to legalize online sports betting in his state this year.
Senator preparing own MA sports betting bill
Lesser plans to introduce his own sports wagering bill next month. He said he is not ready to disclose the details of the proposal.
“I’m personally planning on filing legislation setting up legalization of sports betting, and I know several colleagues are as well,” Lesser said. “I think in the first couple months here you’ll for sure start seeing sports betting move forward. It could happen relatively quickly.”
MGM Springfield is just outside Lesser’s district, in the same city he represents. He also said the state is proud to be the home of DraftKings.
Lesser indicated that there are multiple paths sports wagering could take: as part of the budget, as a standalone bill, or as part of a broader package.
He called it an “absolute possibility” that Massachusetts could have sports betting up and running by the start of the NFL season in September.
“In theory, if people can come to an agreement and pass a bill fairly quickly and it can be implemented relatively quickly, I think that is certainly possible.”