Mass. Senate passes sports betting bill that leaves college sports out of the game

Samantha J. Gross | Boston Globe | April 28, 2022

Super Bowl, yes. March Madness, no.

The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday debated and passed a bill that would legalize sports betting in Massachusetts — but prohibit wagering on college sports.

After hours of deliberating, the chamber passed the bill on a voice vote, without recording the positions of each senator — a remarkable and obscuring act on what would be a major policy change.

The legislation was narrower than the version the House passed last summer, which allowed for betting on both professional and collegiate sporting events, like all but one of the 32 states and Washington, D.C., that have legalized sports gambling.

If signed into law, the new gambling universe would bring in $35 million in annual revenue to the state, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said Thursday.

“This bill maximizes benefits to the Commonwealth and minimizes harm to consumers and to the general public,” the Westport Democrat said. “We are bringing sports betting into the light of day.”

Senators adopted amendments that address transparency on the part of the state’s gaming commission, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for violations, require studies on industry participation by minority groups, and mandate spending on a program to help those with gambling addictions.

Other amendments that would have softened the ban on college sports bets were withdrawn before they could be debated.

Senators also rejected a variety of amendments, ranging from funneling money to care for retired racehorses to paying for mental health professionals in schools.

Senate passage sets up a high-stakes negotiation between the two chambers before the end of the formal session in July, in which lawmakers will have to balance the huge appetite for betting on college sports with the appropriateness of making or losing money on the performance of student athletes.

The Senate measure prohibits the use of credit cards to place bets, allows people to set limits on how much money, and how often, they gamble, and addresses compulsive and problem gambling.

Rodrigues said he is “hopeful and confident” senators and representatives will come to an agreement before the end of the session.

“We in the Senate spent a lot of time thinking about a bill that achieves those three overarching goals of maximizing revenue . . . promoting economic development . . . and establishing the strongest consumer protection measures,” he said earlier this week. “I think we hit it on the head.”

The chamber has long been the holdout over a sports betting bill, though there is no organized opposition to it. All major sports franchises and casinos support it, as do the House and Governor Charlie Baker, who has said Massachusetts should be capturing some of the money flowing into bordering states where it’s legal or onto offshore betting websites.

Since the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a federal law that banned sports betting, 32 states have gotten into the business or are in the process of doing so.

The House has voted to authorize sports betting twice — in 2020 and 2021, when the roll call vote was 156-3. But in that time, it has never emerged as a standalone bill before the full Senate for debate. Then, last Friday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee passed an amended version of the House’s sports betting bill out of its committee.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka, who voted against the state’s landmark casino gambling law in 2011, declined to comment on whether she supports her chamber’s version of the bill.

“It doesn’t matter if I support it, it matters if the senators support it,” she said at an unrelated news conference Thursday.

And because the bill was passed on a voice vote, it is still unclear where she stands.

Baker, who has filed his own legislation to legalize sports betting, said Wednesday that he was pleased with the movement, optimistic the bill is one he, the House speaker, and the Senate president could reach an agreement on.

“This is one of those things that we should try and get done by the end of the year, and I’m glad the Senate’s taking it up,” he said.

Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democratic candidate for governor, supports the legislation, a spokeswoman for her campaign said. A spokesman for Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz’s gubernatorial campaign did not respond to requests for comment, and an amendment the senator proposed Thursday failed.

Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty both support sports betting, which has become a highly lucrative legal market. Americans spent nearly $9.3 billion on sports betting in January, according to the American Gaming Association.

Still, House and Senate negotiators will have to hash out key details if the bill is to get to Baker.

The House bill allows betting on college sports, but not on individual college athletes, known as “prop bets.” The Senate bill doesn’t allow for bets on college sports at all.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an appetite to bet on college sports in Massachusetts.

In New Hampshire, which allows betting on out-of-state college sports, approximately 27 percent of bets placed on college basketball during March Madness were made by users with Massachusetts addresses according to DraftKings, the only sports betting operator in that state.

Oregon is the only state that completely prohibits college bets from its sports wagering law, according to the American Gaming Association.

Colleges and universities, however, have been outspoken against sports betting, which they consider to be dangerous to student athletes and nonathletes alike.

In a 2020 letter to senators, presidents and athletic directors from seven major Massachusetts colleges and universities said legislation that would allow betting on college sports would create “unnecessary and unacceptable risks.”

In a statement to the Globe on Wednesday, Northeastern University athletic director Jim Madigan said betting on college sports “would place additional pressures on student athletes and jeopardize the rich tradition and integrity in intercollegiate athletics.”

Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who had filed his own sports betting legislation in February, said the version the Senate voted on was worth the wait.

“Because we waited, we learned a lot,” Lesser, who is also running for lieutenant governor, said during debate Thursday. “We learned what works, what doesn’t work, what you need to do to make sure you have a competitive market and a high-quality product for consumers. We learned a lot about what you need to do to mitigate the problems around addiction and risky behavior.”

Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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