Legal sports wagering may be coming to Massachusetts    

WAYNE PARRY/AP file photo/Gamblers place bets on sports events at the FanDuel sports book at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, N.J., on the day it opened in June. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed online sports betting in all 50 states, Massachusetts lawmakers are seeking to legalize it here.

BOSTON — States are rushing to legalize wagers on professional sports following last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and Massachusetts could be getting a piece of the action.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are filing proposals this week that would authorize sports betting at the state's casinos and establish a system to tax and regulate the new industry.

Supporters of the move say it will help plug shortfalls in the state's budget while opening a new revenue stream for aid to cities, towns and schools.

"With the high court's ruling I think it's something we should be offering," said Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, a sponsor of one proposal. "We're missing out on a lot of revenue."

Under Hill’s plan, the state would get money from licensing fees and taxes on winnings, which could be earmarked for education, transportation, health care and other priorities.

The move to legalize sports betting also has support among Democrats, who are filing their own bills as the two-year legislative session gets underway.

Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, said he plans to file a bill in the Senate. Another proposal, from Rep. Dan Cullinane, D-Boston, was filed in the House on Wednesday.

Keeping up with the competition

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law barring sports gambling in nearly all states except Nevada, paving the way for wagers on games. The case involved New Jersey, which fought for years to allow sports gambling at casinos and racetracks.

In November, Rhode Island became the first state in New England to permit sports betting, first allowing wagers at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln.

Other states including New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia and Mississippi have legalized sports betting. Several others, including New Hampshire, are considering similar proposals.

Hill said the proposal, details of which will be hammered out in legislative committees, would initially allow sports betting in the state's casinos but could be expanded.

"Obviously that will be subject to debate and if people want to open it up we could that as well," he said. "But right now we're trying to get the ball rolling and the conversation started."

Similar to Hill's proposal, Crighton's plan puts sports betting under the Gaming Commission to regulate. It would limit licenses to casinos and fantasy sports companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings, but also Suffolk Downs, which currently offers wagering on simulcast horse races.

Crighton has proposed that operators with existing gaming licensees pay a $500,000 application fee, while mobile platforms would pay $1 million.

All operators would pay a tax of 12.5 percent on sports betting profits.

"It's all up for debate, but I think there's a real sense of urgency to get something done before we fall too far behind other states," Crighton said Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said he thinks the state should explore sports wagering but wants to put together a commission to study the issue before moving ahead.

"This is something that's going to happen around us, so we ought not to ignore its possibilities," the said. "But we need to make sure that it is properly licensed and regulated."

Gov. Charlie Baker has said he too is open to the idea of legalizing sports betting but only with rules aimed at ensuring fair play.

Casinos and new revenue

Massachusetts is expected have four resort casinos and a slots parlor within the next several years, including the already opened MGM Resort in Springfield, a slots parlor in Plainville and a 24-story resort along the Everett waterfront, which is set to open this year

Several operators are competing for a fourth casino license on the South Shore.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which would regulate the new industry, released a report in 2017 estimating that sports wagering could bring in upward of $61 million a year into the state’s coffers.

There seems to be interest brewing among gambling and gaming interests that already have a foothold in Massachusetts.

MGM International, which runs the Springfield casino, has signed sports betting partnerships with the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.

Meanwhile the multi-million dollar fantasy sports industry, which has flourished amid a lack of regulation, is well-positioned to get into actual sports betting.

Boston-based DraftKings has said it plans to apply for state operating licenses if and when they become available.

Legitimizing sports betting would also deal a blow to the illegal gambling market, which has flourished under the federal restriction that dates to 1992, supporters say.

Some state officials have expressed concerns about how sports betting might affect the casino industry and a Lottery that collects more than $5 billion a year.

Treasurer Deb Goldberg, whose office oversees the Lottery, has warned that allowing new forms of legalized gambling could hurt lottery sales.

She has proposed allowing online lottery sales as part of an effort to modernize the system, but lawmakers haven't taken up the proposal.

Still, opponents of legalized gambling say allowing sports betting will mean more people losing their money to state-sponsored gambling.

"Citizens of Massachusetts are already losing billions of dollars to the Lottery and casinos," said Les Bernal, national director of the group Stop Predatory Gambling.

"By allowing legalized sports betting, the state government would be perpetuating a form of financial fraud. The only people who are going win at sports betting are the ones who will be running the games,” he said.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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