Don’t Expect Quick Resolution to Massachusetts Sports Betting
Massachusetts has long been synonymous with “freedom” and has a history of legalized gambling going back to 1745.
But the road to legalized sports betting in the Bay State remains lined with potholes, traffic jams and breakdowns. It is becoming the legislative version of “The Big Dig.”
The Pilgrims and Puritans left England in the 17th Century in search of religious liberty and settled in the land of the Bean and Cod. The first volleys of musket fire in the Revolutionary War were cast upon the British at Lexington Green on the original Patriots Day in 1775. Those OG Patriots placed perhaps the biggest wager of all. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts 1783. That was five years before Massachusetts ratified the U.S. Constitution and four score and two years before the end of the Civil War.
While the Boston Red Sox carry a sad history when it comes to integration — being the last team in the majors, in 1959, to have a Black player on its roster — Boston’s other pro sports teams were trendsetters when it came to racial freedom.
The Boston Bruins broke the NHL’s color barrier when Willie O’Ree took the ice on Jan. 18, 1958. The Boston Celtics drafted the first African American player in Chuck Cooper. He, along with Nat Clifton and Earl Lloyd, became the first Black players in the Association in 1950. The Celtics would also become the first NBA team to feature an all-Black starting lineup (1964) and the first NBA team with a Black coach in Bill Russell (1966).
(The Braves broke Boston's baseball color barrier with 1950 Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe three years before they left the city for Milwaukee.)
Off the field, Massachusetts had the first African American elected to the Senate from a non-Reconstruction state when Republican Ed Brooke was elected to the upper chamber in 1966.
That’s a lot of firsts.
Gambling was first legalized across Massachusetts in 1745. The British Empire passed the metaphorical hat to raise money for what would be called “The French and Indian Wars” among historians and those who read and/or watched “Last of the Mohicans.” Lotteries flourished during the Revolutionary War but were eventually banned in Boston and elsewhere in 1833.
Sports Betting Stalls
Yet, 266 years after the first lottery in “The State of Maffachufetts Bay” and nearly three years since the Supreme Court’s decision cleared the way for the practice nationwide, legal sports betting languishes on Beacon Hill.
A unified push among Boston’s professional teams, coordinated with partners like Boston-based DraftKings, appear seem to be insurmountable to even the most recalcitrant legislators.
While there is much internal pressure to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts, there is equal pressure from the outside. Three states that border Massachusetts — New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York — already allow the practice.
Legal online betting in Rhode Island and New Hampshire is less than an hour away from the millions who live in inside the boundaries of I-495 in Greater Boston. And, of course, hundreds of millions of dollars are bet by Bay Staters with offshore sites and on-the-ground illegal book makers.
With more than a dozen different bills proposed in the state Senate and House, the inertia that has shuttered this process appears to be lifting. But appearances, as anyone who has watched the legislative process in Massachusetts knows, can be treacherous if not deceiving.
In the most recent legislative session, the House included legal sports betting in economic development legislation it passed. But the legalized betting provisions were dropped during negotiations with the Senate, ostensibly due to the larger ongoing challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Things Looking Up in Massachusetts?
This time, we’re being told, the odds for legal sports betting have improved.
Well, COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere, least of all in Massachusetts.
There are multiple proposals under consideration. They all share one thing in common — a pitch for more money in the state’s coffers. Tax revenue has been an issue in Massachusetts since the original Tea Party.
Instead of wrestling with the challenge of “Taxation Without Representation,” Massachusetts residents now face “Taxation Without Mitigation.” Any practice that can increase revenues always has a captive audience beneath the golden dome of the State House.
A broad outline of a universal path to legal sports betting has begun to emerge. A prohibition on those under 21, on-site and online betting managed by current legal gambling license holders and the addition of online-only sites — see DraftKings and FanDuel — are staples of most bills. The legal sports betting industry would be managed by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
The state’s cut would range from 20 percent on the sports-betting revenue raised by current on-site license holders and 25 percent tax on online-only books and of daily fantasy game operators.
Don't Get Too Excited
But this all remains all talk and very little action. Precedent does not bode well for quick action. The first “new” Boston Garden was formally proposed in 1972. But the new home of the Bruins and Celtics did not open until 1995. That came only after plans for no fewer than five other sites — to be located from Quincy, Massachusetts, to Salem, New Hampshire — fell through.
Those who live in Massachusetts and want to legally wager on the Red Sox come opening day in 2023 — never mind 2021 or 2022 — will have to remain patient, weary and cautious.
Keeping the car’s gas tank full won’t hurt, either.
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