On early Monday morning

Massachusetts lawmakers reach last minute compromise to legalize betting on pro sports; some collegiate events

House Speaker Ron Mariano, who announced the compromise.
Reading time 3:33 min

Massachusetts lawmakers have reached an agreement on sports betting legislation. The bill would allow wagering on both professional and some collegiate sports, and came at the last minute, on early Monday morning, as the final hours of formal sessions trudged well beyond Sunday’s official midnight deadline.

Governor Charlie Baker, a supporter of sports betting legalization, is expected to sign the bill into law. Once done, Massachusetts will join 30+ states and Washington D.C. in authorizing this form of wagering. The agreement came less than two weeks after House Speaker Ronald Mariano said lawmakers were “far apart” on the issue, remarks that had cast doubt on its feasibility.

I am proud to announce that the Sports Betting Conference Committee has reached an agreement on legislation that will legalize wagering on professional and collegiate sports in Massachusetts, bringing the immense economic benefits of a legal sports betting industry to MA,” announced Mariano early Monday through a Twitter post.

While lawmakers hesitated to say exactly when betting could start, Mariano noted that casinos are prepared, but now must await formal regulations. “We missed a lot of the big events, but I think Encore and MGM in Springfield will open up almost immediately as soon as the laws are signed,” he told reporters, according to MassLive.

The news was celebrated by the sports gaming industry, including heavyweight DraftKings. CEO Jason Robins said in a statement following the announcement that the company was “thrilled” about legalization in Massachusetts, and that he was “hopeful” that the legislature will move to quickly pass the bill and Gov. Baker will sign it into law.

"We are thrilled that our home state has acted to protect consumers, create jobs and grow revenue in the Commonwealth," Robins said in the statement. "We particularly want to thank Speaker Mariano, Senate President Spilka, Chairs Michlewitz and Rodrigues and the members of the conference committee for their leadership.” 

DraftKings CEO Jason Robins

The conference committee tasked with finding a compromise held its first reunion in early June, after the House and Senate passed sports betting bills that differed in their approach to legalization. Lawmakers navigated a number of discrepancies, including advertising restrictions, tax rates and collegiate sports betting, the latter seen as the main issue.

While the House bill allowed collegiate sports betting, the Senate proposal didn’t. Additionally, the Senate bill featured tighter restrictions on sports betting advertising, marketing and the use of credit cards for gambling. In contrast, the House bill did not feature these provisions, and included a lower tax rate. While the House bill taxed betting at physical locations at 12.5% and online at 15%, the Senate proposal taxed at 20% and 35% respectively.

Lawmakers have now agreed to allow betting on out-of-state colleges and universities, but not those in Massachusetts. There is an exception, though, for tournaments, such as schools that are “lucky enough” to make it into March Madness, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues singled out as an example, according to MassLive.

Senate President Karen Spilka

Mariano had said that the omission of collegiate sports in the Senate bill was a “dealbreaker” for the House, stating that a failure to regulate college sports would turn them to the black market. In the final week of lawmaking, Senate President Karen Spilka urged him to abandon his “all-or-nothing” approach, hinting a compromise like the one eventually reached was possible.

The House Speaker struck a diplomatic tone on Monday when explaining the compromise. “The fact that she [Spilka] was concerned about the comments by a few college presidents, we thought that maybe taking that out would speed it along and get us to a deal,” Mariano said, referring to college presidents and athletic directors who opposed sports betting.

It is yet unclear how much revenue legalized sports gaming will garner in the Bay State. House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said the figure could have reached $60 million if all collegiate sports betting had been included; while the cost of scrapping college sports altogether could have tallied about $25 million, according to Mariano.

House Speaker Ron Mariano

In regards to tax rates, lawmakers have agreed to 15% for in-person wagering and 20% via mobile applications, a middle point between both proposals. Additionally, negotiators have decided to uphold the Senate proposal to not allow credit cards for betting, a move meant to curb problem gambling.

However, a second preventive measure — a whistle-to-whistle ban on sports betting advertising during live broadcasts — did not survive negotiations. “We were worried about the unconstitutionality of the issue,” Michlewitz said, according to the cited source. “We did have back and forth on that.”

Casinos and racetracks will receive sports betting licenses, and there will also be seven online sports betting licenses. Casino interests in the state had made a last push for legalization in late July through a letter sent to lawmakers in which they argued the prohibition was affecting their businesses, putting them at disadvantage.

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