Massachusetts Gaming Commission Approves Timeline for Sports Betting Legislation

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Sportsbook operators and bettors will have to wait for legal wagering in Massachusetts as the state’s Gaming Commission will be aiming for after the Super Bowl to fully launch betting online.

After more than three hours of tortuous deliberations on Friday afternoon, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) finally approved a timeline for a staggered launch of legal sports betting in Massachusetts.

In a decision that will come as a major disappointment to sportsbooks and Massachusetts bettors alike, the MGC voted on a timeline that would push back the launch of online sports betting until “early March,” well after the Feb. 12 Super Bowl. 

The delayed online rollout will not only cost operators millions of dollars in revenue accruing from the year’s single biggest sports betting event, but the state treasury will also lose out on the substantial sums that the 20% tax on online sports betting would have brought in. 

Retail operators fared somewhat better, however, as the Commission gave its approval to a “late January” rollout of retail sports betting.  But even this decision will see sportsbooks operating out of the state’s three casinos and two horse racetracks miss out on the action stemming from the NFL playoffs which run from Jan. 14 to Jan. 29.  

Given the past history of the Commission — which has set new standards for endless bureaucratic haggling and needless delay — it is not surprising that the five-member panel failed to come up with definite rollout dates for either retail or online sports wagering.

The March online rollout also runs counter to the intent of state legislators, who voted on Aug. 1 to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts. In the best-case scenario, proponents of the legislation were expecting online betting to be live sometime prior to the end of the NFL season, and in the worst case, ready in time for Super Bowl given the millions in tax revenue at stake.

Commission confusion over January retail launch date

Upon the resumption of the virtual hearing, which was adjourned late on Thursday after a marathon eight-hour session, MGC Executive Director Karen Wells proposed Thursday, Jan. 26 as the rollout date for retail operators.  This timeline took into account the NFC and AFC conference championship games, taking place on Sunday, Jan. 29. 

But she soon changed her mind after Sterl Carpenter, the Commission’s Regulatory Compliance Manager, pointed out that casino managers were worried that their premises would be “inundated” by thousands of bettors forced to place bets in the few days remaining before kickoff on Sunday’s NFL conference title matches. 

Commissioner Brad Hill then tried to argue in favor of a Jan. 18 or Jan. 22 rollout date, explaining to his fellow panel members, “that’s when [the NFL] playoffs start.”  

This comment made no difference to the other commissioners, who seemed either unaware of the NFL playoffs or the amount of sports wagering those playoff games would attract. 

Wells told the commissioners that she was “asking for as much time as possible” for her staff to complete their regulatory work and that she preferred a late January launch window, which left Jan. 30 as the earliest possible date.

Meanwhile, commissioners Eileen O’Brien and Nakisha Skinner complained that they had already compromised with the timeline, with O’Brien adding that late January was already “far ahead” of what she wanted.  

Having already raised multiple objections to the rollout timetable advanced at Thursday’s MGC meeting, O’Brien and Skinner again expressed their opposition to the launch dates proposed by Wells and backed by Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein.

Commissioner Skinner, who adopted an angry tone throughout the meeting and at one point described the MGC’s deliberations as being “out of control,” also questioned why the timeline should be established in connection with key dates involving sporting events, oblivious to the reason why Massachusetts passed sports betting legislation in the first place. 

In the end, the five members of the Commission were unable to reach a consensus on a specific retail date and instead adopted the “late January” language as a compromise. It did however appear that they were heavily leaning toward a Monday, Jan. 30 retail launch that will only be confirmed in the coming months. 

“Early March” online rollout seen as “overly optimistic” target 

After spending over an hour splitting hairs over the vetting of third-party sportsbook vendors, Commissioner O’Brien was even more vituperative when it came to the “early March” timeline recommended by Wells.

Yesterday’s meeting saw Wells explain that her proposed timeline for both retail and online contained many caveats, including the number of digital betting applicants and the earliest possible date for final mobile license application approvals.

“This is not a definitive timeline, this is a tool for discussion,” Wells said. “This is the most aggressive timeline, so there are certain assumptions that we would need to make in this timeline.”

At Friday’s meeting, Commissioner O’Brien took Wells at her word but chose to attack her March online launch timetable as “overly aggressive” and “overly optimistic.”

O’Brien hammered home in convincing fashion that Wells’ timeline trajectory would fall apart if “we get more than 40 [online] applications” as opposed to less than 15 applications which she saw as more manageable.

She said that if the Commission is forced to consider 40 applications “then we could not be live for March Madness.”  O’Brien made the case that unless the Commission knows how many operators will be applying for mobile licenses, then it cannot give a realistic estimate as to when online sports betting can launch.

Although MGC Chair Judd-Stein tried to point out that “reality can intrude” on the proceedings of the Commission in the coming months, O’Brien countered by saying that she believed that the best-case scenario for an online launch involved an additional “45 days” beyond the “early March” timeline that the Commission eventually adopted.

That would take the rollout for online sports betting to the end of April.

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