Wagering On Colleges A Sticking Point In Massachusetts’ Quest To Legalize Sports Betting

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The House version of the sports betting bill would allow wagers in Massachusetts on Boston College football (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Massachusetts state lawmakers seem more ready than ever to legalize sports betting. A conference committee of select lawmakers from both the Senate and House is working on a compromise bill this month, with only a handful of differences to iron out. One is whether wagering on college sports should be allowed under the law. 

But reaching an agreement on college sports betting in Massachusetts is no easy task. It could be the biggest hurdle to reconciling a sports betting bill passed overwhelmingly by the Massachusetts House last July and amended by the Senate on April 28.  The House last year included college sports betting in its bill. The Senate this year did not.

At least two members of the six-member committee trying to reach a compromise are at odds on the issue.

Industry supporters, however, are hanging tough. The American Gaming Association (AGA) – a top trade association for the US gaming industry – made a direct appeal for college sports betting legalization in a May 19 letter to Massachusetts state lawmakers. 

“Legal sports betting enhances consumer protections and helps promote transparency and game integrity, while also supporting job growth and generating tax revenue,” wrote the AGA. “Prohibiting wagers on collegiate sports would … hinder the growth and development of a legal sports betting industry in Massachusetts.” 

AGA Makes Case For Legal College Sports Betting

College sports account for almost 20 percent of legal sports betting in the US, the AGA said in its letter. Of $57.7 billion wagered in 2021, the AGA estimates $11.5 billion was bet on college sports. At least $3 billion was wagered on the NCAA March Madness men’s basketball tourney alone, according to the AGA.

Massachusetts hasn’t received a penny of that revenue.

Instead, Massachusetts sports bettors wager on the black market, or over state lines in legal states like New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and, most recently, Connecticut.  

Should Massachusetts legalize sports betting the result could be hundreds of millions of dollars in recurring state revenue. An online sports betting tax rate of 15 percent (12.5 percent retail) proposed by the Massachusetts House last year could be quite lucrative for college-rich Massachusetts. 

Double that rate to the 30 percent tax on online bets (25 percent retail) proposed by the Senate, and Massachusetts could be looking at a potential windfall. 

Consumer Protections At Play? 

Including college sports in the legal framework is a consumer protection issue too, the AGA said. The group also denies the notion that legal betting on college sports increases the risk of corruption.

“Prohibiting wagers on collegiate sports would not only hinder the growth and development of a legal sports betting industry in Massachusetts, it also puts consumers at risk by encouraging their continued reliance on the illegal market and fails to protect the integrity of games and wagers,” wrote the AGA.

That could strike a chord with Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and outspoken opponent of college sports betting who sits on the six-member select committee now hashing out a final sports betting bill.

Lesser has said consumer protections and game integrity are “front and center” for him in any Massachusetts sports betting debate. 

College Sports Betting Support on Beacon Hill

Rep. Jerry Parisella, D-Beverly, was a chief architect of the sports betting bill passed by the House in 2021, which would allow college sports betting in the commonwealth. He is also one of the six-member conference committee, working alongside Lesser. 

Parisella made his position on college sports betting legislation clear in a State House News Service forum on the issue last October. 

Massachusetts bettors “are going to just continue going to New Hampshire, continue going to Rhode Island, go to Connecticut or use the offshore books which allow (betting on college sports),” Parisella said at the forum. “We want to give them a product that’s legal, that’s regulated, that provides consumer choice.” 

Where Does Massachusetts Go From Here? 

Whatever Massachusetts state lawmakers decide this legislative session will become evident in the next month or so. Voting on most legislation is scheduled to end on July 31. 

But in a year when states continue to claw their way back from economic downturns caused by COVID and supply shortages, the Bay State may find 2022 as good a time as ever to make sports betting legal. 

The industry shows very little sign of slowing down overall. 

Just this week, Barron’s reported that US revenue generated by sports betting data firm Sportradar grew 124 percent in its March quarter. The company – already a supplier of data for a number of professional sports in the US – is expected to enter college sports after the NCAA’s decision to allow schools and conferences to sign deals with data companies. 

Sportradar CEO Carsten Koerl “told earnings call listeners (Wednesday morning) that Sportradar is negotiating with college sports conferences about data deals, with the blessing of the National Collegiate Athletic Association,” Barron’s reported this week. 

Where there’s growth, there’s usually investment. And that is something Massachusetts may not want to turn down. 

About the Author

Rebecca Hanchett

Writer and Contributor
Rebecca Hanchett is a political writer based in Kentucky's Bluegrass region who covers legislative developments at Gaming Today. She worked as a public affairs specialist for 23 years at the Kentucky State Capitol. A University of Kentucky grad, she has been known to watch UK basketball from time to time.

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