Russian-born athletes compete in more than the Olympic games. There are Russian MMA and UFC fighters, and Russian tennis stars. Perhaps the most impressive tally is in the NHL, where 40 Russian players made rosters in 2022.
That makes it likely that someone, somewhere, in the US wants to bet on a sports event involving a Russian-born player – including in Massachusetts, where questions have lingered about a current rule that prevents wagers on sports involving Russian or Belarusian “governing bodies, leagues, events, and players.” The sports betting prohibition was added in January in response to the continued Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On Thursday, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission discussed changing the rule to allow sports betting on Russian and Belarusian athletes as long as those athletes are not competing under a national flag, as in the Olympics.
Commissioners agreed there is a need for clarification after questions about the rule were raised with MGC staff by DraftKings. The Massachusetts-based sportsbook specifically asked MGC staff if bets can be offered on Russian players “competing under a neutral flag” – meaning they aren’t competing on the basis of nationality.
A number of sportsbooks, including DraftKings, barred betting on Russian and Belarusian sports leagues in events when Russia invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022, according to a March 22 story on MassLive.
Clarification was also requested of the commission by the MGC Sports Wagering division, which offers direction to sportsbooks based on what’s in the catalog.
A change to the wording of the rule is expected soon.
Confusion Over Russian Players vs. Playing for National Flag
Most of the confusion with the rule has stemmed from whether Massachusetts allows bets on individual players (such as MMA and tennis) who are not competing specifically for their home country.
MGC Sports Wagering Operations Manager Sterl Carpenter said tweaking the restriction would allow his office to give clear guidance to sportsbooks on any bet involving an athlete born in Russia or Belarus. He asked the commission if Massachusetts wants to restrict betting on all athletes from those two countries who may be competing in an MMA fight, say, in Tennessee, for example? Or does the commonwealth want to restrict betting based on national affiliation?
“If you state they aren’t representing their country, can they compete?” he asked Thursday.
Carpenter offered the following language to the commission as a possible replacement for the prohibition now written in the catalog:
Until further notice the following rules apply to all events overseen by Russian and Belarussian governing bodies: Any events or leagues overseen by Russian and Belarusian governing bodies are not allowed to be offered in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Any athlete competing in an approved event or league representing Russia or Belarus would not be eligible for wagering. If an athlete from Russia or Belarus is competing in an approved event outside of these countries and not representing them, wagering on these athletes would be permitted.
The commission is expected to approve similar language after some tweaks are made.
“I think we need to clarify the language a little, and we’ll be right where we need to be,” MGC Sports Wagering Director Bruce Band said at Thursday’s meeting.
MGC Commissioners Eye Potential Improvements
Keeping Massachusetts sports bettors from wagering on Russian and Belarusian athletes in general wasn’t the intent of the rule, a few commissioners acknowledged at the meeting Thursday.
Commissioner Eileen O’Brien said she voted for the rule back in January to avoid individual athletes’ success from being used as “some sort of propaganda tool” by the government of their home country.
“I can see why if there’s an individual who happens to be born (in Russian or Belarus) who, for all intents and purposes, has no country affiliation except participating in a sport, I don’t have an issue accepting them,” said O’Brien.
MGC Counsel Todd Grossman pointed to betting on NHL teams with Russian players as an example of what was not intended under the rule. He said there is an understanding that those players aren’t playing for Russia.
“Presumably the intent was not to restrict wagering on NHL games because there are Russian players. Though the assumption here is there would be no wagering on the KHL league, the Russian version of the professional hockey league,” said Grossman. “So there’s a lot of nuance here potentially.”
Commissioner Brad Hill said he welcomes clarification, with prescribed limits.
“I have no problem allowing an athlete who was born in another country to be bet on as long as they aren’t riding the flag on the way in,” he said.