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Bill Everhart: Gaming out sports gambling bill's path forward on Beacon Hill

Daily Fantasy Sports Overseas

An employee in the software development department of DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports company, walks past screens displaying the company's online system stats in Boston in 2015.

Nothing moves quickly in Major League Baseball with the exception of the sports hierarchy’s determination to align itself with casinos and online betting services. The leaders of the National Football League, proprietors of a game that is ideal for wagering, are even bolder in making those connections.

A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a federal law prohibiting states from authorizing gambling within their borders introduced the current Wild West era of wagering. Here in Massachusetts, a state at the forefront of the legal selling of cannabis, the old Puritan ethic emerged when it came to sports wagering. The House passed a bill legalizing sports betting last summer but the Senate nobly wrestled with ethics issues that are likely destined to be swept aside in the rush to tap into the escalating gambling dollars.

That was until last week, when the Senate passed a sports gambling bill whose provisions must be reconciled with the House bill. (The bill was passed on a voice vote to protect senators from constituents angry with their yea or nay votes.) Gov. Charlie Baker is eager to sign such a bill, and if one can be produced before summer recess July 31, Berkshire football fans should be able to wager on the New England Patriots this September.

Both bills would allow those 21 and older to place sports wagers at casinos and slots parlors in the state. There are too many casinos in Massachusetts and New England, and casinos like MGM Springfield hope sports books can help them stay afloat financially. For reasons that are unclear, the creation of six brick-and-mortar sports books are called for in the two bills. It will be interesting to see if they are located in the districts of high-ranking Eastern Massachusetts lawmakers.

The key provision in the bills, however, allow wagering through online or mobile platforms while physically present in the state. Sportsbooks like Caesar’s, FanDuel and Boston-based DraftKings are taking in millions already because of the ease of wagering on smartphones and that revenue will only increase. DraftKings is projecting profits of roughly $2 billion in 2022.

As was the case with the casino legislation, both bills include provisions and funding to address gambling addictions, which absolutely will increase among state residents once sports gambling is legalized. The Senate bill is stronger in this area, but its apparent idealism is more like naivete.

The Senate bill’s ban on advertisements for sports gambling during live sports broadcasts is an attempt to appease gambling opponents, but if gambling is that evil, then why legalize it in the first place? A main argument for legalization is that 33 states — including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire — have already done so, and none have a provision against gambling ads. It is unlikely that the House will back such a provision if it is in a reconciliation bill.

Quaintly, the Senate bill bans betting on college sports, apparently to protect the “student-athletes” from being corrupted. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that the NCAA had overstepped its authority in limiting compensation for student-athletes led to the NCAA permitting them to profit from their “name, image and likeness.” (This will benefit prominent Division 1 athletes, not those at Williams College.) Major college teams are essentially professional, and the Senate’s attempt to pretend otherwise is another obstacle to reconciliation.

There’s no point in pretending that the rapid advancement of sports gambling from the professional leagues down to the bettors is anything more than a chase for the almighty buck. The pro league hierarchies surely know their pushing of gambling will lead to scandal(s) rivaling that of the 1919 “Black Sox” fixing of the World Series. If/when that happens, the miscreants will be punished and the money wheel will keep on turning.

The NFL recently provided an example when it suspended Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley for the coming season for betting on pro football. Ridley acknowledged wagering $1,500, which will cost him $11.5 million in salary. Bad bets. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the “integrity of the game” had to be protected.

Similarly, the argument for a sports gambling bill in Massachusetts is strictly pragmatic. The estimated $35 million in tax revenue to be generated annually pales in comparison to the tax money brought in by marijuana sales, but it could be targeted for education, and the revenue is likely to grow as residents become more comfortable with mobile phone apps. The Mass. Gaming (read Gambling) Commission will regulate it.

The House voted 156-3 in favor of its gambling bill. While the Senate dodged a roll call vote, pundits believe that about 60 percent of senators are in support. Polls indicate 60 to 70 percent of the public back sports gambling. It is coming, and the Legislature should make the leap and pass a law before summer recess.

Bill Everhart is an occasional Eagle contributor.

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