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Regulators address sports betting's timeline in Massachusetts

A photograph taken at a Wynn sports betting facility in Nevada.
Jonathan Cutrer
/
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/joncutrer
A photograph taken at a Wynn sports betting facility in Nevada.

Hold your horses, eager sports bettors. After months of public pressure on the Legislature to legalize sports betting, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission telegraphed Thursday that it will take longer for them to make wagering a reality if or when the governor signs the bill than some people are expecting.

"I want the public to understand, as we as commissioners are starting to understand, that this isn't something that's going to happen overnight," Commissioner Brad Hill said. He added, "I've seen some quotes in the newspaper from the public and others that they hope to have this thing up and running in a very, very short amount of time. And I just want the public to be clear, at least from my view ... this is going to take a little longer than people probably anticipate, and I'm OK with that because I want to do it right."

Hill did not point to any specific comments, but appeared to be responding to comments like those from House Speaker Ron Mariano and Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, this week, Mariano said he expects the state's two casinos that have already laid out sportsbooks "will open up almost immediately as soon as the launch" and Lesser said on sports radio this week that the commission told him "it'll take about 90 days" for them to begin issuing licenses.

"So you're talking about maybe October that the whole thing could be up and running. So you know, pretty soon, and definitely for the fall football season," Lesser, who is running for statewide office, said this week.

Mindful that sports betting will not be legal unless and until Gov. Charlie Baker signs the bill that lawmakers sent him early Monday morning (he has until Thursday, Aug. 11 to act on it), the Gaming Commission did not offer its own specific timeline for initiating legal betting in Massachusetts.

But as commissioners talked through the steps they either must or want to take as they implement sports betting, a months-long timeline came into view. The formal regulatory process takes two to three months from start to finish, a commission lawyer said, and most license application processes in other states take between three and six months, a commission official spearheading the work to develop a Massachusetts application said.

One of the commission's first steps will be to hold "at the first available date" once Baker signs the bill, a roundtable discussion with its existing licensees -- Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park Casino, and simulcast centers Raynham Park and Suffolk Downs -- to get more detail on their plans for sports betting operations and to get their input as the commission sets out to regulate the new activity.

Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said she envisions additional similar roundtables "in the weeks and months ahead" with responsible gaming organizations and other interested parties.

A draft application for a mobile sports wagering license presented to the commission for discussion purposes on Thursday included a sample timeline that started with applications becoming available July 9 and the award of licenses taking place at the first commission meeting after Dec. 9. Officials stressed that the timeline provided was merely a sample, but the commission will be a month behind that sample schedule by the time betting is legalized here.

"I can soften the blow that it's going to take some time with this ... we've been busy preparing and that does put us in a position that makes us ahead of the game already," Judd-Stein said, referring to the litany of very detailed issues that Executive Director Karen Wells and the commission staff have been thinking about for several months as sports betting appeared to be a real possibility.

Much of Thursday morning's meeting was focused on those issues that Wells will want the commission to address if or when the governor signs the sports betting bill on his desk, and on the things that potential operators can do to make the application process go smoother for themselves.

"We're trying to get out to prospective licensees [that] this is generally what we're going to be asking for so they can start their work and we won't be holding them up by having them wait for us to sort of figure out what we're going to ask for," Wells said. "We give them a general sense, these companies, they know how to compile this information so they can start moving now and then there'll be less of a delay."

Wells gave commissioners an idea of the things on her mind: When casinos open a sportsbook, what is considered the gaming area? How should promotional play offers from sports betting operators be treated for tax purposes? What forms will the commission require of operators seeking a license here? What levels of information on jobs will be required from applicants? What standards should be used to evaluate mobile betting platforms from an IT perspective? How is sports betting going to fit into the commission's own organizational structure?

"The overarching principle that we're operating under is that integrity in the implementation and regulation of sports wagering is of critical importance. We had the discussion last week that we only get one shot to get this right, and we intend to do that," Wells said Thursday. She later added, "There's interesting work to be done and we're geared up and ready to proceed if that is the case."

The integrity of gaming in Massachusetts was mentioned repeatedly during Thursday's meeting and commissioners told potential operators and bettors that they can expect the same degree of scrutiny from the commission that the operators of the state's casinos got when they sought licenses about a decade ago.

"While we are on it and we are going to move quickly, we are not going to be lowering our standards in any way," Commissioner Eileen O'Brien said. "And the expectation is, in my view, that the same suitability standards apply ... in my view, there's no reduction in suitability standards as far as I'm concerned, unless we're directed specifically otherwise."

Hill said suitability and integrity will be on his mind, particularly once the commission flushes out exactly how a provision in the sports betting bill that allows for temporary licensure could work.

"Here in Massachusetts, we have very high standards and I think we have a reputation for that. Whether people like it or don't like it, we have a reputation. I think it's a good thing," he said. "I don't want to see us lower those standards at any point during the process in terms of suitability, especially when it comes to the temporary licenses."

An early decision point for commissioners --- including newly-appointed Commissioner Jordan Maynard, who joined the agency Monday -- was how to structure a new Division of Sports Wagering. Wells and commissioners agreed that the best approach would be to have a standalone division to handle sports wagering and they cited suggestions from regulators in other states as the impetus.

"Recommendations made to me convinced me the right thing to do is to have a Division of Sports Wagering, but that division may not be a large division," Wells said. "I'm seeking for a chief of that division and maybe some employees, but that division will really wok in conjunction with the other divisions of the agency."

Commissioners were careful as their meeting started Thursday to note regularly that sports betting is still illegal in Massachusetts and to remind listeners that they were just taking fairly limited steps to be prepared to move quickly should Baker sign the bill to legalize sports betting.

"While that bill is on the governor's desk, there is no vehicle to place a legal sports wager in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. So there are nefarious operators who may still seek to gain customers in this time of transition," Judd-Stein said. "So again, we remind the public that the sports wagering right now is not legal in Massachusetts."

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