Gaming commission orders legal sports betting study

BOSTON — The Senate has still not shown interest in considering sports betting, but the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Thursday greenlit a study of sports wagering legalization and pressed for it to be put on the research team’s front burner as the agency prepares for the possibility of assuming oversight of the activity.

Mark Vander Linden, the commission’s director of research and responsible gaming, presented a slate of five possible topics for an ad hoc study by the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) research team. Vander Linden recommended, and commissioners zeroed in on, a study of how legal sports betting has been implemented in the nearly three dozen states that have approved it in recent years.

“An analysis in this area would be done to take a look at, obviously leveraging [a previous National Council on Problem Gambling] study, looking at other data that may exist in other states, looking at how legalization has been rolled out in those states, and combining that would allow us to have a better understanding of the likely impacts of legalization of sports wagering in Massachusetts, should it be legalized, as well as what would be kind of a guiding path towards measures to mitigate that harm,” Vander Linden said.

The Massachusetts House overwhelmingly approved sports betting legalization in July, but the Senate has never truly engaged on the topic and has not appeared interested in doing so even though senators have not publicly expressed outright opposition to the idea.

If sports betting were to become legal in Massachusetts as it is in more than 30 states including neighboring Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and New York, it is widely expected that the Gaming Commission would be put in charge of regulating the activity and industry.

“I think this is going to be the issue that we’re going to be all dealing with in the very near future and the more information we can get the better to help us as we come up and make our decisions,” Commissioner Brad Hill, who voted in favor of sports betting this summer as a state representative, said Thursday.

With that in mind, commissioners said they would be interested in seeing if the SEIGMA research team would be able to complete its study and report before June 30, 2022, which would be the typical deadline for a fiscal year ad hoc study.

“I agree with that. If we could push this study to take a front seat for the team, that would be great,” Vander Linden said. “I can’t speak for them and how their work is being teed up right now, but I will certainly talk to them about this and express that it’s a priority.”

Commissioners also considered assigning the SEIGMA research team with using mobile phone location data to analyze where casino patrons are coming from and how they are spending their money both within Massachusetts and adjacent states.

Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said she was torn between the two study topics because while sports betting is the more timely issue, cellphone data analysis could be helpful with both sports betting policy and other issues that have been on the commission’s plate for years.

“That data would be really helpful not only for sports betting, but it also might inform our work with respect to Region C,” she said, referring to the commission’s yet-unawarded resort casino license for Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, Dukes or Nantucket counties.

The state’s 2011 expanded gaming law gave the commission the power to grant up to three resort casino licenses. So far, only two have been awarded -- to MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor in Everett.

Region C has been an unsettled matter for the commission for years. In 2016, when it appeared a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal casino in Taunton was likely, the commission rejected a proposal for a commercial casino in Brockton. Since then, the tribe’s plan has been thrown into doubt, and regulators have discussed reopening the bidding for Region C, but have not been in any rush to take that step.