Massachusetts once led the world in freedom.
Whether it was freedom from religious persecution, freedom from The Crown’s onerous taxation policies or merely freedom to marry the consenting adult of your choosing, the Bay State was long first in the battle to allow you or me the option to do what we felt was right. Of course, that freedom came with responsibility not to impose upon the same rights held by others.
Freedom was perhaps the most unique characteristic of Massachusetts during the state’s formative centuries. The 400th (unofficial) annual celebration of Thanksgiving takes place on Thursday. It will be unlike any other in the Bay State. Those who dare celebrate with more than the allotted number of close family members face the unscientific wrath of nosy neighbors and social media. And good luck trying to get to Aunt Kathy’s house in Maine or Connecticut. It was easier to shuttle between East and West Berlin during the Cold War than it is to move about parts of this country in the age of COVID-19.
In this upside-down, inside-out year of 2020, Massachusetts has become a leader in the usurpation of freedom. It’s always easier to see the obvious from the outside. From the beach in Florida, Massachusetts looks like an Orwellian gulag. Fatal restrictions have doomed commercial entities not deemed “essential.” Adults are no longer able to determine where they can go or when they can get there. The hypocritical Iron Giant that is the Bureaucratic-Academic-Political Complex continues to be fed and paid while millions go without food, full-time jobs, human contact and emotional sustenance.
It is a similar “Big Brother Knows Best” mentality that has inexplicably blocked the legalization of sports betting in Massachusetts. Individual freedom with responsibility was all the rage for four centuries. Now, those who want to legally wager on the over/under in the Patriots-Texans game – it is 49.5 at DraftKings, take the under – have to travel to Rhode Island or New Hampshire to do so. “Live Free Or Die” … when the Patriots don’t cover.
This glaring non-standard, double-standard broke open this past week after the prospect for legalized sports betting in Massachusetts this year was all but snuffed out on Beacon Hill.
Friday, the Patriots, Revolution, Red Sox and PGA Tour joined forces with MGM Springfield, FanDuel and DraftKings in a public push to get something done now. An 834-word letter addressed to the members of the Economic Development Bill Conference Committee outlined the argument for the legalization of sports betting in Massachusetts. The signees were Red Sox President and CEO Sam Kennedy, Kraft Group SVP of Business Affairs Robyn Glaser, DraftKings CEO Jason Robins, FanDuel CEO Matt King, MGM Springfield president Chris Kelley and PGA Tour SVP Andy Levinson.
There is neither organized opposition to legal sports betting in Massachusetts nor any rational argument against it.
In 2018, the Supreme Court opened the door for legalized sports betting nationwide. They are still counting votes for president. But three states passed legal sports betting laws on election day by landslide margins. There are 19 states plus Washington, D.C., in which you can legally wager on sports. Six more states have allowed the practice.
Gambling – both legal and otherwise – had been a part of my life since my early childhood. At the variety store near my boyhood home in East Cambridge, one could buy cigarettes, milk, candy and “play the number” before there was such a thing as the Mass Lottery. The $2 parlay “football cards” floating around what was then called Ottoson Junior High School in Arlington always seemed too good to be true. All you had to do to win $200 was pick a dozen games. How easy was that?! (Answer: Impossible.) During my high school years, we unsuccessfully chased greyhounds year-round at Wonderland, Raynham and Seabrook. Bookies were plentiful. And some even paid when you won.
That was the Stone Age of gambling.
It was also the era of Sunday Blue Laws, afternoon newspapers and outdoor TV antennas.
In 2020, legal sports betting is an above-board, high-tech, data-driven, smartly regulated, multibillion-dollar business. In October, New Jersey handled more than $803 million in legal sports bets. A record. DraftKings, a major player in the legal U.S. betting market, is Massachusetts-born, -bred and -based. Major-League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR and the PGA Tour have embraced legal sports betting and formed partnerships with multiple providers.
This is not mere idle chatter for me. A year ago, I left my job at USA TODAY/Golfweek to work for Gambling.com. Where sports betting was once a sideline, it has now become my livelihood. I am proof of the economic opportunity its legalization has generated.
In its letter, the “Sports Betting Coalition” noted the obvious benefits of job creation and the lost opportunity created by dozens of illegal, offshore sites. The group cites a study by Oxford Economics claiming approximately 1.4 million Massachusetts residents place almost $3.2 billion in sports wagers online in the illegal market. In turn, the group says Massachusetts is missing out on an estimated $50 million in immediate revenue in just the FY2021 budget alone.
The real money in legal sports betting is online. For instance, of the $803 million wagered in New Jersey in October, 92.6% (or $743.9 million) was bet remotely. Still, it’s easy to imagine massive on-site books at One Patriot Place, in Kenmore Square and near TD Garden jammed on game days – if we ever have game days. The Red Sox announced a partnership with MGM last year. The Patriots have been in business with DraftKings since the all-fantasy-sports days of 2014.
The infrastructure for legal online sports betting in Massachusetts is in place, from an execution and regulatory standpoint, as is the demand, the justification and customer base.
The only missing ingredient? The freedom to do so.
Bill Speros (@RealOBF) can be reached at [email protected]