US Supreme Court Throws Out Sports Betting Ban, All Eyes on Encore Boston Harbor

The US Supreme Court issued a revolutionary decision repealing the ban on sports betting Monday morning that has far-reaching effects in the world of sport, but also has major implications right in Everett’s backyard at the Encore Boston Harbor casino – where most assume sports betting would likely become a large part of the overall gaming program there, if approved by the state.

For decades, betting on sporting events legally has been taboo while other gaming – such as the casinos going up in Everett and Springfield – have multiplied. In one 35-page decision Monday, that all changed and potentially opened up the ability for people to legally bet on professional and NCAA sporting events in hundreds of different types of wagers – everything from the final score to the color of socks on the star player.

The issue has been bubbling up for several years as sports betting has become more and more popular on the black market and through illegal off-shore internet applications. However, it came to a head in 2011, and then in 2014, when New Jersey attempted to legalize the practice of sports betting, flouting the federal law enacted in the 1990s that prevented it – a law known as PAPSA.

The case before the Supreme Court had everything to do with that case and the issue of sports betting, but also had a great deal to do with the power of state legislatures to decide their own fates on matters like sports betting.

The vote came down 6-3 on the Court to throw out PAPSA and allow for the federal government or state legislatures to craft laws permitting sports betting.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion for the Court and indicated it was about states’ rights.

“The PASPA provision at issue here—prohibiting state authorization of sports gambling—violates the anti-commandeering rule,” he wrote. “That provision unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do…State legislatures are put under the direct control of Congress. It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.”

Much of the decision was spent arguing about whether to shoot down part of the law, and leave other parts, or to get rid of it altogether. With some parts in place and other parts gone, the Court said it would result in a weird mix of regulations probably not intended by Congress.

“We do not think that Congress ever contemplated that such a weird result would come to pass,” read the opinion.

In the end, the decision came down to one that allows states to act on their own.

“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” read the opinion. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own. Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decide whether it is consistent with the Constitution. PASPA is not.”

Justices Ruth Ginsberg, Sonya Sotomayor and, in part, Stephen Breyer voted against the repeal.

The decision has huge financial implications nationwide, and in Massachusetts, none are bigger than at Encore Boston Harbor.

A study of Massachusetts by the American Gaming Association (AGA) in 2016 concluded that about $1 billion per year could be wagered on sports in the state, with the state collecting anywhere from $12 million to $45 million in taxes from sports betting alone.

Were the state to legalize gaming, Encore would be nearly a given to include sports gaming, plugging right into the huge Wynn Sports Book that already operates out of the company’s two Las Vegas properties. Encore Boston Harbor already has constructed a very large sports lounge sitting on a mezzanine above the gaming floor, and it is believed that any such sports betting facility would be plugged right in that space.

Encore said it would look forward to following the process here in Massachusetts. The casino has often said they don’t believe it would be a huge money-maker for them, but they do believe it would draw in customers that might not come to the casino without the sports aspect.

“While our industry supports legalized and regulated sports betting, the ultimate decision now rests with Massachusetts legislators and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission,” read a statement from Wynn Resorts. “Encore Boston Harbor looks forward to what we expect will be a thorough and thoughtful process.”

Massachusetts does seem to be behind on the matter if, in fact, it wants to legalize such betting. New Jersey, which brought the case to the Supreme Court, indicated it could be ready for wagering in a month’s time.

Other states, like West Virginia, have already passed laws in advance of the PAPSA repeal and hope to be taking sports bets this summer.

In Massachusetts, the onus now lies upon the House of Representatives.

Speaker Bob DeLeo would not commit on Monday as to whether he is for it, but said it comes down to revenue versus integrity of sport.

“I think there are a couple of questions that have to be decided beforehand,” he said. “Right off the bat you have the question of the integrity of the sport. I know that this will be an issue raised and re-raised a number of times. Secondly is the issue of revenue. What’s going to happen in terms of the states around us and other states around the country? This is a time when we’re always looking for additional revenues. This could be that source, but right now it’s the integrity versus the revenue. There are so many different questions about how you would go about doing it. There are a lot of major questions now to be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

He also said he didn’t think the state was behind others who have been more pro-active on the issue.

“I think whether we looked at it before or didn’t look at it before, there are still a number of questions that people have to get settled in their minds before we decide to move forward or not move forward,” he said.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), which would likely be charged with implementing any sports betting program, did not have a comment by press time on the matter, but said they are carefully looking at the decision.

However, the MGC did issue a very comprehensive ‘White Paper’ report on sports betting earlier this year that looked at almost every possible aspect.

In the White Paper, and most educated observers, believe that the real fight for legalization here will not be with the casinos, but rather the other venues – meaning whether or not to allow it at lottery retailers/corner stores, phone apps or online. Another major issue will be whether or not to allow betting while a game is in progress, which is extremely popular at the moment.

The MGC White Paper indicated that it would suggest making availability as easy as possible due to the illegal sports betting networks that already exist and are easy to use – and online.

The reports said the state should allow online availability, mobile app availability, similar betting styles (including the growingly popular in-game bets), and heavily promote the fact that legal gaming is protected for consumers.

“Internet based sports betting is already here as exemplified by the multiple off shore sportsbook websites that are easily available to anyone with an internet connection,” read the paper. “A legal alternative to these sites must be as convenient and as accessible to challenge the pervasive black market. Much as with online, if current black market bettors are accustomed to the ubiquity of a mobile app for their illegal product, any legal version will need to offer similar convenience or risk being ignored. Legal sportsbooks will need to offer a similar slate of contests to bet on and types of bets to make, including in-game betting. Any constraints on the most popular types of bets or types of games will discourage adoption of the legal product.”

It is estimated nationwide that billions of dollars would be bet on sports if allowed. For hard figures, more than $500 million was legally bet in Nevada in both last November and last December alone.

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