BOSTON (State House News Service) - Two of the three sportsbooks that started taking bets last week came under Mass. Gaming Commission scrutiny within a matter of days for having accepted illegal bets -- wagers on college basketball games that involved Massachusetts schools -- and regulators are now trying to figure out what, if any, action they will take as a result.
And as the commission grapples with the illegal acceptance of in-state college wagers, it will be working on a parallel track to expand betting options and launch mobile sportsbooks by March 10, the commission's executive director announced Thursday morning, a date chosen at least in part to capture the betting activity around the annual March Madness college basketball tournament.
Encore Boston Harbor accepted wagers on a Boston College women's basketball game and Plainridge Park Casino took action on a Merrimack College men's basketball game during the first week of legal sports betting, commission investigators said, both in violation of the Massachusetts betting law that expressly prohibits betting on in-state collegiate contests in nearly all circumstances.
A Gaming Commission lawyer briefed commissioners Thursday morning on the "non-compliance events," which initially came to some light Tuesday when the commission posted a meeting agenda that referenced an investigation.
Chief Enforcement Counsel Heather Hall said Encore took bets for about five hours on the BC women's basketball game and that Plainridge took bets for about seven hours on the Merrimack men's basketball game. She said the initial investigation showed that both incidents "were violations" of both state law and Gaming Commission regulations.
Hall declined to answer a question about the amount wagered on each unauthorized event. Both incidents were identified and reported to the commission by the operators themselves, she said.
Since legal in-person sports betting began here on Jan. 31, the BC women's basketball team played a home game against Notre Dame (a 72-59 loss on Feb. 2) and a road game against Syracuse (a 79-72 loss on Feb. 5). Merrimack's men's team played home games against Long Island University (a 76-59 win on Feb. 2) and Saint Francis University (a 70-66 win on Feb. 4). It was not clear Thursday which events were bet on.
"Due to a data input error by one of our vendors, we notified and self reported a violation to the MGC. We regret that this mistake happened, take full responsibility, and have added several remedial steps to our compliance process to help prevent this from happening again," Plainridge Park General Manager North Grounsell said.
A spokesperson for Encore Boston Harbor did not respond to a request for more information Thursday.
Bruce Band, the Gaming Commission's director of sports wagering, said that Encore will take over the process of adding events to the list of events it accepts wagers on from its technology partner GAN Sports by Friday, and that Plainridge Park is now reviewing the list of offered bets a day ahead of time to make sure that no Massachusetts schools are included.
The commission did not take any enforcement action Thursday -- Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said she has asked the Investigations and Enforcement Bureau and legal staff to be prepared for a more in-depth discussion at a meeting planned for Tuesday.
"These matters are new to us," she said. "And so we are just wanting to make sure our processes are all in place, commissioners, and after next Tuesday we will be able to determine if any next steps are taken either by the commission itself or at our direction, the IEB."
Judd-Stein and Hall each said they "commend" Plainridge Park and Encore for self-reporting the violations, and Judd-Stein at one point said she wanted to remind everyone that "not all states have that prohibition" on in-state collegiate betting.
"Massachusetts does, and like Heather said, I do commend both operators for self-reporting," the chairwoman said.
When Massachusetts lawmakers legalized sports wagering in August, after months of debate and discussion, they specifically excluded betting on most events involving Massachusetts colleges and universities. The only time wagering on an event featuring a Massachusetts school is allowed is if the team is participating in a tournament of at least four schools.
During the build-up to approval of sports betting, it was Boston College that led a charge among athletic directors and university presidents asking that Beacon Hill not allow any wagering on college sports. The Senate's sports betting bill prohibited all college betting, but that was a major sticking point for the House and Speaker Ronald Mariano, who said it was "hard for me to figure out what the purpose of the Senate bill is." The compromise bill that ultimately passed produced the in-state teams carveout.
Before the Gaming Commission turned to the illegal acceptance of in-state college wagers Thursday, Executive Director Karen Wells announced that the commission is eyeing 10 a.m. on Friday, March 10, for the start of mobile betting operations.
If mobile and online betting, which have generally accounted for 85 to 95 percent of the legal betting market elsewhere, goes live on that date, it would allow for wagers to be placed on the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, which begins March 14.
"The suggestion is we do it that day because it gives us the weekend if there's any issues before March Madness starts. And then there's a Monday where we could have a commission meeting, if necessary, if there's any issues before the big tournament starts," Wells said. "And then the recommendation is that we start at 10 a.m. There are some events that folks might want to wager on on March 10 itself, so that's why the recommendation came down."
Wells said a March 10 launch is "dependent on the quality of the internal control submissions" from operators "and their responsiveness to issues raised by GLI," the vendor the commission uses to assess the nuts and bolts of betting operations.
"We do have the option of launching some but not all of the operators, but I want to make it very clear we are giving every operator the equivalent time and attention to their internal controls," Wells said. "So they are all getting the same approach to their review so that no one would be in a better position or a worse position."
Bally's Interactive, FanDuel, Betr, DraftKings, Digital Gaming Corporation USA, and PointsBet Massachusetts are the standalone mobile operators that have been given the go-ahead from regulators to eventually start operations in Massachusetts. The Gaming Commission has also deemed five operators that will be tethered to one of the state's casino operations preliminarily suitable to conduct mobile wagering: WynnBet, Caesars, BetMGM, Penn Sports Interactive/Barstool Sportsbook, and Fanatics Betting & Gaming.
There are no Massachusetts teams currently projected to make it into the March Madness tournament, according to the latest "bracketology" updates from both NCAA.com and CBS Sports.
Written By Colin A. Young/SHNS