BUSINESS MONDAY: Is sports betting coming to Berkshire bars and restaurants?

Sports betting may well be on its way to legalization in Massachusetts, thanks to a flurry of bills that were filed over the past few weeks.

In the United States, sports betting is an estimated $150 billion industry. There are four different categories of betting: wagerers can place spread bets which are bets that require a certain number of game points to win; moneyline bets which are bets placed on a team to win regardless of points; parlay, or multiple bets that each need to be won; and proposition bets which are wagers on specific player, team, and game statistics and odds.

Prior to 2018, these and other wagers were mostly made illegally. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992 prohibited sports gambling, although Nevada was one of a few exceptions, allowing it to continue in the state’s casinos.

Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declared PASPA unconstitutional, and many states jumped at the chance to legalize the activity. Now, sports betting is available in New Hampshire, at casinos in New York State, and in casinos and online in Rhode Island. Vermont established a committee to review sports betting in 2020 and Connecticut officials on Tuesday reached a deal with the Mohegan Tribe to allow additional physical and online sports betting platforms in the state.

State Sen. Adam Hinds

“Sports betting bills have moved through the Legislature multiple sessions in a row,” said Sen. Adam Hinds (D-Pittsfield). “That, coupled with the fact that neighboring states have legalized sports betting, feels like there’s real momentum to the conversation in Massachusetts.”

One pair of bills, however, could reap direct rewards for small businesses, cities, and towns in Berkshire County.

The identical bills, filed on February 19, 2021 by Sen. Adam Gomez (D-Springfield) and Rep. Orlando Ramos (D-Springfield), differ from other sports betting proposals in that licenses would not be limited to casinos, racetracks, and online sportsbooks.

In the legislation—bill SD.2237 and HD.3606—category 2 licenses would be made available to in-person retailers, which includes bars and restaurants.

“It makes a lot of sense to allow sports betting in regions that cannot otherwise participate,” said Hinds.

Accessibility is, in fact, top priority for Gomez, who represents a district that’s home to the only casino in western Massachusetts. “We want business owners and individuals interested in betting to have equitable access to the industry,” he said. “With this bill, people can get to a corner store or restaurant in their neighborhood to place a bet.”

State Sen. Adam Gomez

Any interested establishment, or operator, would apply for a 5-year category 2 license with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the bill’s proposed regulatory agency, and pay an initial $250,000 licensing fee. That license is renewable for $100,000 every five years. A kiosk would then be installed in the establishment to facilitate wagers, which a third party such as INTRALOT, the company working with the New Hampshire Lottery Commission, would own and manage.

According to Gomez, operators would retain 3 percent of all wagers made.

“We feel that this bill generates more money for the community, provides more places to wager, and gives small, local businesses the opportunity to attract and retain patrons,” he said.

Peter Sullivan, managing partner of Knox Trail Inn in Otis, thinks the license fees are reasonable but would like to see operators retain a higher commission. “People fail to consider that the operator pays for labor, rent, and utilities,” he said. “If we have to manage any part of the betting, there’s a cost there.”

Sullivan, along with four local partners, purchased and renovated the restaurant in 2017—enhancing the pub, or Pine Room, to accommodate more gatherings and events. “We have the largest television in Berkshire County,” he said, referring to a 12-foot by 12-foot HD projection screen. “We always have a game on.”

While the food is the main draw for customers, said Sullivan, sports betting would likely bring more people through the door.

“The key, though, is to not turn this place into an [off-track betting] parlor,” he said. “When we’re busy, I tell the bartender to sell drinks, not Keno,” a gambling game regulated by the Massachusetts Lottery.

Ultimately, when deciding whether the sports betting bill will enhance his business, Sullivan believes the devil is in the details. “It would be nice to see broad strokes in terms of what is proposed at this point so we can make an informed decision,” he said. “But it wouldn’t make sense to turn away a revenue stream.”

Patrons of the Knox Trail Inn in Otis can enjoy watching sporting events on the restaurant’s 12-foot-long HD projection screen. Photo: Julia Dixon

Ryan McCollum, a lobbyist and spokesman for Fair Play Massachusetts, estimates that Gomez’s bill will generate $4 billion in wagers annually and $100 million in revenue for the state. Of that revenue, 20 percent will be redistributed to participating municipalities according to the amount of money wagered in that municipality, and 10 percent will go to Gateway Cities, including Pittsfield. Another 5 percent will be allocated to the Distressed Restaurant Trust Fund, which will provide COVID-19 relief grants to qualifying restaurants.

“We know that Main Street, USA, is struggling,” said Gomez. “Many bars and restaurants were locked out of [Paycheck Protection Program] funds and had a difficult year. The Distressed Restaurant Trust Fund leaves more money on the table for these businesses.”

While there is a good chance sports betting legislation will pass, which form that takes will be the result of a lot of negotiation, said Hinds. But he understands the economic impact this particular bill could have on the region.

“This is coming at a moment when we are returning to in-person gathering,” he said. “Small businesses are eager to have a draw, and this could be a shot in the arm for the restaurant industry. Anything to help small businesses is worth it.”

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