Opinion: Massachusetts Gaming Regulators Have Rare Chance To Send Message

Written By Derek Helling on December 7, 2022
penn entertainment massachusetts gaming regulators contract

The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the views of Playin USA or Catena Media.

One of the most powerful words in the English language is also among the shortest; no.

That’s the word Massachusetts gaming regulators still have a chance to reply with when it comes to the sports betting license application put forth by Plainridge Park Casino. On Tuesday, they elected to shelve that application for the time being amid concerns about the licensee’s suitability.

As their counterparts in several states have silently approved similar applications for Penn Entertainment gaming operations, members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) are the first to publicly raise concerns about the numerous and obvious flaws with Penn’s fitness for such licensure. Hopefully, they will be the first to hold Penn accountable for its promotion of bigotry and irresponsible gambling.

Massachusetts gaming regulators discuss Plainridge Park’s application

In a six-hour meeting on Tuesday, members of the MGC heard a presentation regarding Plainridge Park Casino’s application for a Class 1 sports betting license. Such a license would not only allow the casino to take bets on sporting events in-person but also do the same online throughout the state.

The meeting covered all aspects of the application, including the casino’s plan to offer online wagering. Like most other Penn properties, it plans to “partner” with Penn’s in-house online sportsbook. That book bears the Barstool Sports branding.

That, as Commissioner Nakina Skinner put it, is “the elephant in the room” for Plainridge Park.

Commissioner Eileen O’Brien was among those who also voiced concern, saying “there is an overall catch to the following and sports betting.”

“When I see that, and I see responsible gaming and our desire to do that with you, and I want to reiterate again, that you guys have been great with responsible gaming…but this is still an area given the marketing push that you’re doing by taking that brand and tying it to sports betting that I have concerns about.”

Commissioner Cathy Judd-Stein called the plans to market the sportsbook using the Barstool brand a “crossroads” for the regulatory body.

“I am focused on, and there are other issues and we know that, but I, like Commissioner O’Brien, am focused on not just the play at the universities, but just the messaging around what I perceive to be the glorification of excessive gambling.”

The meeting ended in an executive session and the Commissioners took no action on the license application. In short order, though, they will have to make a decision.

The problem with Plainridge Park’s application

The big issue that so far has held things up really doesn’t have much to do with Plainridge Park itself. It’s all about who Plainridge plans to work with in offering legal Massachusetts sports betting.

Barstool’s irresponsible promotion of gambling along with its broadcasting of misogyny and racism are nothing new. Penn was well aware of them when it invested in Barstool.

Despite that, Penn literally bought in with no real motivation to do so other than Penn believed Barstool would help it gain market share from loyal followers of the company. Doing so only makes sense if Penn was convinced there would be no significant negative consequences.

Things had been playing out according to plan in Massachusetts until Tuesday. In other states, Penn’s plan has been reminiscent of how hedge fund managers buy up local newspapers to saddle them with debt and drive them into the ground. Penn has banked on the goodwill that established casinos have built with regulators and touted their relationships with the states to get regulators to overlook Penn’s problematic branding.

Regulators in other states have decided to turn a blind eye to who Penn has voluntarily gotten into bed with. To be certain, there is legal room for the MGC to deny a license to Plainridge Park based on this relationship.

Proposed regulations give Massachusetts gaming regulators leverage

While not yet finalized, the MGC is currently operating according to several regulations that it expects to make final in the near future while it is considering license applications. Those include 205 CMR 218, which governs application requirements, standards, and procedures. Section 6, Article 5 states:

“the Commission will evaluate the Sports Wagering License Application to determine whether a license award would benefit the Commonwealth”

Various sections of the article delineate the several considerations that comprise that evaluation. Among them is Subsection C, Item III, which is:

“The Applicant’s history of demonstrated commitment to responsible gaming; and”

Also relevant is Subsection D:

“A description of the Applicant’s willingness to foster racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, equity, and inclusion, including:”

Item II, which reads

“Through the Applicant’s supplier spend; and”

Perhaps the most pertinent rule is Subsection F:

“The suitability of the Applicant and its qualifiers, including:”

Item II reads as a kind of smoking gun in this instance:

“The Applicant’s and all parties in interest to the license’s integrity, honesty, good character, and reputation;”

There is also precedent for Massachusetts levying penalties against an existing licensee for the moral failings of personalities relevant to the company. In 2019, Massachusetts fined Wynn Resorts $35 million related to sexual misconduct allegations against Steve Wynn.

It has a chance to keep with that precedent and send a clear message now. It won’t get that opportunity again.

An irreplaceable opportunity

To be clear, the regulations don’t state that the Commissioners should weigh all the pros and cons of Plainridge Park’s application and if the positives outweigh the negatives, grant approval. The rules are clear that the MGC has to consider every facet of the application on its merits. It’s an all-or-nothing premise.

There is nothing in Massachusetts’ constitution that guarantees Plainridge Park a sports betting license. It’s a privilege that Plainridge Park has to prove it deserves. The onus is on the applicant to prove its worthiness, not on the regulators to find a reason to qualify that applicant.

As Judd-Stein stated, this is truly a crossroads moment. The MGC will only get one shot to respond with that powerful word of no. The Commission should deny Plainridge Park’s application and explicitly state that Penn’s investment in and usage of the Barstool branding is the disqualifying factor.

The opportunity to send a message to Penn that embracing bigotry and greed comes at a cost is before the body right now. If the Commissioners approve the application, that decision sends a message that there is no real consequence for immoral and irresponsible behavior. The following days will reveal which message Massachusetts gaming regulators want to broadcast.

Photo by Playin USA
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of Playin USA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including legislation and litigation in the gaming industry. He enjoys reading hundreds of pages of a gambling bill or lawsuit for his audience. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa.

View all posts by Derek Helling