Jeff Jacobs: Delay in legalizing sports betting in Connecticut a losing proposition
THE LAND OF 169-to-1 ODDS — Permit me to add my voice to the sports betting debacle in Connecticut.
Get it done!
Get it done now!
It’s a year too late, but get it done already!
We don’t need an illegal bookie to tell us why the path to getting legal sports gambling approved and implemented in our state has found nothing but roadblocks. You want to know how can people be for it and nothing has happened?
The long, complicated answer is competing factions. It involves two tribes from Eastern Connecticut, MGM Resorts International, the Connecticut Lottery and Sportech, which operates 16 OTB locations in Connecticut. It involves competing casino bids and competing plans by General Assembly backers and the governor. It involves threats of lawsuits. It involves, in the face of surrounding states stealing their thunder and millions in tax revenue for our greater good, the human failings of greed, false promise, resistance to compromise and geographical bias.
The short answer? It’s Connecticut.
Thus, my dateline. I’ve long called us, “The 169 Petty Fiefdoms.” How a state only 110 miles wide and 70 miles tall, with 169 cities and towns, could unfailingly create so many seemingly unsolvable problems is an answer best left to Thomas Hooker, Machiavelli and Geno Auriemma.
Nothing written here will get everyone to agree which casino goes where and eventually how much of the pie each entity will receive from sports gambling. To this point they’ve all shown to be gluttons that would rather choke on selfish possibility than slice up the pie in the name of compromise and what’s best for the consumer and state citizen.
So I will argue only two points.
A chunk of the profits from Connecticut sports betting must go to state-operated sports facilities. That would mean a sports book at the XL Center in Hartford that hopefully leads to a private/public ownership of the building and a serious reconstruction of the state’s largest indoor entertainment site. Sports gaming to help pay for sports sites. Imagine that.
If the casino mess isn’t cleared up in a few months — and what makes us think it will? — sports gambling must be addressed as a separate issue. Approve it. Find a mechanism, even if it is a temporary agreement, to get it moving and implemented. Besides, the real money is in the online game. Not the on-site game.
Look at New Jersey, which has found success with sports wagering in a crowded overall gaming marketplace. Of the $251 million in sports bets in July, only $38 million were made in person at a casino or horse track book. The rest were online and mobile wagering. While we argue and threaten litigation about building a casino in East Windsor, we’re kicking away money. Stupid.
The Super Bowl is undisputed the cash cow day of sports wagering. Every Super Bowl without state sports gambling kicks away millions. Again Foolish. And stupid.
A sports book and some kind of boutique casino should be at XL. I’m not in favor of the East Windsor casino site, it’s only trying to block traffic to MGM in Springfield. If you over-build in Bridgeport, with Empire City Casino in nearby Yonkers and struggling casino sites already in New York state, it could serve the same flawed premise as East Windsor. We want the smartest thing possible for Bridgeport, not one that leads to massive disappointment.
Oh, I can hear it now. “Jacobs, you don’t work for the Hartford Courant anymore! You work for the eight Hearst papers that dominate the southern and western part of the state!” My employment has nothing to do with my view. My stance long has been our state should have a crown jewel building — as centrally located as possible — to best serve our entertainment possibilities. It’s not rocket science. It’s a quality of life argument. FYI: I live nearly 50 miles from Hartford, so it’s no personal comfort thing either. I’d certainly argue that Webster Bank Arena, if it wanted, would get a sports book.
Yet casino sites matter less right now when it comes to sports betting than getting it implemented. The profits could even be held until there are casino resolutions and a negotiated sports gambling deal. How online betting is taxed and regulated is a matter to itself and that should move forward ASAP.
“I do think the governor is right when he says the threat of litigation is real, but I don’t know if you can ever get rid of it,” said Matt Ritter, (D-Hartford) House majority leader. “That’s where I think there’s some disagreement. Could you ever really strike a deal that avoids litigation? The answer may still be no.
“I think that if we can’t figure out the whole thing in the next couple of months then I’m maybe say why don’t we just treat sports gaming separately. See if there is a mechanism to legalize sports gaming without answering the question of East Windsor and Bridgeport casinos. That’s not the preferred method of some but I just don’t know how this casino thing ends and we can’t wait five more years.”
“I do think you have to bifurcate the issues,” Ritter said. “When sports gaming became legalized (at the federal level last year) one of things we looked at was, could you add all new revenue to the state, to pay off debt service you have for the renovation of the XL Center? And would make it more attractive to a private investor, which the current governor really wants?
“I think there is universal agreement that this is one possibility to do that. The frustration I have and a lot of us have in Connecticut, I don’t know when we’re going to legalize sports gaming. As we all know, gaming is tied up in a very, very tight, complicated legal knot right now and the XL Center can’t wait five years just to get worked out. The sense of urgency of sports gaming is really, really important to me, because we’ve got to make some decisions in the next 12-18 months on its (future).”
Ritter believes the move to the Big East with Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova and Georgetown will bring significantly larger crowds to the XL Center, including fans of the opposing team, that would attract more ticket sales, more concessions and more to the sports book. Head to a nice sports book for dinner beforehand and play the Patriots, Giants, Jets, etc.
To be clear, Ritter said, you couldn’t bet on Connecticut games that were going on at the time, certainly not at the XL Center. Imagine some guy putting five grand on a UConn-Villanova game and there’s a missed foul shot with five seconds to go? Dude may go crazy and rush the court. That would be a disaster. The NCAA wants none of that, Ritter said, UConn wants none of that.
Amid all the promises of jobs and revenue, Connecticut needs to be careful. MGM Springfield, which opened in August 2018, had gross gambling revenue in July of $20.4 million. MGM Springfield had told the Massachusetts Gaming Commission it expected $418 million in annual gross gambling revenues in its first year, $34.8 million per month. The Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett opened June 23 to add to the continued saturation. The squeeze is on.
The New York Times reported the other day Resorts World Catskills, which opened in February 2018, continues to run in the red and all four of New York’s newest casinos have underperformed. There even has been talk of declaring bankruptcy.
New Jersey aside, Rhode Island has shown sports wagering isn’t an automatic miracle either. A total of $14.7 million was wagered on sports in June, below expectations. The state, which gets 51 percent of the profits, did receive about $1 million, which is $1 million more than Connecticut got in June.
Connecticut won’t match New Jersey, but can do much better than Rhode Island. The failure to get online, get going during the NFL season, let millions escape while arguing about slot machines in East Windsor, man, what stupidity.