Connecticut is at the top of two gambling expansion lists in 2021, sports betting and online gambling.
The current vehicle is a placeholder bill, SB 146, introduced by Sen. Cathy Osten. Osten’s bill is light on details, but the critical parts are in the statement of purpose: “To authorize sports wagering, internet gaming, internet lottery and internet keno in this state.”
As such, it seeks to create a comprehensive expansion of gambling, legalizing retail and online sports betting on mobile apps, online casino games, online poker, online lottery products, and online keno games.
Because of its breadth, the bill is a double-edged sword that provides more opportunities for compromises amongst stakeholders, but at the same time, it creates more potential friction points.
Tribes and the Governor on the Same Page
In December, Gov. Ned Lamont was quoted in the Connecticut Mirror as saying:
“This is something that’s going on all around us, and I think Connecticut should participate. If we found out anything in the course of this horrible COVID cycle, more and more of the world is going virtual, more and more of the world is going online. That’s tele-health and tele-learning, but it’s also iGaming and sports betting. And I don’t think you want Connecticut left behind.”
In his January 6 State of the State address, Lamont doubled down on that language, saying:
“Sports betting, internet gaming and legalized marijuana are happening all around us. Let’s not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or even worse, underground markets.”
Tribal leaders are also optimistic that the state has turned a corner and is ready to legalize online casino, poker, and sports betting.
“This feels like the stars are aligning,” Rodney Butler, the tribal chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots, the owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino, told the Mirror. “We’ve had ongoing conversations with the governor. He has been engaged, and we’re looking forward to getting into much more detailed conversations.”
“We deeply value our partnership with Connecticut that is generational and historical,” Chuck Bunnell, the chief of staff of the Mohegan Tribal Nation, owner of Mohegan Sun, told the Mirror. “Certainly, the pandemic has been a challenge to all of us globally, but I think it has brought some clarity to this industry and what the future may hold for our partnership.”
Gambling Legislation Is Never Easy
Connecticut’s new Speaker of the House, Matt Ritter, threw some cold water on the optimistic appraisals, telling Global Gaming Business that it looks promising, but it is complicated.
“I hope we’re getting close to a deal. I suspect one will happen,” Ritter told GGB. “But ultimately, it’s a little more complicated than a normal bill because Connecticut’s two gaming tribes, the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequots, “have got to get a deal with the governor. It’s one thing to sign a bill, and another to sign a compact amendment, and that’s where his role comes in.”
Further, legalization might begin with the tribes, but it doesn’t end there. The state lottery, Sportech, which operates the state’s off-track betting parlors, and outside gaming interests will all have their say.
Bringing the State Lottery Into the Mix
The State Lottery has already been extended an olive branch with the legalization of online lottery in Osten’s bill.
But it’s unclear if the tribes are ok with online lottery products (some of which resemble online slot machines) or if the lottery will be content if they’re limited to selling draw game tickets online.
OTBs Want a Piece of the Sports Betting Pie
OTB’s are a different matter, as Osten’s bill gives exclusivity over sports betting, online casino, poker, and keno to the tribes.
Ted Taylor, president of Sportech, told GGB News he’s “optimistic” about sports betting legislation. “We believe that the desire to find a solution is there for lawmakers as well as for Governor Lamont’s administration. Sports betting has grown significantly to be part of the fan experience, and the public is certainly supportive of a competitive sports betting choice. So we believe 2021 could see that goal achieved.”
However, the tribes and Sportech are not on the same page here, and this is an obstacle that only has a single solution: cut the OTBs into sports betting somehow. However, the tribes aren’t going to allow that to happen unless the state somehow sweetens the deal for them, and that sweetener can’t be sucralose. It needs to be the good stuff.
Otherwise, the state only has one choice, run over the OTBs and cut them out of the negotiations. And considering Sportech has already launched an advocacy website that could open a can of worms.
Outside Forces are Still Lurking
And finally, there’s the MGM factor. MGM has voiced its displeasure (publicly and in courts) over Connecticut’s unwillingness to open the state to commercial casino interests. However, MGM’s impetus to build a casino in Connecticut was the proposed tribal casino located about 20 minutes from the company’s MGM Springfield casino in Massachusetts.
The tribal casino project is officially on hold, and that might get MGM to back off its litigation threats. Of course, that fight isn’t resolved and could erupt at any point.
Connecticut appears to be more likely than not to legalize sports betting and online gambling, but it is not a done deal.