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Massachusetts Sportsbooks Await Penalties After Taking Illegal Wagers

Bill Speros for Bookies.com

Bill Speros  | 22 mins

Massachusetts Sportsbooks Await Penalties After Taking Illegal Wagers

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BOSTON - MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor will have to wait and see what penalties they may face after a pair of adjudicatory hearings on Friday. 

Soon after the launch of retail Massachusetts sports betting on January 31, all three land-based sportsbooks in the Bay State self-reported instances of illegal bets on in-state college games. 

The bets were accepted at WynnBET sportsbook at Encore Boston Harbor in Everett, the BetMGM book at MGM Springfield, and the Barstool Sportsbook at Plainridge Park Casino.

Friday, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission presented their cases against MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor in two separate hearings. MGC Chair Cathy Stein said the Commission would meet in private and then issue its findings and any potential penalties or fines "in writing" at a later time. 

MGM Springfield was flagged for taking bets on two different Harvard men's basketball games because its service provider had the nearly-400-year-old Cambridge school listed in Connecticut. "We take our obligations to comply with state regulations very seriously and hope we do not have to appear in front of the Commission in the future," said Augustine Kim, MGM Springfield Vice President and Legal Counsel. 

The MGC has wide latitude when it comes to enforcing gaming regulations. It can issue a warning, impose fines, or go so far as to suspend or terminate an operator's license. The violations in front of the MGC on Friday were self-reported by the books. 

Encore's hearing lasted nearly 90 minutes and focused on how a name change concerning Boston College women's basketball to Boston College Eagles Women's Basketball by a service provider allowed wagering on the team to occur twice after an initial disclosure. "This raised some more questions for everyone," said Encore Boston Harbor's chief legal counsel Jacqui Krum. 

Massachusetts law and gaming regulations allow for betting on most college sports – with a crucial caveat. The Sports Wagering Act signed into law on August 10, 2022, prohibits wagering on in-state Massachusetts universities during regular season play. 

It allows for wagering on in-state schools participating in a tournament with more than four teams that is not part of the regular season. The NCAA tournaments all fall into that category, which means wagering on 2023 March Madness was allowed in the Bay State.

Overall, 10 Massachusetts betting apps have been approved for licenses. The six live now are: Caesars Sportsbook, BetMGM Sportsbook, WynnBET, Barstool Sportsbook (Penn Interactive), FanDuel and DraftKings. 

Betr, Fanatics and Bally Bet are expected to go live in the spring. Betway won't launch until Q1 of 2024. 

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RELATED: College Basketball Futures

Violations Rooted In Naming Issues 

Confusion over which college teams are eligible for wagers in the Bay State is not limited to bettors. Sportsbooks and their vendors have seen problems since retail betting in Massachusetts began.

In the first three weeks of retail betting from Jan. 31, five different instances of illegal wagering on regular-season in-state college games were self-reported by the betting operators. 

Encore has had three violations concerning Boston College women's basketball. 

The first occurred with a Boston College-Notre Dame women's basketball game on Feb. 2. On that occasion, wagering was allowed from about 12:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. The bet in question was placed on the game's outcome as part of a $70, 5-leg parlay. Once Encore became aware of the bet, it voided the Boston College-Notre Dame leg of the parlay. 

A hearing on that wager was held on March 14. No penalty has yet been publicly assessed. 

Friday's hearing concerned subsequent wagers on games that occurred on Feb. 12 and 19. 

Three bets were placed on the Boston College-North Carolina women's basketball game on Feb. 12 in violation of state statute. One winning ticket - a multi-leg round-robin wager that included the BC women's game - was cashed the following day.

The MGC also said Encore Boston Harbor accepted four wagers on a Boston College women's basketball game played Feb. 19 against Louisville. 

WynnBET, Encore Boston Harbor and GAN, the third-party provider which provides data to the book, all spoke on Friday. They said the root cause of the issue was the name change of "Boston College" to "Boston College Eagles Women's Basketball" on GAN's catalog. The same catalog is used in several jurisdictions. 

A representative of GAN said the "naming convention" problem on its end was not discovered until after the BC-Louisville game. Krum said the book has a daily manual audit of all events being offered to ensure these lapses do not happen again. 

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Violations Of College Rules Self-Reported

WynnBET interactive president Ian Williams made it clear that the book is striving for perfection but both operators and regulators know that is impossible. 

"No one wants to make these mistakes," Williams told Bookies.com in March. "None of the operators, ourselves included, were trying to do anything that is against the rules." 

Williams said it is WynnBET policy to self-report once they are aware of any violation, regardless of the law, rule, or regulation. 

MGC Chair Cathy Judd-Stein stressed the importance of operators self-reporting. 

"We anticipated some non-compliance issues," Judd-Stein on March 10. "We always really appreciate when operators self-report. That is an important component of the regulator-licensee relationship. They understand that. It is absolutely in their interests to be monitoring their own compliance. That is a really important factor." 


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How Harvard Ended Up In Connecticut

The MGM Springfield book accepted wagers on the Harvard-Yale and Harvard-Brown men's basketball games played on Feb. 3-4. An MGC investigation found betting on both games was available for about 20 hours each. 

The games were offered because the third-party information provider used by the book inadvertently listed Harvard - which opened its doors in Cambridge in 1636 - as located in nearby Connecticut. 

A total of $1,150 was bet on the Harvard-Yale game (won by Yale 68-57) and $80 on the Harvard-Brown game (won by Brown 68-65). Bettors won $1,106 on 28 bets, the majority of which were parlays placed at kiosks.

The MGC was not notified for nearly a week after the wagers were taken. That gap was caused by the fact that MGM's vendor had not notified the book. 

MGM Springfield President Chris Kelley admitted in March that of all the schools in the Bay State, putting Harvard in Connecticut was somewhat unexpected.

Commissioner Brad Hill said during Friday's meeting he was still trying to understand why Harvard was listed as a Connecticut school and not a Massachusetts school. MGM Springfield's hearing was finished in less than 45 minutes. 

"Someone made a mistake a few years earlier," said Alex Walder, Senior Manager of Trading Compliance, in discussing a document used to determine what schools are eligible for wagering. 

Illegal wagering on a Merrimack College men's game against Long Island University on Feb. 2 was allowed for about seven hours at Plainridge Park (PPC), the casino reported. Thirty-three bets on 27 tickets were made, totaling $6,848. The casino said $4,720 was won by bettors. PPC reported to the Commission that gaming vendor Kambi mistakenly assigned Merrimack College (located in North Andover) as a Florida school. The error was flagged and reported by a PPC employee. 

No fines or penalties resulting from those wagers have been announced yet.  

‘Mistakes That Happen’

The early mistakes made by the sportsbooks were both unfortunate and inevitable, said Bill Pascrell, partner at Princeton Public Affairs Group and a long-time lobbyist with the gaming industry. 

“By no means was it done intentionally. The operators are not stupid. But there are mistakes that happen. And you hire people who are not local, and they don't have that local knowledge. Most people know that Harvard is in Massachusetts. I went to the Kennedy School. I'm a graduate, so I certainly know where it is. But I think it's a mistake. If it happens again, then it's a serious problem, with the same institution. But I could see that happening,” Pascrell said. 

He cites the instance of Miami of Ohio and the University of Miami in Florida as an example of this potential confusion. 

“The question becomes, is it repetitive behavior? If it is, then the fines need to be escalated,” Pascrell added. 

Wagering on college basketball futures markets is allowed in Massachusetts, but you can't bet on end-of-season awards for players and coaches. That's because Massachusetts sportsbooks aren't allowed to take college prop bets.

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About the Author

Bill Speros for Bookies.com
Bill Speros
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist and editor whose career includes stops at USA Today Sports Network / Golfweek, Cox Media, ESPN, Orlando Sentinel and Denver Post.
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