State, tribes continue to negotiate sports-betting deal

This version corrects the date of the Connecticut General Assembly's veto session.  

Legal sports betting arrived in the Northeast on Thursday, when New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wagered $20 on Germany to win soccer’s World Cup and a like sum on the New Jersey Devils to win the National Hockey League’s 2019 Stanley Cup.

Murphy placed his bets at Monmouth Park, an Oceanport racetrack. Shortly thereafter, former National Basketball Association great Julius “Dr. J” Erving risked $5 on the Philadelphia Eagles to repeat as Super Bowl champs, placing his bet at The Borgata resort casino in Atlantic City.

When might such scenes play out here?

While Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wasted no time in responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 14 decision striking down a federal ban on states’ rights to enact sports-betting legislation, legal sports wagering in Connecticut still seemed this past week to be anything but imminent.

“As of today, I am prepared to call the General Assembly into special session to consider legalizing sports betting in Connecticut,” Malloy announced within hours of the Supreme Court’s ruling. “It is incumbent on us to consider the question of legalized sports betting in a thoughtful way that ensures our approach is responsible, smart, and fully realizes the economic potential that this opportunity provides.”

But before a special legislative session can take place, Malloy has to negotiate new gaming agreements with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which have claimed their “compacts” grant them the exclusive right to provide sports betting in Connecticut. State Attorney General George Jepsen and a number of lawmakers have differed with the tribes’ position. And, Sportech Venues, the state’s off-track betting provider, and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. have expressed more than a passing interest in a slice of the sports-betting pie.

At a media briefing Thursday at the state Capitol, the governor was asked about the status of negotiations with the tribes.

“In general terms, we don’t have an agreement,” he said. “I think we’re a ways from an agreement, so don’t anyone hold your breath.”

On Friday, a spokesman for the Mohegan Tribe played it close to the vest.

“All we can say is that we continue to meet and appreciate the time everyone is committing to explore options,” Chuck Bunnell, the tribe’s chief of staff, wrote in an email.

Those options were once thought to include the legalization of online gaming — the playing of casino-type games and poker on computers and mobile devices — which the tribes believe could be more lucrative than sports betting.

“It makes sense to negotiate both in one negotiation,” Malloy told reporters last month.

Among lawmakers, however, there isn’t much appetite for authorizing online gaming, except, perhaps, as it pertains to sports betting, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat, said Friday in a phone interview.

Aresimowicz said he believes the legislature is ready to pass a sports-betting bill in a special session this summer and that sports betting could be “up and running” by Sept. 1 at the tribes’ respective casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and at off-track betting facilities around the state via “some online platform.” The timetable's based on the legislature convening soon after a June 25 "veto session," during which lawmakers will consider overriding the governor's vetoes of several bills.

Lottery could be left out

Sportech Venues, which operates 16 locations in the state and has been authorized to open more, estimates that Connecticut residents wager $600 million a year on sports, most of it online and all of it illegal. Legal online wagering in the state is provided only by Sportech and is limited to betting on racing and jai alai, Sportech says on its website.

Aresimowicz said members of his caucus are opposed to making sports betting available at lottery outlets, of which there are nearly 2,900 in the state.

“The saturation level with the lottery is more than folks feel comfortable with,” Aresimowicz said. “I believe my caucus and Rep. (Themis) Klarides’ caucus could move forward with sports betting, excluding the lottery. The hope is that we also have some kind of online platform. Otherwise, there’d still be a lot of activity that’s unlicensed and frankly illegal. ... I think the Senate’s in the same place as the House.” Klarides, a Derby Republican, is the House minority leader.

The sooner the better, Aresimowicz said of the state's legalization of sports betting.

“If other states are able to get up and running and have time to develop a stable customer base before we do, we’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.

It's been estimated that more than 30 states will authorize sports betting over the next five years.

New Jersey’s rapid approval of sports betting — the governor signed the bill authorizing it Wednesday, the day before Monmouth Park and The Borgata started taking bets — was expected. So was Delaware’s June 5 move to roll it out, making it the first state to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.

Rhode Island could be among a handful of states that introduce sports betting in coming months. The state House began deliberating a budget plan Friday that included authorization of sports betting at Twin River Casino in Lincoln and at Twin Rivers’ new Tiverton facility, which is scheduled to open Sept. 1. The Senate would have to approve the budget this week.

State officials expect sports betting to be in place Oct. 1, according to Paul Grimaldi, chief of information and public relations for the Rhode Island Department of Revenue.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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