By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
BOSTON – Nearly every television station in Boston turned out at Fenway Park on Friday morning to point their cameras at the famed Green Monster where a tarp covered a new advertisement emblazoned on the 37-foot wall. Red Sox team president and CEO Sam Kennedy and MGM Resorts International Chairman & CEO Jim Murren grabbed hold of some rope and pulled to unveil the “Leo the Lion” logo to symbolize their new partnership, announced almost a month ago. It was official, MGM Resorts with a casino an hour and a half down the Mass Pike, was the “official and exclusive Resort Casino of the Boston Red Sox.”
As Kennedy pointed out, it wasn’t the first-ever casino partnership for the Red Sox and Fenway Sports Group, as Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods previously sponsored the club. That fact combined with the ubiquitous commercials for Mohegan (Connecticut), Foxwoods (Connecticut), Twin-River (Rhode Island) on NESN indicate “nothing is new” with this announcement, just a nice Monster paint-job for the new croupier on the block.
While the public relations event unveiling a Lion on a Monster headlined a sure-sign-it’s-Spring, season-opening press event which also touted new augmented reality (AR) capabilities for fans at Fenway and the annual press pleaser – the roll-out of new menu items by Fenway and Aramark Executive Chef Ron Abell – there was an open-to-the-public government hearing held crosstown to examine the forthcoming gaming license for the new Encore Casino, originally secured by Vegas gambling mogul Steve Wynn.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Rhode Island, there were sports gamblers and slot machine players going about their business. In six other States, Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Mississippi, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, sports gambling is now legal and gamblers were placing their bets for or against the Red Sox. Of those States, only Pennsylvania hosts Major League Baseball games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Red Sox don’t travel to Pennsylvania this season but do host the Phillies on August 20-21.
When the Sox are considered the “home” team when they face the New York Yankees in London this June 29-30, fans will be able to walk around the block to place wagers on that game. No earth-shattering news there, as the rest of the world has long embraced wagering on sports as the USA and its major sports organizations treated sports gambling like a bottle of 100 proof whiskey in Prohibition times.
Illegal and offshore wagering online did its part to change both public and legal opinion on the wagering issue. Former New Jersey Governor and failed Presidential candidate Chris Christie took his case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing there shouldn’t be one set of rules for Nevada and another set for the other 49 United States. Back on May 14, 2018, Christie won as the SCOTUS shot-down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) and the flood-gates were opened.
Seven U.S. States jumped on the long-expected opportunity to fill their coffers with additional revenue, much like the many States grabbing newfound tax money on an ounce or two of marijuana in a new “new harm, no foul” approach to alleviate stress, injustice and inconsistent enforcement of laws written decades ago, long before the Internet or gummy-bear weed was to be found.
“What’s the big deal,” you might ask?
Was it a simple “branding play” by MGM Resorts International to promote its casino in Western Mass where legions of Boston Red Sox fans reside? Was it a strategic maneuver to stay ahead of the Wynns, Mohegans and Foxwoods of the region? Or, was it the very first foray to hang a shingle for sports gambling with the Sox and, maybe, right inside Fenway Park?
“As you know in the United States, gaming is controlled by State government, not the Federal government,” said Murren. “Each State has taken a different perspective on this. The Commonwealth is debating this point right now.
“We provide information, when asked, but we’re respectful of the process. I think there’s a high degree of enthusiasm for sports betting in the Commonwealth as there is throughout the United States because people recognize that it will improve fan engagement. It improves interest levels of games, of teams, and leagues. And, it clarifies – it brings to light – an activity that has largely been illicit, being done in the shadows, which is damaging to the consumer, and the gaming in industry.
“From an MGM perspective, a large entertainment company with privileged licenses around the world, what’s vital to us is the integrity of the process. That’s why we’ve worked with Major League Baseball, and also the NBA, NHL and others because we’re aligned.
“The leagues, MGM – our first order of business is to preserve the integrity of the product. Without that, there is nothing to discuss,” said Murren.
“I feel like working with league, and now teams, strategically is a good move. But, I don’t view this as ‘how much money can we make from sports betting.‘ That’s a very myopic point of view. We look at this as a building block to have a digital experience with our consumers, globally.
“Whether it’s on social gaming, sports betting or through other forms of a digital experience, we’re investing a lot of money in this area to assure we’re first in the consumer’s minds when they think about sports entertainment,” added Murren.
Why the drastic change in the positioning of the leagues and teams?
“There’s been a tremendous amount of understanding in the last two decades. Twenty-one years ago, I joined MGM and I went home to Fairfield, Connecticut to tell my Mom that (his wife) Heather and I are moving to Las Vegas, as I was leaving Wall Street,” noted the MGM executive.
“She said, ‘Son, I failed you. If your Dad were alive, you wouldn’t do this.'”
“Now? I can’t get her out of Las Vegas! She goes all the time with her girlfriends, they go to the shows.
“So, I’ve lived through this journey, as it relates to the acceptability and understanding of what the Gaming Industry is. We represent millions of jobs in the United States, middle class jobs that pay very well with great benefits. People raise their families on this industry, which is terrific,” added Murren.
“Sports betting has lagged in the United States as the US has lagged the rest of the world where it’s commonplace in places like the United Kingdom, and Australia.
“The fact that the leagues now understand that a highly regulated, transparent and legalized process is vastly preferable to the illicit and illegal activity that has plagued consumers in the United States. I’ve seen that particularly over the last three-or-four years.
“When the Supreme Court overturned PASPA, we took the approach that rather than try to transact with individual technology companies or with sports betting companies, we want to sit down with the Commissioners of the leagues. because we recognize and they recognized that this is now in front of us. We have to figure out how to move forward together to preserve the integrity of the product, which is tantamount to success.
“It’s that alignment of interests.
“It’s astounding that, here we are in Massachusetts where the State approved in 2011 a referendum to approve gaming (three casinos) and here we are at Fenway, and I’m aligned with a management team and (franchise) ownership group here that’s incredibly sophisticated in areas of technology, social media, media, and that’s why this partnership is very exciting to me,” Murren added as he stood in the shadow of the Green Monster.
Murren shrewdly refered questions on future timing of sports gambling in Massachusetts to the State where Governor Charlie Baker, on January 17, 2019, put forth a letter to the Commonwealth’s House and Senate seeking to regulate the industry with a forecast of some $35 million in state revenue in fiscal year 2020, “to benefit all 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth” while urging “prompt enactment of this legislation.”
The local government decision now rests with the Commonwealth’s Joint Commiteee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, chaired by State Senator Eric Lesser, a Democrat from the First Hampden and Hampshire district with offices in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, as noted by H-68 bill referred to the committee by vote of the House on January 22 and Senate by vote on January 24, 2019.
It’s now in Senator Lesser’s hands and the clock is running. Governor Baker is expecting some $35-mil come December 31, 2020, unless of course, the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics all win their respective league championships. In that case, the House and the Senate, along with the Treasury of the Commonwealth lose.