All CT’s gambling entities need a piece, or all of, the sports-betting pie

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The state’s tribal gambling entities on Tuesday made their pitches to state lawmakers on why they should run whatever future online and sports-wagering operations Connecticut may decide to pursue.

But the Connecticut Lottery Corp. made its own case, stressing that the next generation of gamblers is young, smartphone-savvy and want to play new games without affecting retail-sales growth of traditional paper lottery games.

And Sportech Enterprises, which has operated off-track betting sites for more than a quarter century, said it is also ready to help the expansion without threatening existing businesses.

Gov. Ned Lamont, however, has the last word in whatever happens in expanded gambling, because it is up to him to follow up on the original compact with the tribal nations that allowed slot-machine revenue to flow to the state for 30 years.

During a three-and-a-half-hour hearing before the General Assembly’s Public Safety & Security Committee, representatives of both the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations stressed that online and sports wagering are traditional casino games, which should come under their exclusive agreements dating back to 1991, when Foxwoods Resort Casino first opened.

“The time to act is now and we’re here to act as partners,” said Ray Pineault, chief operating officer of Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment, which operates the Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort.

Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for the Mohegan Tribal Nation, stressed the existing agreement. “This is a government-to-government discussion between the two tribes and your governor in a process, quite frankly, that you set up,” Bunnell said. “We are pretty clear that no one new should come into this market. It’s an excellent arrangement that’s working and we should protect the relationship that employs thousands of people.”

Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said during the virtual hearing that the agreement to give Connecticut 25 percent of the slot machine revenue has totaled $8 billion since 1991, and the two tribes generate $2 billion a year in regional economic activity.

“Every day Connecticut is leaving money on the table,” said Butler, noting that the tribe has struck a deal with DraftKings to take over any future sports book. He said that if any entities other than the tribes were given the rights to sports gambling, it would violate the deal that goes back to Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. “We’re at the one yard line, and we just have to punch it in at this point,” Butler said of active talks with the governor.

Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, said the governor has been making progress in negotiations with the tribes. “Those talks have been productive,” Reiss said in a mid-afternoon statement. “The governor remains focused on being competitive with our surrounding states and not letting a new part of the broader economy pass the state by. He will continue to work for the best deal for Connecticut now and for the next generation.”

“We’re close to getting something happening,” state Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the committee, said to Butler, stressing that he would like to see some kind of eventual tribal development in Bridgeport.”

“That’s next in the pecking order,” said Butler, noting that after the two tribes develop a planned East Windsor satellite casino over the next three to four years, he would then look at Bridgeport. “I would like to see Bridgeport become the mega-center of sports betting,” Bradley responded. “How would you feel about that?”

Butler said a $25 million to $50 million sports-betting center would not make financial sense. And a $3 million facility would not change the landscape of downtown Bridgeport, he said.

Rob Simmelkjaer, chairman of the board at the Connecticut Lottery Corp., said that the state could make more revenue by letting the quasi-public agency run sports betting.

“It’s time to approve sports betting in Connecticut,” Simmelkjaer said, noting that 19 other states have legal sports wagering. “It is part of being a sports fan now, to hear sports-wagering.” He said that the 2,900 lottery retailers would also play a part in sports wagering. “They do it because it’s convenient,” he said of those who bets on sports. “It is right there, in their town. It can be done with cash and not necessarily a credit or debit card. There is some impulse buying as well.”

Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, said he believes the lottery takes advantage of low and middle-income residents.

“It’s the people who need the money the most in the pandemic who might be reaching for the stars in the lottery,” Vail said. “I don’t see rich people going into the store and buying lottery tickets.”

Lottery officials said that a 2019 study indicated that one-third of customers make $100,000 or more, a third make $50,000 to $100,000 and less than a third have incomes of below $50,000.

“We have the opportunity to make great strides and economic growth,” said Ted Taylor, president of Sportech, which wants all four existing groups, including the lottery and the tribes, to split the rights to sports wagering. “It would drive as much tax revenues for the state while offering a great all-around product. The last thing we want to do is show games on multiple televisions screens and have people making wagers on somebody else’s app.”

“The only people who believe the tribes have exclusive rights are the tribes themselves,” said Rich Pingel, chief legal officer for Sportech, which runs pari-mutuel wagering including horse racing and jai alai in 11 locations such as Bobby V’s in Stamford and near the airport in Windsor Locks, as well as Sports Haven in New Haven. “We sincerely hope that 2021 is the year that Connecticut gets sports betting done.”

Sportech paid $20 million in 1993 for the rights to operate off track betting in the state.

“I am all for competitiveness,” said Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, R-Monroe, a committee member. Vail, a veteran of the committee called on the tribes, lottery and Sportech, to come to some kind of agreement on sports wagering.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, an advocate for the tribal casinos, said the hearing was important because the state is at a crucial moment.

“To me, the answer is simple: Our two tribal nation partners, the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, have earned the right to operate sports betting in Connecticut because they are our longstanding, homegrown business partners who employ thousands of state residents and who have provided over $9 billion in revenue to Connecticut since the creation of our gaming compacts 30 years ago,” Osten said.

[email protected] Twitter: @KenDixonCT