No Bets On Russians, Belarusians Under ‘Neutral Flag’

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Massachusetts bettors won’t be able to wager on athletes representing Russia or Belarus at the Olympics, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission decided Thursday. The MGC is among the first regulators in the U.S. to lay down such a ban.

The commission spent significant time discussing a potential ban because it said it doesn’t want to penalize those with Russian or Belarusian heritage, just those actually representing either government on the world stage.

Commissioners said they were concerned about Russia and Belarus taking advantage of the “neutral flag” option that has been used in Olympics in the past and that President Joe Biden supports for the 2024 Paris Games. At issue is the idea that those competing under a neutral flag may still actively be representing their governments, and that any success could be used as a “propaganda tool,” said Commissioner Eileen O’Brien.

The decision follows one earlier this year to leave some state-sanctioned leagues, including Russia’s KHL, off its bet menu. Several operators have stopped taking wagers on Russian or Belarusian leagues and events on their own since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Latest ban could be tough to navigate

The decision to ban sports wagering on certain athletes will likely create another complicated situation for operators to negotiate. Massachusetts already has a tricky college betting regulation that bans betting on local college teams unless they are participating in a tournament with four teams or more. So far, every retail operator in the state has allowed betting on at least one off-limits college basketball game, and all of the errors can be traced to administrative issues.

The Russia and Belarus athlete ban will require the MGC and operators to make a determination about whether or not an athlete is representing one of those countries or truly competing on their own. Commissioners said they definitely were not commenting on whether or not Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to compete, just that they do not want Massachusetts consumers to have the option to bet on those who support their governments in the face of the war in Ukraine.

Commissioner Jordan Maynard said his family traces its roots to Russia.

“I would hate for them to not be able to participate in a sport because they fled the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s,” he said. “I don’t even know what the constitutionality would be of not allowing a dual citizen who was born in Russia to compete under a neutral flag, much less restricting them in any way.”

In essence, the regulatory language allows athletes of Russian or Belarusian heritage competing in sports like tennis, golf, UFC, or even the Olympics to be wagered on in Massachusetts, but should one such athlete wrap themselves in the flag of their country after a win, the MGC would take notice and potentially prohibit wagers on the athlete going forward.

From the bet menu under the heading “Russia and Belarusian Prohibition”:

No wager shall be offered or accepted in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by a licensed sports wagering operator on any event or league overseen by a Russian or Belarusian governing body or body headquartered in Russia or Belarus. Further, no wager shall be offered or accepted on any athlete competing individually or on any team in an event authorized in the Commission’s catalog if the individual or team is known to represent Russia or Belarus. Wagering is permitted on a Russian or Belarusian born, based, or affiliated athlete competing individually or on a team in an event authorized in the Commission’s catalog if the event is scheduled to be conducted outside of Russia or Belarus and they are not known to represent or promote these countries. 

More Massachusetts news

The commission met for more than six hours Thursday to discuss and pass a bevy of rules and also began discussing the future of affiliate marketing in Massachusetts. Just ahead of the March 10 digital launch, the commission waived a regulation that would have prevented affiliate marketers from operating in the state. The waiver expires April 14. Thursday, commissioners considered having a roundtable with stakeholders to further address the situation, but did not agree to have one. The issue will be on Monday’s agenda for more robust conversation.

Earlier in the week, the MGC unveiled its new voluntary self-exclusion program, which allows for bans of one, three, or five years, and includes a lifetime option. Those who join the list are prohibited from entering any of the state’s three retail casinos or sportsbooks or from playing on any digital wagering platforms in the state. Consumers on the list are also removed from operators’ promo and advertising lists, and, according to a press release from the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, some operators will extend the ban to other states in which they operate.

More than 1,300 Bay Staters are already enrolled in the state’s voluntary exclusion program, which is administered by GameSense.

Elsewhere in New England …

Vermont lawmakers Friday morning moved a digital-only sports betting bill out of the House. Vermont is the only New England state that has not yet legalized sports betting, and one of two that has not launched wagering. Maine lawmakers legalized in 2022, but the Gambling Control Unit there is still developing rules.

In Connecticut, lawmakers are starting to tweak wagering and iCasino laws, and HB 5232, which would ban colleges and universities from taking money for soliciting students to gamble online, was filed. According to the text of the proposal, “As used in this section, ‘directly solicit’ means to make direct contact with a person through mail, telephone, electronic mail, in-person communication, or any other means for the purpose of inducing such a person to make a transaction.”

Across the country this year, lawmakers and regulators have been cracking down on advertising and marketing to those under the age of 21. In Massachusetts, regulators prohibit operators from partnering with local universities and have a stringent ban on advertising to those under the age of 21. In Colorado, PointsBet has a deal with the University of Colorado that initially included a $30 payment to the university for anyone who signed up using the university’s promotional code. That incentive has since been removed from the university’s deal with PointsBet.

The Connecticut bill was “tabled for the calendar” this week and has not yet been discussed. The General Assembly adjourns June 7.


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