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Ahead of sports betting bill, GOP lawmakers met league officials at PGA Tour headquarters

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan’s House speaker and two other GOP lawmakers met with pro sports league officials at Professional Golfers Association Tour headquarters in February to discuss the state’s plan to legalize sports betting. 

About seven months later, lawmakers introduced a sports betting bill that included language making pro sports leagues the official provider of statistics for Michigan’s sports betting industry, a mandate the leagues listed as a priority at that February meeting.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, Rep. Brandt Iden and Rep. Jim Lilly traveled to the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in February to meet with the PGA Tour, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball to discuss a draft of the legislation, the lawmakers confirmed.  

Tom Baldwin of Paint Creek, W.V., downloads a new online sports betting application onto his smartphone at Mardi Gras Casino & Resort in Crosslanes, W.V., Dec. 28, 2018

During the visit, which was first reported by The Athletic, the leagues' lobbyist paid roughly $260 per person for food and drink, Iden said. The lawmakers said they paid for their flights and accommodations for the trip. 

Michigan legislators and lawmakers from other states have met with the PGA Tour and “its league partners" in several meetings over the past two years to discuss sports betting, said Joel Schuchmann, vice president of communications for the PGA Tour. 

The meetings have sought sports betting language that ensures cooperation on information sharing, investigations and consumer protection, including the the use of official league data, Schuchmann said. 

“The alternatives to official league data include web scraping or on-site operatives which lead to inconsistencies and delays that could be subject to manipulation,” the PGA Tour spokesman said.  

On Dec. 20, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the sports betting bill and several others that would legalize online gaming. 

The 40-page sports betting bill contains 11 paragraphs that will force businesses taking wagers on athletic events to rely on “official league data” provided by the leagues on “commercially reasonable terms” when settling in-game wagers. 

Michigan is one of three states that require official league data after sports leagues, including the NBA and PGA Tour, spent at least $188,000 on lobbying.

Critics have argued that the requirement to glean that data exclusively from pro sports leagues will drive up costs. Others argue it was the best way to ensure the integrity of the game for all involved in the industry. 

A requirement to use “official league data” was one of five priorities the leagues were pushing to include in Michigan’s sports betting legislation, said Bob DeVries, the Governmental Consultant Services Inc. lobbyist who represented the leagues last year. 

Without standardized data, DeVries said, it would be almost impossible to make in-game wagers that rely on game details such as passing yards, strikes or drives — timely, accurate stats the leagues could provide.   

“We needed to be able to show legislators how we have the technology to accurately measure those things,” he said. 

The visit to Florida was no different than the meetings Iden held with more than 30 other stakeholders in his five-year crusade to modernize Michigan’s gaming laws. said Iden, the Oshtemo Township Republican who spearheaded Michigan’s gaming package. 

State Rep. Brandt Iden

“The athletes and the leagues themselves are just as much a part of sports betting as the casinos, the tribes and the actual bettors,” he said. 

Neither Iden nor Chatfield could recall how the visit was initiated, whether they were approached by the leagues or whether they approached the leagues for the meeting. 

“It was one of the larger reforms that the Legislature worked on this year,” said Chatfield’s spokesman Gideon D’Assandro. “(The leagues) were willing to show how they collect their data and how they would protect the integrity of the bettors in Michigan and he (Chatfield) wanted to see that for himself.”

All stakeholders agreed to include the requirement to use “official league data” in the final work groups ahead of the bill’s introduction, Lilly said. 

“Had it not been included, it was unlikely we would have had the votes to move this package,” Lilly said in a statement. 

When the lawmakers visited PGA Tour headquarters, they brought draft legislation that had some version of what leagues have come to call an “integrity fee” or a type of royalty to be paid to the leagues that regulate the games, Iden said.

When the legislation was eventually introduced in September, the draft language had been replaced with a requirement for “official league data,” a provision that Iden said best preserved the integrity of sports betting for all involved.

“We put a great bill together that can regulate the gaming industry and the illegal betting that goes on in the marketplace,” he said. “And that was the goal, to put a bill in place that protects consumers.”

In all, the leagues obtained four of the five pieces they hoped would be included in the legislation, said DeVries, the lobbyist. 

Besides official league data, the legislation includes language allowing for betting on mobile devices, the ability for leagues to ask the Michigan Gaming Control Board to prohibit bets on certain items and a process for the leagues to request betting data from casinos. 

But a fifth priority — a royalty fee — never made it into the law. 

Of the four priorities, “we didn’t get 100% of what we wanted on any of them,” DeVries said. “But we were content with getting something we wanted on all of them.”

The meeting at PGA Tour headquarters came about a month after Iden attended a separate gaming conference in New Orleans organized by the New Jersey-based nonprofit National Council of Legislators from Gaming States, according to a report last year from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network

Several lawmakers — including Chatfield and Lilly — were among those registered to attend.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.