Eileen O’Brien joined the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) at an extraordinary moment in the state’s gaming industry.
It was 2018. The $573 million MGM Springfield was about to open, and the $2.5 billion Encore Boston Harbor was waiting in the wings. Within months, the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, giving states the right to offer legal sports betting.
Then Covid hit, “and all of a sudden,” says O’Brien, “we’re closing facilities that sometimes didn’t have locks on the doors, because they never intended to close.” The industry went dark for months in 2020, and didn’t fully reopen—sans masks, Plexiglas and occupancy limits—until mid-2021.
In mid-2022, the pace quickened again, when Massachusetts became the 36th state to legalize sports betting, and once more, for commissioners, it was off to the races. In January 2023—just six months later—retail sports betting went live, just in time for Super Bowl LVII. And in March, days before the NCAA Finals tipoff, online bets followed.
That lightning pace seems to be standard operating procedure in the Bay State; O’Brien jokes that the original commissioners “were building the plane as they were flying it.”
But the pressure didn’t faze this law enforcement veteran, formerly of the state Inspector General’s Office and Attorney General’s Office. “As a prosecutor and litigator, I’m used to jobs where you get this intensity,” she says. “There’s been a lot on the commission’s plate for the last five years.”
In the run-up to sports betting, O’Brien was front and center in public hearings on sportsbooks, demanding scrupulous transparency in their promotions and compliance with measures that protect underage and at-risk consumers.
“Investigations and trial work gave me the foundation to ask the right questions of the appropriate people, and in a public setting,” she says. “Sometimes it can be very uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.”
Looking back, she says sports wagering in one of the country’s diehard sports states “went remarkably well, given how quickly we launched. We’re seeing a robust entry by the commonwealth and by the licensees,” including a grand total of eight operators. “As the market matures, we’ll go back as we see fit, look at the regulations and tweak as needed.”
She’s proud to note Massachusetts’ commitment to responsible gaming; it spends more on gambling research than any other state. “We have a statutory mandate to have a research agenda and we’ve done baselines, looking at multiple populations. It’s something I care very much about. We hear constantly how the Massachusetts model should be lauded.”
Asked to share the personal characteristics that have best served her in her career, she replies, “Persistence, patience and diligence”—plus, undoubtedly, the ability to perform effectively in a whirlwind.
“I’ve yet to be here in steady state—I’m not so sure it exists,” says the commissioner. “But it’s definitely made the job interesting.”