Gaming Commission sidesteps Encore concert legality

Agency focuses on March fight night event

THE MASSACHUSETTS Gaming Commission on Thursday sidestepped a prickly policy question about the legality of concerts and other entertainment being offered by Encore Boston Harbor at its grand ballroom in Everett.

Rival theater operators earlier this week accused Wynn Resorts of violating a state law barring the Encore casino from hosting concerts or other forms of entertainment serving crowds of more than 1,000 and less than 3,500. The law was meant to protect medium-size theaters in the area from having to compete against a casino that has an unfair advantage because it could subsidize a concert to attract crowds to its slot machines and gaming tables.

The theater owners pointed to a number of concerts and events held pre-COVID and a martial arts fight night on March 17. They called on the Gaming Commission to fine Encore for violating the law.

At its meeting on Thursday, the commission briefly took up the issue but then put off any action after Karen Wells, the executive director of the commission, said an Encore official had told her it was unclear whether the March 17 event, called Combat Zone 75, would fill more than 1,000 seats.

“In this case, we’re looking to see if that event on the 17th is even going to have patrons and/or seats within that range that would even trigger that discussion,” said Karen Wells, the executive director of the Gaming Commission. “l had a conversation with a representative from Wynn Resorts who is double-checking on that for me because it may not be that that is going to actually take place. So this may actually be premature.”

Wells appeared to suggest the commission would only take up the issue if the March 17 event sold more than 1,000 tickets. “If it’s not even going to be an event that’s a thousand patrons, it doesn’t even trigger that issue,” Wells said. “And that issue may not even be determinative, so there’s a lot of open questions there. But I wouldn’t want to put the commission in a position of having to opine on something that is not even ripe necessarily for any kind of vote or discussion.”

Wells said the commission is taking the issue seriously. “I didn’t want the public thinking that the commission just disregarded this,” she said. “This is something that we’re monitoring, but it may not even be an issue that would necessarily have to go on to the commission based on the numbers.”

Wells said the legal questions around the legality of the Encore concerts are unclear. “Nothing has ever been presented before the commission,” she said. “No determination has been made that an event between 1,000 and 1,500 is necessarily a violation of the law. So I think that needs to be clear.”

Cathy Judd-Stein, the chair of the commission, agreed with Wells’s recommendation to put off any action until more information is gathered. “It’s not because of lack of interest or lack of awareness or ongoing review and vigilance,” she said. She noted the commission has two more meetings before March 17 if it needs to take some action in regard to Combat Zone 75.

A check of the Ticketmaster event listing for Combat Zone 75 indicates more than 1,500 seats were listed for the show, suggesting it would fall within the 1,000 to 3,500 seat window. The law says “a gaming licensee shall only be permitted to build a live entertainment venue that has less than 1,000 seats or more than 3,500 seats.”

Dan Rabinovitz, an attorney at Murphy & King who represents the city of Medford and the booking agent for the 1,800-seat Chevalier Theatre in Medford, issued a statement saying the commission needs to address the issue more broadly.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“The Commission seems to have narrowly framed the issue as only being about this one upcoming fight night,” he said. “The issue is greater than how many seats the Encore now says will be in their ballroom for that upcoming event. There is solid evidence that the Encore has held multiple music and comedy events in its ballroom, a room located in a structure that Encore built. Instead of waiting for the Encore to supply the Commission with information about how many seats it plans to have at the upcoming fight night, it would be more useful for the Commission to insist that Encore provide complete information showing how many seats it had in its ballroom for those past shows.”

The legality of the Encore events is coming under scrutiny at the same time Wynn Resorts is proposing an entertainment zone across the street from the casino with hotels, an entertainment venue, a parking garage, and bars and restaurants. The Gaming Commission is expected to decide later this month whether it should regulate the new development as an extension of the existing casino, or whether the project should be free from the commission’s purview.

Wynn Resorts officials have argued that the new development should not be placed under the jurisdiction of the Gaming Commission, but Wynn officials here in Boston and in Las Vegas have offered conflicting viewpoints on the purpose of the project.