Year In Review: Illinois Arrives On Sports Betting Scene And Makes Statement

On the surface, the state of sports betting in Illinois could serve as a microcosm of 2020: the allure of potential on the verge of being realized, then suddenly taken away and needing a state-aided boost before finally now showing the shoots of promise everyone thought capable.

When factoring in a once-in-a-century pandemic, the addition of sports betting to gaming options in Illinois went as well as could be expected as part of a gaming expansion bill signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June 2019. There were some hiccups, but those issues proved to be minor as sportsbooks worked through teething pains to create a robust and competitive marketplace.

Bettors currently have five mobile wagering options in lieu of physically going to sportsbooks since those are all closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, and more options are on the horizon for both online and retail. Bettors have also clearly shown an appetite for wagering — the Illinois Gaming Board reported a combined handle of nearly $740 million in September and October — vaulting the state into top-four status nationally in terms of monthly handle and offering the tantalizing long-term prospect of contending with heavyweights New Jersey and Nevada for the No. 1 spot.

Slow, steady occasionally wins the day

Pandemic aside, Illinois’ story when it comes to sports betting to this point is about persistence and patience. Govs. Eric Holcomb and Kim Reynolds also signed bills legalizing sports betting five days apart in May 2019 in neighboring Indiana and Iowa, respectively, and the regulatory bodies in those bordering states put the pedal to the metal to accept wagers before the start of the NFL season that year.

That created demand, perhaps overly publicized but definitely in existence, to have sports betting in Illinois as soon as possible. Nothing drives progress like envy and lack of availability, and sports bettors scratched their itch over state lines in the interim.

Indiana had remote registration, which meant the only things needed were a smart phone and a way to get over the state line to place a wager, and though bettors needed to show up at a sportsbook in Iowa at least once to register, the novelty of sports betting in a place not named Las Vegas — or Bettendorf — served as its own allure.

All the while the IGB charted its path — writing sports wagering rules and revising when necessary in response to comments submitted in the public comment period. It is better to view the timeline of the buildup to sports betting in Illinois in two parts: the five months from when Pritzker legalized sports betting to the board’s release of the sports betting license applications in mid-December, and the four months from that point to when former Chicago Blackhawks star Eddie Olczyk placed the first wager in the state at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in March.

“The goal is to get a sports wagering system that is correct, not a sports wagering process by an artificial deadline,” IGB Administrator Marcus Fruchter said last year when the board released the license applications.

One year after those applications were released, the argument can be made the sports betting system is largely correct. There was also the added degree of difficulty incorporating horse racing tracks in the mix. PointsBet teamed up with Hawthorne Race Course, becoming the third such track in the country to accept sports bets and first outside New Jersey. In the future, FanDuel will move its operations from the Par-A-Dice Casino to partner Fairmount Park.

There was the mix-up regarding PGA Tour during the summer in which golf betting markets were taken down for approximately one month for reasons that were never fully explained, but the length of time needed to restore those markets was primarily due to the IGB following statutory rules. In the end, those offerings were fully restored, and betting on golf did turn one bettor in the state into a millionaire.

If there is one downside from a bettor perspective, it is the carve-out that prevents bettors from wagering on sporting events involving Illinois-based colleges and universities. This was a non-factor shortly after launch in March because the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled. But Big Ten schools played football this fall, and the basketball teams at both Illinois and Northwestern are nationally ranked. Combine those facts with the increased attention of a potential 2021 NCAA Tournament being played entirely in nearby Indiana, there is the possibility for betting handle to slip across the border to the east.

“We’re off to a good start and we look forward to continuing growth in the Illinois sports wagering industry,” Fruchter said this month upon the release of the October sports betting revenue report, and there is little to disagree with on that front.

2020-41: Mobile sports betting odyssey

The “good start” Fruchter referenced at the last IGB meeting would not have taken place without Executive Order 2020-41, originally issued by Pritzker in June. A move borne out of necessity due to COVID-19 restrictions, it suspended the in-person registration requirement needed to gain access to mobile sports wagering, which has become a lifeline for revenue to casinos that were shuttered a second time as of Nov. 19.

“The Governor is pleased to see Illinois leading the way in this new industry despite the complications this year has brought thanks to the Illinois Gaming Board,” said Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s spokesperson, in a statement emailed to Sports Handle. “We look forward to expanding and growing this revenue option in the years ahead.”

The lone drawback to Executive Order 2020-41 is it requires a monthly renewal by Pritzker. As a result, followers in the industry feverishly hit refresh on their internet browsers in the minutes leading up to 5 p.m. CST on the Friday before its usual weekend expiration date, looking for the “papal smoke” via cyber trail to confirm it was included among the multiple executive orders renewed during such procedures.

Recall the one time Pritzker opted not to renew 2020-41 in late July, which resulted in DraftKings firing up an email campaign to get users to lobby for its restoration via automated emails to the governor and state legislators. That lobbying was eventually successful, as it was restored in Executive Order 2020-52 in August and has remained in effect through multiple renewals, with the most recent extension keeping the suspension in place through Jan. 9.

The pandemic and Pritzker’s executive order fueled the surge of mobile sports wagering in cause-and-effect fashion, and they also had a second unintended consequence: the end — at least during the pandemic — of the “penalty box” designed to delay the entrance of FanDuel and DraftKings into Illinois’ sports betting cyberspace.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…

Much was made — perhaps to the point of overkill — about the provision in the Sports Wagering Act in which an application for an online-only sports wagering license could not be accepted by the IGB until 18 months after the issuance of the first such license for a brick-and-mortar establishment at the earliest.

Even the price tag and limited availability of the online-only licenses — $20 million each and only three to be granted — were shunted aside because everyone knew Rush Street Gaming, which runs BetRivers and Rivers Casino, wanted to keep DraftKings and FanDuel out of Illinois as long as possible to establish itself as the dominant player. The birth of that rivalry and the term “penalty box” can be found here along with recent residual sniping here.

Rivers Casino did get its window of exclusivity, it just closed faster than anyone anticipated due to the pandemic, Executive Order 2020-41, and the shrewd business tactics of both online titans to partner with a land-based casino and establish a mobile beachhead. DraftKings teamed with Casino Queen in East St. Louis, while FanDuel showed it can play beyond Peoria despite being centralized at Par-A-Dice Casino.

BetRivers was the sole mobile operator in part of June, July, and a notable portion of August, but it did not take long for both FanDuel and DraftKings to show how much pull they have. In September’s revenue report, BetRivers narrowly held off DraftKings to claim honors for top mobile handle. In October, all three cleared $100 million in that category, but BetRivers finished third.

The power play is clearly over.

What does 2021 hold?

There is still upside for sports betting to tap in the state of Illinois for next year, and there are many places where it can be realized. The five mobile operators in the state will likely have company in the near future as both BetMGM and Unibet have submitted applications for Management Services Provider Licenses. With FanDuel planning to move its license to Fairmount Park as part of its plans to open a racino in the southwest part of the state, BetMGM is also expected to take the retail spot FanDuel will vacate at Par-A-Dice.

Unibet will be the mobile engine of Argosy Casino Alton, which is also located near the St. Louis metropolitan area — a target market given Missouri does not yet have legalized sports wagering. Should all these moves go as expected, that increases the number of mobile operators to seven.

An eighth could be Barstool Sports, which has been slowly furthering its reach to the Midwest through its deal with Penn National Gaming. It recently expanded its retail presence to both Michigan and Indiana and will do so online in the former next month. Hollywood Joliet is the most likely landing place for the Barstool brand, which would give it two locales that flank Chicago — its Indiana location at Ameristar Casino is just over the state line in East Chicago.

There are currently three casinos in Illinois that have yet to submit a sports betting license application to the IGB — the Harrah’s casinos in Joliet and Metropolis, and Jumer’s Casino in Rock Island. Of the three, Jumer’s appears to have the best possibility of a 2021 launch following its acquisition by Twin River in October that preceded its rebranding to the Bally Corporation.

Jumer’s is located in the northwest part of the state in the Quad Cities and would compete for sports betting dollars with Iowa casinos, which will have remote registration for mobile betting starting Friday.

The glass looks half full when it comes to sports wagering in Illinois at the end of 2020, and bettors are ready for that next pour in 2021.

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