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Illinois sports bettors going on wild ride

The Illinois sports gambling scene may not have devolved into Chicago-style politics, but bettors in the Land of Lincoln have been taken on a wild ride in the past couple of weeks.

All seemed to be trending positively for consumers when Gov. J.B. Pritzker in early June suspended a requirement on in-person registration to open a sports wagering account. Two weeks later, Rivers Casino, located in the northern Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, and parent company Rush Street Interactive launched the first mobile app in the state.

From there, the race could have been on for other outlets to get in on the temporary suspension. Both DraftKings and FanDuel received temporary operating permits from the Illinois Gaming Board on July 17, and the former announced in late July that it had partnered with the Casino Queen in East St. Louis in a rebranding effort to also have a brick-and-mortar base in the state. DraftKings has a sportsbook hub just across the Illinois-Indiana border as well at the Ameristar East Casino.

But before any formal mobile launch was made for either national operator, Pritzker did not extend the in-person suspension in an executive order issued July 24 that took effect July 27. By that date, no other casino had rolled out a mobile product. Illinois state government spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said that because Illinois casinos had reopened July 1, the suspension of in-person registration was no longer a priority.

“The governor issued (the executive order) so sports betting could continue on track amid the pandemic that forced the closure of casinos, which made it impossible for players to create sports betting accounts in person,” Abudayyeh said in a statement. “Now that the state has entered Phase 4 and casinos have resumed in-person business, there is no longer a need to suspend provisions of the law that require in-person registration.”

It’s notable that when the state initially passed sports betting laws in 2019, a 540-day “penalty box” of sorts was negotiated against DraftKings and FanDuel because of daily fantasy sports operations whose legality were contested and have resulted in state Supreme Court decisions on individual disputes. Given the temporary permit issuance, the end of the loosened restrictions on registration from the governor’s office is conspicuous, if not coincidental in its timing.

In any case, the moratorium on those online-only operations began when the first legal bet was made in the state (which was on March 9). So the math says September of 2021 will be when the online floodgates reopen.

All the while, PointsBet could be a quiet beneficiary of this timing. The Australia-based company has been expanding into multiple states, and they’re partnered with suburban Chicago’s Hawthorne Race Course, which received a master license for sports wagering from the state board in mid-July. In short order, the company will have registration available at four locations sprinkled throughout the metro area.

A PointsBet spokesperson declined comment on a formal timeline for launch, but it stands to reason that license approvals are being made now for rollout timelines to have been completed by the start of the NFL season on Sept. 10. So it’s likely a matter of weeks, not months, for PointsBet’s formal entry into the Illinois fray.

“Together, we will soon unveil our market-leading retail and mobile product for sports fans in the great state of Illinois, providing the premium sports betting experience they’ve so anxiously been waiting for,” PointsBet CEO Johnny Aitken said in a statement. “We’ve long stated that the best product will win, and we are excited to bring that to life in showcasing the competitive advantages we possess by owning our technology environment from end to end, such as unrivaled speed and ease of use on a personalized platform that’s free of friction.”

On Monday, William Hill opened its first book in Illinois at the Grand Victoria Casino Elgin. The move was a rebranding of the book that already existed as part of the recently concluded Eldorado-Caesars merger. William Hill operates all of the sportsbooks under the new Caesars Entertainment umbrella.

Disappearing markets

In a normal week, all the corporate positioning in the state climate might have percolated to the average bettor’s radar. But the sudden disappearance of the PGA Tour and NASCAR wagers, among a couple of international leagues and markets, from BetRivers’ catalog on July 26, along with the reinstatement of the in-person betting requirement, quickly sent a cascade of angst through social media platforms.

By mid-week, both U.S.-based individual leagues had returned to Rivers’ roster. But the unanswered question: Why had they been pulled in the first place?

For its part, the IGB was unsure, sending multiple outlets a statement late last week:

“The IGB did not instruct its sports wagering licensees to remove those leagues from their wagering options. However, the Illinois Gaming Board does require all sports wagering licensees to comply with the requirements of the Sports Wagering Act, including the statutory requirement to only offer wagering on professional sports, athletic events, collegiate events, or motor racing events as defined in Rule 1900.120.”

That rule defines a professional sport or athletic event as “A contest, event, or game at which two or more persons participate and receive compensation in excess of actual expenses for their participation in that event.”

In a conversation with Gaming Today, board director of policy and special projects Joe Miller explained that, out of an abundance of caution, BetRivers initially removed the PGA event because of concerns as to whether “expenses for participation” could be construed to create confusion if amateurs were involved if there were other performance exceptions. Miller said the NASCAR race was removed from BetRivers’ roster by mistake.

Rush Street Interactive declined comment for this report through a spokesperson.

Last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational was available for bettors, and it is expected that this week’s PGA Championship and future golf events will be available for online wagering in Illinois. Nearly 40 new events across all sports had been submitted for approval to the IGB on July 23, Miller said, and they will be addressed after a 30-day waiting period, per state rules.

Once a new event or sport is approved by the state, it is available for use for all licensed operators, Miller said. And in the case of golf events, a specific tournament generally needs approval only once before being considered an appropriate contest in future years.

“The IGB recognizes that growing pains are inevitable as we collectively work to maintain a successful, transparent, ethical, and compliant sports wagering industry in Illinois,” Miller said. “We thank all licensees and applicants for their continuing candor and cooperation with IGB staff when addressing this issue.”

The reality is this environment is that those “growing pains” are playing out in real time.