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Ditka, Bears fans, ‘casino investors’ cross Indiana border to lay wagers hours before season opener against Packers

When will Chicago fans be able to get in on the action without taking a 25-minute drive across the Indiana border? That’s anyone’s guess.  

Mike Ditka whips out a cigar before placing a ceremonial first bet at the Ameristar Casino in East Chicago, Ind., Thursday afternoon.
Mike Ditka whips out a cigar before placing a ceremonial first bet at the Ameristar Casino in East Chicago, Ind., Thursday afternoon.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

How often is South Sider Will Watkins going to be at northwest Indiana casinos putting down sports bets?

“Constantly,” the Chatham resident said at the Ameristar Casino in East Chicago, which held a grand opening ceremony for its new sportsbook Thursday. At least for now.

“Once it’s up and running in Illinois, of course I’ll start betting closer to home,” said Watkins, who thinks of himself more as a “casino investor” than a gambler.

Chatham resident Will Watkins drove to East Chicago, Ind., on Thursday to put $150 down on the Bears’ season opener.
Chatham resident Will Watkins drove to East Chicago, Ind., on Thursday to put $150 down on the Bears’ season opener.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

“But you’ll find me here till then,” he said, not long after putting $150 on the Bears to win the season opener against the reviled Green Bay Packers.

The Chicago resident was part of a bevy of Bears fans who packed into the Ameristar lobby for a glimpse of team icons Mike Ditka and Devin Hester — and to get a taste of the newly legal Indiana sports-betting action.

While Illinois regulators labor to roll out the new industry on this side of the border, Da Coach and the Bears’ famously “ridiculous” kick returner were on hand to put down ceremonial first wagers, though sports betting actually went live at the Ameristar and several other Indiana casinos Sunday.

Ditka — trademark cigar firmly in cheek — put $100 down on the Bears to win the Super Bowl, while Hester put $200 on the Bears to win Thursday night.

“Just goes to show it’s the players who have the real money,” Ditka said.

Devin Hester put $200 on the Bears to win on Thursday. Mike Ditka wagered $100 on the Bears winning their first Super Bowl title since his legendary 1985 squad did.
Devin Hester put $200 on the Bears to win on Thursday. Mike Ditka wagered $100 on the Bears winning their first Super Bowl title since his legendary 1985 squad did.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

They weren’t the only Bears legends out hawking sportsbooks this week across the state line. Former Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte helped cut the ribbon Wednesday at the Horseshoe Hammond Casino’s sports-betting den, and Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher took the Bears over the Packers with the ceremonial first bet placed at the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City.

That makes three books within an hour’s drive of Chicago, with the Horseshoe Hammond just a 25-minute jaunt from Soldier Field.

Caesars Entertainment — which owns the Horseshoe and a handful of other Indiana casinos launching books by the end of the month — said that in just five days since Hoosier sports-betting went live Sept. 1, they’ve taken more bets on the Bears’ season opener in Indiana than in their Nevada locations, where they’ve been taking Bears-Packers wagers since April.

Former Bears running back Matt Forte (far right) helps open “The Book” at the Horseshoe Hammond Casino on Wednesday.
Former Bears running back Matt Forte (far right) helps open “The Book” at the Horseshoe Hammond Casino on Wednesday.
Provided by Caesars Entertainment

When will fans be able to get in on the action in Illinois? That’s anyone’s guess.

Indiana and Iowa beat Illinois to the Midwest sports-betting punch, with their governors signing bills legalizing the industries about two months before Gov. J.B. Pritzker did June 28. Iowa launched sports betting Aug. 15.

At first, sponsors of the bill said Illinois books could be up and running by the start of the NFL season, or at least in time for the Super Bowl in February.

But that’s looking increasingly unlikely as the Illinois Gaming Board — which vets and oversees all gambling operations in the state — is still drafting hundreds of pages of rules setting the framework for the industry here.

Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter speaks at an Aug. 8 meeting.
Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Unlike the statutes in Iowa or Indiana, Illinois law does not specify any dates for the gaming board to have license application procedures in place. And gaming board administrator Marcus Fruchter has said his regulators aren’t rushing into anything at the risk of putting a faulty system in place, especially while they’re tasked with licensing up to six new casinos and thousands more newly authorized gaming positions.

In the meantime, the gaming board is asking for public input on how to roll out the sports-betting industry here. That comment period closes Sept. 27, or about a quarter of the way through the NFL season.

Despite the delay — and astronomical licensing fees compared to Illinois’ neighbors to the east and west — several Illinois casinos and racetracks have already announced plans to build sportsbooks while regulators iron out the details.

“I’ll be investing my money here till then,” Watkins said.