Illinois has turned the page on its first legal sportsbook.
The Land of Lincoln became the 15th state to play host to a legal sports wager as Rivers Casino in Des Plaines opened the state’s first sportsbook Monday morning, introducing Illinois’ latest gambling foray — one that officials are betting will help bankroll an ambitious capital plan for the cash-strapped state.
For the ballyhooed first bet, Blackhawks announcer Eddie Olczyk put $100 down on his hometown White Sox to win the American League pennant at 16-to-1 odds.
“I’m a Cubs fan, but you’ve got to bet with your brain instead of your heart,” the longtime NHL center and horse racing handicapper said.
The wager at Rivers put an end to more than eight months of scrambling by state gambling regulators to lay the ground rules for the nascent industry — and groaning from impatient fans eager to get in on the action while sports betting dollars flowed across the border to Indiana, where it launched in September.
The bet by Olczyk — who said his potential winnings are earmarked for colon cancer research at Northwestern Memorial Hospital — also marked the latest formal rollout of sports betting as its spread across the country continues.
The industry is rolling out in several other states in the months ahead, including in Michigan later this week, and a host of additional states are poised to pass legislation following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing states to do so in 2018.
Here in Illinois, a handful of other casinos, plus a Downstate racetrack, have applied for sports betting licenses.
So far, besides Rivers, the Argosy Casino Alton near St. Louis is the only other to announce a firm launch date: March 16, a buzzer-beater for the glut of March Madness betting expected as the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament tips off March 17. Under the gambling expansion law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last June, though, bets can’t be placed on Illinois collegiate teams.
But it was Rivers — the state’s most profitable casino by nearly double its closest competitor — that nabbed the first sports betting license. The Des Plaines gambling mecca had its book built almost three months before it got the green light from regulators.
“You always want to be first, but you also want to do it right,” Rivers chairman Neil Bluhm said.
The billionaire real estate mogul pointed to his casino’s licensing in turbulent economic times in 2008, when the Illinois Gaming Board awarded Bluhm’s company the Des Plaines casino after it was controversially denied from nearby Rosemont due to investors’ ties to organized crime.
“The world [market] was really crashing then, and look where we’ve all come since then, both the country as well as this terrific casino,” Bluhm said. “So I’m equally confident that while we’re opening a sportsbook today, when we’re all worried about a virus, and the financial markets are all melted — we will come through this, and this country will be equally successful or more successful than before, and our casino will continue to thrive.”
The state’s three racetracks are also eligible to open sportsbooks, as well as large stadiums such as Wrigley Field and the United Center.
Most, if not all, of Illinois’ 10 existing casinos are expected to eventually lay sports wagers, as are the up to six new casinos allowed under that sweeping gambling expansion.
While most Illinois casino interests are concerned about further saturating a state market with even more casinos on top of 33,000-plus video gambling machines dotting the walls at thousands of bars and lounges across the state, sports betting is viewed as an untapped market.
Industry analysts are bullish, estimating the yearly statewide handle could eventually smash $5 billion and even surpass $10 billion, potentially topping the Nevada industry.
With a 15% tax rate on gross sportsbook revenue, Pritzker’s office anticipates the industry eventually will inject about $60 million into state coffers each year. The tax rate goes up to 17% for Rivers and any other casinos that might open in Cook County — including the potential Chicago mega-casino so coveted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Pritzker, who prized sports betting as part of the gaming expansion, was conspicuously absent from the sportsbook opening ceremony, as his administration deals with a growing number of coronavirus cases statewide.
Pritzker’s office didn’t return requests for comment. Tax revenue from the expansion will help fund the freshman Democrat’s signature $45 billion plan for construction projects across the state.
Statehouse gambling champions Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, and Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, worked a packed room at Rivers.
“There were various times last spring where I was skeptical if this would work out, but we’ve got a strong framework in place,” said Zalewski, a White Sox fan who planned to bet on rising star third baseman Yoan Moncada to win the 2020 American League MVP award.
To maximize sports betting revenue, though, analysts agree it’ll be mobile betting that powers the market. Indiana bettors have put down well over $500 million since the Hoosier state’s launch five months ago, with most of those wagers placed on cellphones.
Monday’s launch also started the clock on the 18-month “penalty box” period for online-only betting giants such as FanDuel and DraftKings, a provision of the Illinois sports betting law pushed by Bluhm that controversially locks out such companies from the industry rollout.
Physical sportsbooks such as Rivers can set up their own betting apps in the meantime, though. Greg Carlin, Bluhm’s business partner, said they’re aiming to do just that within a few months.
A few hundred fans were still happy to crowd the new brick-and-mortar sportsbook and its dozens of standalone betting kiosks on a Monday afternoon.
“A few buddies and I used to make the trip to Vegas to visit the sportsbooks every now and then,” Glen Ellyn resident Mike Billings said after putting $40 on the University of San Francisco to top Gonzaga in a Monday night men’s basketball matchup. “Now we can do it right off the highway.”