When legal sports betting launched in Illinois three months ago, some gamblers might’ve expected they’d be placing wagers on the White Sox from inside Guaranteed Rate Field by mid-June.
Instead, they soon could be betting on an unprecedented mid-summer Blackhawks playoff series from the phones in the palms of their hands.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order Thursday that allows bettors to register for online sports wagering accounts from home, providing an earlier restart for the rookie industry that saw its planned kickoff blocked by the coronavirus pandemic.
The gaming expansion bill signed into law by Pritzker last year requires bettors to register in person at casinos, racetracks or sports facilities before they can place wagers on mobile applications that are managed by those brick-and-mortar gambling meccas.
The Democratic governor’s latest order temporarily removes that in-person registration requirement as part of the state’s coronavirus response.
“Governor Pritzker’s executive order allows Illinois sports fans to temporarily place wagers from the safety of their own home, protecting a revenue source that is critical as the state begins to recover from the damaging financial impact of COVID-19,” Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter said in a Friday announcement. “The Illinois Gaming Board looks forward to welcoming patrons back to casinos when it is safe to do so.”
The state’s 10 casinos have been shut down since March 16, just a week after Blackhawks announcer Eddie Olczyk placed the state’s first-ever legal sports bet at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
But even with Pritzker’s latest change, fans won’t be able to get in on the action just yet.
Of the seven casinos and three racetracks that so far have applied for sports betting licenses, only Rivers and the downstate Argosy Casino Alton have been granted temporary operating permits by the Gaming Board.
And those are only good for laying odds inside their now-shuttered establishments. They still need to request Gaming Board approval to offer online sports wagering, requests that hadn’t been submitted as of Friday afternoon.
Spokesmen for Rivers and Argosy declined to comment. The Gaming Board will hold a virtual meeting June 11, its first meeting since Jan. 30.
Nor is it clear what sports will be on the board whenever Illinoisans can wager from home. The Blackhawks are in line for a playoff spot under a proposed NHL season restart, but that schedule is in flux along with most other major American sports. A handful of European soccer leagues were on the board Friday along with a smattering of other contests.
Casino industry leaders still applauded Pritzker’s order as a lifeline for a market that was down more than $100 million in the first month of the shutdown alone.
“It makes sense with everything going on,” Illinois Casino Gaming Association executive director Tom Swoik said. “If we’d had online wagering this whole time, we could’ve still been making a little money and the state could’ve been making a little money, at least.”
Swoik said he hopes the state’s casinos will be able to reopen in late June under the fourth phase of Pritzker’s reopening plan, but the governor wasn’t showing his cards Friday.
“Whatever we do with regard to casinos and with video [gaming] terminals has got to be done with the thought in mind that the states and the cities that keep their people safest — this is the history of pandemics — the states and the cities that keep their people safest are the ones that do the best economically coming out of it,” he said.
The Gaming Board said Monday that the latest change is effective until either the governor’s disaster proclamation expires or the regulating agency formally issues a master sports wagering license, beyond the temporary permits such as those held by Rivers and Argosy.
That will also start the clock on the 18-month “penalty box” period included in Illinois’ gambling law for online-only sports betting giants such as DraftKings and FanDuel. The state’s law was written to give casinos a head start over those operators who previously ran daily fantasy contests in an online betting gray area that former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan deemed illegal gambling.
Illinois’ penalty box incensed the online companies, but they’re still trying to lay whatever claim they can to a sports betting market some analysts think could eventually rival Nevada’s.
DraftKings and FanDuel each have applied to the Gaming Board for licenses as management services providers — and the latter reportedly could be making a play for an inside track to an actual sports betting license. The betting news website Sports Handle has reported FanDuel is in talks to buy the downstate Fairmount Park Racetrack, which would let them bypass the penalty box.