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State lawmakers put Illinois college teams on the board under new sports betting bill

Residents could bet on in-state college teams — but only at casinos — under a bill that passed Thursday, over the staunch opposition of some university athletics officials.

The University of Illinois and Northwestern football teams square off at a November 2019 game in Champaign. Bettors would be able to wager on Illinois college athletics legally for the first time under a bill that advanced Thursday.
The University of Illinois and Northwestern football teams square off at a November 2019 game in Champaign. Bettors would be able to wager on Illinois college athletics legally for the first time under a bill that advanced Thursday.
AP Photos

The Illini, Ramblers and other Illinois college sports teams soon could be on the board for bettors at casinos statewide under a measure passed Thursday by lawmakers in Springfield.

The bill heading to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk would eliminate a ban on wagers on in-state college teams, a prohibition that has irked scores of fans since Illinois’ nascent legal sports betting industry launched a year and a half ago — and that has left millions in potential revenue off the table, sponsoring legislators say.

Under the bill, which passed the state Senate 44-12 and the House 100-11, wagers on local college teams would have to be placed in person at a casino, limited to bets on the outcomes of games, not individual performances. The in-state ban would be reinstated in two years unless lawmakers pass another bill allowing it.

The ban was a key concession in negotiations for the 2019 gambling expansion that introduced legal sports betting to the state, as a means of appeasing officials at some universities who have vehemently opposed college wagering of any sort.

Those detractors have been led by University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, who told lawmakers before they advanced an earlier version of the bill during the spring legislative session that it would put athletes under intense pressure — potentially from their own classmates in the same dorm.

“By allowing people in our state to bet on our own student-athletes, we’re only opening the door and inviting people to have those intense, threatening, abusive interactions” that already take place on social media, Whitman said.

Sponsoring state Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, has said the new provisions meet some of Whitman’s concerns halfway, while allowing the state to capitalize on betting dollars that are crossing the borders to Indiana and Iowa — or worse, to the black market. Illinois bettors have already wagered more than $947 million on non-Illinois college contests since the legitimate industry launched in March 2020.

State Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside (left), pictured in Springfield during the spring legislative session.
State Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside (left), pictured in Springfield during the spring legislative session.
AP Photos

While the legislation will allow fans of DePaul and Northern Illinois to get in on the action, it won’t provide the betting boon it would if it allowed wagers outside brick-and-mortar casinos. The vast majority of legal bets in Illinois are placed online, accounting for upwards of 97% of the statewide handle, or the amount of money wagered.

“We’ve got one of the best sports betting markets in the country, and this is going to make it even more mature,” Zalewski said after the bill passed. “We were not preventing it from happening. We may as well take advantage of the market. I think we’ve been judicious.”

The bill heading to Pritzker’s desk includes several other key gaming provisions:

  • Wintrust Arena would be allowed to open a sportsbook. While the 2019 gambling expansion allowed sports venues with capacities of 17,000 or more to open books, the South Loop home of the WNBA champion Chicago Sky only holds about 10,000.
  • Illinois residents would be able to sign up for sports betting accounts from their phones or computers beginning March 5, instead of doing so in person at a casino as required under the 2019 law. That so-called “penalty box” requirement, which was created to give casinos a head start on the industry over large online sports betting companies, originally had not been scheduled to expire until late 2022.
  • Local governments would not be able to impose additional taxes on video gaming terminals. A dozen or so towns already have passed such “push taxes,” typically levying one cent for every play on a slot machine on top of their 5% take on revenue. Those municipalities would be allowed to keep collecting, but other towns wouldn’t be able to create such taxes after Nov 1. Some local leaders have called the push tax ban a favor to the slot machine industry, but sponsors say it prevents a patchwork of local ordinances that would drive down business.