Illinois college sports could be on the board for football season under new sports betting bill
Bettors haven’t been able to get in on any action involving Illinois college teams since wagering became legal last year, but they might be able to soon — despite the objections of athletic leaders.
Illinois sports bettors were boxed out from betting on the Illini and Ramblers in March Madness, but there’s a good chance they’ll be able to get some legal action on the Wildcats, Huskies and other in-state teams when the college football season kicks off this summer.
State lawmakers advanced a bill earlier this week that would do away with parts of a controversial provision of Illinois’ sports wagering law that prohibits sportsbooks from laying odds on games involving Illinois college teams.
Critics say the in-state ban is preventing a fast-growing industry from reaching its full potential, especially while such bets are there for the taking just across the border in Indiana, not to mention on illegal offshore betting websites.
But leaders of some college programs say it’s the only thing protecting student-athletes from further barrages of online harassment and undue pressure — potentially coming from the student wagering in the dorm room across the hall.
That’s why lawmakers settled on a “middle ground” with the new gaming bill that would require in-state college bets to be placed in person at a casino, racetrack or off-track betting parlor, according to state Rep. Mike Zalewski, the Riverside Democrat who has played point on sports wagering legislation.
The provision limits wagers to the outcomes of games, not individual performances, and it would sunset after two years.
“I think it’s a great compromise,” the Riverside Democrat said in a phone interview the day after the bill passed the Illinois House 96-11 during a marathon session early Tuesday. ”If student-athletes are being harassed, we’ll revisit it. If we’re not making enough revenue, we can revisit it.”
The state Senate would still have to approve the measure before it’s sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk.
University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman urged lawmakers to keep the ban in place during an April 28 hearing, saying its removal threatens the “physical and mental health and wellbeing of our student-athletes,” especially given the social media vitriol many athletes already face on a daily basis.
“The commentary is vile, it’s abusive, it’s threatening and in some cases it directly references gambling losses,” Whitman said. “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.”
Whitman, who played tight end at Illinois in the late 1990s, said the fact that residents have to travel to Indiana or Iowa to wager on in-state teams is still “a pretty strong disincentive for people to bet on our team.”
Zalewski said the rule “simply makes no sense when Indiana and Iowa have fully operational sports betting,” but added that he followed Whitman’s logic in requiring bettors to travel to a brick-and-mortar sportsbook if they want a piece of the Illinois college action.
“It takes an extra effort. I think we’ve met him half way,” said Zalewski, who initially pushed to lift the ban completely.
Through a spokesman, Whitman declined to comment on the watered-down bill that passed the Illinois House.
Either way, it’ll hardly be a boon to a gambling market that has already drawn almost $1 billion in bets on college teams from outside the state since sports wagering went live in Illinois just before the pandemic hit. About 97% of those dollars were wagered on cellphones and other mobile devices.
Because the vast majority of bets are placed online, critics say the state is leaving millions of dollars in potential tax revenue on the table by prohibiting mobile wagers on Illinois college teams — but “any loosening of the ban on in-state collegiate betting will ultimately be beneficial for the industry,” according to Joe Boozell, an analyst for the betting website PlayIllinois.com.
“Any change that only affects retail betting will by nature be limited in its impact. Ideally, though, this move will represent an incremental step toward lifting the ban entirely, including online,” Boozell said.
The in-state college betting provision is part of a gaming bill that would also allow for a sportsbook at Wintrust Arena in the South Loop. Other larger sports venues such as Wrigley Field and the United Center are eligible to open books, but have not yet applied to do so with state gambling regulators.
The state Senate could take up the bill later this month, when legislators are expected back in Springfield.