Coronavirus muffles March Madness but not Illinois’ new sports betting industry — yet

Amid COVID-19 concerns, gamblers placed more than 6,300 bets over the first two days at the state’s first sportsbook.

SHARE Coronavirus muffles March Madness but not Illinois’ new sports betting industry — yet

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The state’s most profitable casino hit its goal earlier this week of ushering in Illinois sports betting in time for March Madness. 

Now it’s aiming to keep bettors coming through its Des Plaines doors after news that  coronavirus concerns will bar fans from live action at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. 

Fist bumps and hand sanitizer were the name of the game for the dozens of politicians and gambling executives who packed Rivers Casino’s new sportsbook at a grand opening ceremony Monday as Blackhawks fan favorite Eddie Olczyk placed the first legal sports wager in state history


Blackhawks announcer Eddie Olczyk makes Illinois’ first sportsbook wager and puts $100 down on his hometown White Sox to win the American League pennant at 16-to-1 odds at BetRivers Sportsbook in Rivers Casino.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The COVID-19 concerns didn’t scare off the scores of sports gamblers who placed 6,371 bets at Rivers over the first two days, according to the casino. Almost two-thirds of those bets were made Tuesday, the first full day of sportsbook operations. 

But it remains to be seen how gamblers will place their bets after news came down from the NCAA that attendance at March Madness games will be limited to players, family and “essential staff.”

Rivers spokesman Patrick Skarr said the casino has “a corporate-wide approach to preventing and responding to the coronavirus. 

“We have cleaning personnel on duty around the clock cleaning our equipment and surfaces,” Skarr said in a statement. “Alcohol-based hand-sanitizing stations are located throughout the facility for employees and guests.

“At our entrance, we have information advising our patrons of good preventative practices.  Finally, we encourage everyone to consult the website of verified credible sources like the CDC and the state public health department and we are updating our team members on a constant basis.”

As of Wednesday, it was business as usual for the rest of the state’s 10 existing casinos, according to Illinois Casino Gaming Association executive director Tom Swoik. 

“Everyone’s keeping track of what’s going on and planning ahead in case [officials] do decide shutdowns are necessary,” Swoik said. 

Spokesmen for the Illinois Gaming Board didn’t return requests for comment on whether they’ve issued any guidelines or recommendations to casinos regarding the viral outbreak. But as a slew of other schools and state agencies on Wednesday announced closures — including the General Assembly, which canceled its legislative session next week — the Gaming Board canceled its monthly meeting scheduled for Thursday. 

The Argosy Casino Alton near St. Louis is the state’s only other gambling house among the handful that so far have applied for Illinois sports betting licenses that has announced a March Madness launch date. As of Wednesday evening, its March 16 grand opening was still planned for the day before the tournament tips off. 

To ensure “guest safety” in light of the outbreak, the Downstate casino says it’s providing “increased fresh air circulation” and “more frequent public restroom cleaning rotations,” in addition to “increased sanitation of door handles and gaming devices,” regular sanitation of food and drink menus and ”more frequent cleaning of elevator buttons.”

The surge of gambling that accompanies March Madness could take a hit as the industry rolls out in Illinois, especially since the state is months away from launching online sports betting, according to Yaniv Sherman, head of commercial development at the online gambling company 888 Holdings. More than three quarters of sports bets are placed online in the states where it’s legal. 

”The hospitality market, including gaming, is at the epicenter of everything that’s going on right now,” Sherman said. “It’s a discretionary spending activity, tied into crowded places, large enclosed environments, so retail environments are more sensitive to these types of events: viruses, weather or people just unwilling to travel for their entertainment experience.”

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