NASCAR, cricket, darts among gamblers’ choices as coronavirus crimps Illinois sports betting launch

Casinos raced to open sportsbooks by March Madness — and now the tournament is off due to COVID-19 concerns.

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BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board, opens to the public at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines on Monday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

State legislators spent months negotiating to legalize sports betting in Illinois. 

Casinos spent a small fortune constructing gleaming new sportsbooks. 

Fans spent half a year waiting for state gambling regulators to give them the go-ahead to start laying wagers. 

And now, just a few days after the legal sports betting industry launched in Illinois, not one of the major American sports is in action for gamblers to put money on. 

The National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer all put their seasons on hold to help contain the coronavirus outbreak sweeping the nation. That marks a bad beat for an Illinois market that took its first legal bet just in time for what was supposed to be a flurry of wagering on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — before COVID-19 concerns claimed March Madness, too. 

Rivers Casino Des Plaines opened the state’s first sportsbook Monday, and by Thursday night, NASCAR was the most prominent U.S. sport remaining on the board.

Unless, of course, Europa League soccer is your game. How about Kontinental League hockey? Mixed martial arts, cricket, rugby and darts were still in play at Rivers, too, among other more obscure international contests. 

Those would fall under the “other” category of sports that have drawn less than 15% of the handle at Indiana books since the start of the year, according to Hoosier gambling figures. 

Gamblers can still make futures bets on Major League Baseball, which pushed back Opening Day at least two weeks due to the outbreak. 

The lack of bettable sports pushed the Argosy Casino Alton to postpone the grand opening ceremony of Illinois’ second sportsbook on their riverboat near St. Louis. Instead, they quietly started accepting bets on the leftover sports Thursday night.

Still, it remained business as usual Thursday on the gaming floors at Rivers and the Argosy, as it did at the state’s eight other casinos, with each advertising increased cleaning rotations in light of viral concerns. 

But empty sports stadiums are sure to leave holes in some local broadcast lineups. NBC Sports Chicago previously added a four-hour sports betting analysis show to its afternoon slate ahead of the Illinois launch, and WCKG 1530 AM rebranded just this week as Sportsbook Radio.

“Nothing like launching sports gambling and a radio station focused on sports gambling just as sports are canceled,” WCKG manager Matt Dubiel said in a tweet. 

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