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Mobile sports betting launches in Illinois — finally

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, which opened the state’s first retail book March 9, was first out of the gate once again with its BetRivers mobile betting app through partner Rush Street Interactive.

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 March 9.
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 March 9.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois’ first legal sportsbook is open again — from afar, at least.

Nearly a year after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the law that introduced the legal sports betting industry to the state as part of a massive gambling expansion — and three months after the state’s first-ever wager was placed at a suburban betting window — Illinois gamblers can now place bets from their cellphones following the Thursday morning launch of the state’s first online sportsbook.

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, which opened the state’s first retail book March 9, was first out of the gate once again with its BetRivers mobile betting app through partner Rush Street Interactive.

Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rivers Casino, speaks during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board, on March 9.
Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rivers Casino, speaks during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board, on March 9.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“We are excited to make history in bringing the first online sportsbook to sports fans in our home state just in time as American sports are coming back into action,” Rush Street Interactive president Richard Schwartz said in a statement.

The online launch gives billionaire Rivers chairman Neil Bluhm first dibs on Illinois’ online sports betting market, which accounts for the vast majority of the handle in other states where the industry is legal.

Lobbyists deployed by Bluhm and other casino interests in Springfield last spring ensured Illinois’ gambling law was written to give casinos a head start on the sports betting market over online-only behemoths such as DraftKings and FanDuel. Those companies are locked in an 18-month “penalty box” before they’re allowed to bid for licenses that each cost a whopping $20 million.

For a fraction of that fee, six other casinos were granted sports betting licenses by the Illinois Gaming Board last week in addition to Rivers. Each can request approval from the regulatory agency’s administrator to start offering online wagering. No other requests had been submitted as of Thursday morning, a Gaming Board spokesman said.

Rivers and the downstate Argosy Casino Alton briefly accepted wagers at their brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, a launch spoiled within a few days when all gaming operations in the state were shut down March 16 to stem the spread of COVID-19. They’re still closed indefinitely.

Blackhawks announcer Eddie Olczyk makes Illinois’ first sportsbook wager and puts $100 down on his hometown White Sox to win the American League pennant March 9 at Rivers Casino.
Blackhawks announcer Eddie Olczyk made the state’s first-ever sports bet March 9, putting $100 down on his hometown White Sox to win the American League pennant.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

State law had required bettors to register in person at a casino before they could place bets online, but Pritzker issued an executive order earlier this month as part of his coronavirus disaster proclamation temporarily removing that requirement. The Democratic governor’s administration is eager for any potential gaming revenue stream after the pandemic blew a $2.7 billion hole in the state budget.

That means Illinois bettors can register for a betting account online and start putting money down in a matter of minutes — not that there are many contests on the board, with most major American sports still sidelined. NASCAR and professional golf have resumed action without spectators in attendance. Pro basketball, hockey and baseball are expected to return in some form this summer.

Most Illinois casinos are taxed at 15% of their sports betting revenue, with another 2% tacked on for Rivers and any other casinos that eventually break ground in Cook County. The gambling expansion also authorized six new casinos, including ones in Chicago and the south suburbs. The Gaming Board is evaluating applications and is expected to begin issuing licenses in the fall, though a potential Chicago casino remains many more months, if not years, away.

Pritzker’s office has estimated sports betting will eventually pump upwards of $100 million into state coffers annually, earmarked for his statewide capital projects plan. Industry analysts have suggested the Illinois market could rival Nevada’s, with a yearly handle over $5 billion.