After Gaming Ballot Measures Go 6-For-6, Virginia Vote Captures Expert Panel’s Interest

Six states, ranging from Maryland to Colorado, passed legal, regulated gambling expansion measures on Election Day. A group of industry insiders spoke at a Sports Betting USA-sponsored panel on Thursday analyzing the meaning of all six.

Residents in the Virginia cities of Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, and Portsmouth all voted to allow casinos in their cities — by majorities that all are in the 2-to-1 range. Those votes came in the wake of Virginia lawmakers approving sports betting in those cities earlier this year, subject to local approval.

Ayesha Khanna Molino, a senior vice president of government affairs for MGM Resorts, was struck by the level of enthusiasm for gambling in Virginia.

“What a shift we’ve seen there, from one of the most gambling-skeptical states in the region to being a state wholeheartedly welcoming in so many forms — casinos, sports betting, iLottery,” Molino said. “It’s a sea change. Now hopefully they can stay on track in terms of timeline launches.”

The complicated regulatory process is expected to begin early in 2021, because all but one of those cities already had lined up partners even before the local votes — Hard Rock for Bristol, Caesars for Danville, and Rush Street Gaming for Portsmouth.

“I really think that we didn’t expect such overwhelming support for casinos there,” said FanDuel Government Affairs Director Stacie Stern. “It talks to the shifting sands toward acceptance of legalized gaming, and it can only help sports betting heading into 2021.”

Virginia sports betting before casinos

The first roll of the dice at a Virginia casino craps table may take a couple of years — but state lottery officials said on Wednesday that they expect the launch of mobile sports betting to take only a couple of months.

That would be unusual compared to other states, because Virginia just legalized sports betting back in April. Tennessee, which just permitted its mobile sportsbook operators to begin taking bets on Sunday, is more typical with its 16-month start-to-finish timeline.

Virginia ranks fifth in population among U.S. states that have legalized mobile sports betting, and Corridor Consulting CEO John Pappas said that it will make more noise in annual handle than some in the industry may be thinking.

“When Virginia launches, it will be one of the biggest markets out there. It’s a sports-centered state with lots of fan engagement,” Pappas said. “The question is, will 12 online sports betting licenses be enough? Regulators may have hard decisions ahead of them deciding who to approve.”

Maryland voters take first step

Neighboring Maryland also had residents come out in big numbers on Tuesday to permit sports betting in that state — again by a 2-to-1 margin.

But in that case, the vote is just the start of the process.

“We have to get down to working with legislators, which can be difficult,” Stern said. “We have to try to get everybody to the table to agree on the right framework. It’s a heavy lift, but I think we can get there.

“A big part of the campaign was, ‘Gambling is going on all around us, let’s keep those dollars in Maryland.’ That message resonated.”

Washington, D.C. debuted sports betting earlier this year, and Virginia seems almost certain to get a head start on Maryland in 2021.

FanDuel was among the potential sports betting partners in Maryland that contributed to lobbying efforts to pass the legislation.

Pappas said that sports betting in Maryland “will happen in 2021 — ‘how’ is the big question.” He added that Gov. Larry Hogan’s support for the referendum and a wide array of lawmakers doing the same bodes well for finding a pathway to the majority’s satisfaction.

Deja vu for Louisiana voters

Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs for Global Market Advisors and the panel’s moderator on Thursday, joked that many voters in Louisiana, upon seeing a sports betting ballot question, likely asked themselves, “Didn’t we do this last time?”

That’s because just two years ago, state residents also easily approved a question on allowing daily fantasy sports — which, to a non-gambler, likely seems to be a distinction without a difference.

Stern said that the fact that voters in 55 of the state’s 64 parishes approved should cause Louisiana lawmakers to see that vote as a mandate to move forward. This vote also could help DFS, which in spite of that voter approval has yet to get final regulations through the state legislature.

“We look forward to having discussions with those legislators,” Stern said.

Pappas said that there has been significant legislator resistance to permitting mobile sports betting in the state, so a “big education” effort remains to be made there.

“We all understand that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to educating lawmakers about the benefits,” Molina said. “Mobile is a definitely a conversation point.”

South Dakota, Nebraska also back more gambling

South Dakota voters approved, by nearly a 60/40 split, sports betting for its Deadwood casinos, setting the stage for any tribal casino in the state to do the same.

Pappas said it was “a little too early to know” if there will be an appetite among state legislators there to add mobile sports betting to the mix. Stern said that “a state like Wyoming could look at South Dakota and say, ‘There is an opportunity for us to beat South Dakota to mobile sports betting.’”

Three Nebraska gambling bills all easily passed this week, including one that allows for “games of chance” to be offered at the state’s racetracks. That phrase “typically means a bit of a Pandora’s box,” said Bussman.

“I think sports betting being defined as a game of chance could be problematic,” said Pappas, the former executive director of the Poker Players Alliance who saw the same challenge with the phrase in that role. But Pappas added that given how Nebraska media in some cases painted the ballot questions as allowing for “Vegas-style casino gambling,” voters are not expecting to settle for a more modest “slots in a box” setup seen at some racinos in the U.S.

Pappas said his biggest takeaway from Nebraska is that opposition by Gov. Pete Ricketts, billionaire investor and Nebraska favorite son Warren Buffett, and legendary ex-Cornhuskers football coach Tom Osborne was shrugged off by the state’s voters.

Colorado joins the fun — who’s next?

Finally, about 60% of Colorado voters approved a proposal to permit the mining towns of Cripple Creek, Black Hawk, and Central City to set their own limits on wagers — removing the current $100 maximum that is seen in the gambling industry as absurdly low and in the cities as a discouragement to tourism.

Baccarat could also now be offered at those casinos as part of the decision to give the tiny towns (combined population of 2,000), rather than the state, control over their own gambling options.

Colorado’s first legal sportsbooks launched earlier this year, and Pappas said that “any state with mobile sports betting, there is a natural opportunity to have iGaming as well.”

“I see iGaming [in Colorado] as maybe not 2021 — it may take a minute,” Stern said. “But there is a broad coalition of operators saying that now is the time to address this, and bring it to the residents of Colorado.”

As for future states to offer mobile sports betting, Pappas said, “With New York, I hear people talk about it — but until I hear it from Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo’s mouth, it’s not going to happen.”

Or as Bussman put it, “Until Cuomo moves, it ain’t moving.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Stern mentioned Kansas as a state that “could move quickly” and that North Carolina could address mobile sports betting.

Stern said that in the event of a President Biden administration, the most likely gambling-related change would be for him to revert back to the President Obama/VP Biden legal opinion on The Wire Act announced in 2011, nullifying the 2018 changes by President Trump’s Department of Justice that created confusion regarding multi-state poker compacts and lotteries at all levels.

Photo by Shutterstock.com

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