Gazing Into The Crystal Ball: Seven Online Gambling Industry Stories To Watch For In 2021

2021 should be an interesting year for US online casinos and poker rooms2021 should be an interesting year for US online casinos and poker rooms

It has, for most of us, been a very long year. And yet, here we are: Less than 48 hours from shouting “Happy New Year!” Also probably about five days from taking down our old calendars, eight from getting around to putting up new ones, and up to six months from the last time we accidentally date something “2020” and have to correct ourselves.

For those of us in the media, this is traditionally the time to make predictions for the coming year. When it comes to US online gambling, the easiest prediction to make is to expect surprises. Rarely a month passes in this dynamic new industry without some sort of curveball.

And yet, there are a few developments that are both foreseeable and exciting. Here are, in ascending order of importance, seven stories you can pretty safely expect to be reading within the next 12 months.

#7 – Flutter contests historical fine in Kentucky

The last big surprise of 2020 ended with “to be continued.” In a decision that was as shocking as it was close, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned its court of appeals and restored the ruling made by a trial court, that PokerStars and its new owner Flutter owe the state $870 million plus interest for its illegal activities between 2006 and 2011.

Typically, Supreme Court verdicts are final. However, Flutter has assured investors that its legal team believes there is still a path forward to get the amount of the fine reduced.

It may or may not be correct in that regard. Either way, we should at least find out in the coming months what exactly the company’s lawyers have in mind.

#6 – WSOP announces plans for summer 2021

Obviously, the biggest story of 2020 for every industry was COVID-19. That one isn’t over yet, but we won’t include the possibility of further casino shutdowns on this list, as technically that is a land-based gambling story.

One major effect of the pandemic in the poker world was that there was no World Series of Poker in Las Vegas over the summer. On the other hand, 85 WSOP bracelets were awarded online, at WSOP.com and GGPoker. Previously, either one of those things would have been unthinkable.

The release of the first vaccines makes it possible that things will be sufficiently under control by June to host the series in some form. That’s no sure thing, however, and if the series does return in 2021, there will likely be some changes both online and off.

Even if the pandemic is well and truly over, which seems unlikely, we can probably expect greater efforts to be made to ensure public health, such as spreading it out between multiple venues. It also seems all but guaranteed that the online component will be bigger than ever. Whatever form it takes, and whether or not it returns to Las Vegas, it will be a major story and the subject of a lot of discussion.

#5 – The Wire Act case continues

The US Wire Act has been a persistent thorn in the side of the online gambling industry. Originally intended to prevent the use of the phone system to circumvent state laws on sports betting, it has since been extended to cover the internet, and perhaps other forms of gambling.

That latter part – whether it applies only to sports betting or all gambling – is the subject of an ongoing legal battle. The First Circuit Court of Appeals was supposed to rule on the case late this year. However, one of 2020’s curveballs was the death of one of the three judges on the case, Juan R. Torruella.

It’s still up in the air what exactly that means. It will depend a lot on how far along the judges were in preparing their decision, and on whether the other two agree or not. If Judge Torruella’s opinion would have been a tie-breaker, then there could be a need for a new judge and a new hearing. This is something we can expect to find out more about early in the new year.

#4 – Bally’s: An old brand rebooted for the online era

2020 was a year with a lot of corporate wheeling and dealing. One move made late in the year was the company formerly known as Twin River Worldwide Holdings acquiring not only the Bally’s Atlantic City property, but also its brand. It then proceeded to take the moniker as its own, changing its name and stock ticker. It’s now in the process of applying that change to most of its other properties around the US.

One reason that the company wants to unify its brand in this way is in preparation for an expansion into the online space. It wants a recognizable brand that it can use across every state market it enters, and found it in Bally’s. Already, it is making plans for its new sports betting vertical. It seems fairly certain that in 2021 this will grow to include online casinos. New Jersey is the obvious starting point, followed by expansion into other states.

Popular consensus is that it got a good deal on the brand purchase, and that it’s a smart move. On the other hand, the online space is so dominated by modern brands like DraftKings and FanDuel that it may be challenging for Bally’s to make headway as a latecomer with an old-fashioned corporate image. It will be interesting to see where it ultimately finds itself in the battle for market share.

#3 – BetMGM looks to become nationally dominant

The Borgata, owned by MGM Resorts International, is the second-biggest licensee in the New Jersey online casino market, after Golden Nugget. Industry analysts have estimated that the company’s own site, BetMGM Casino, is the largest individual skin in the state by revenue.

However, until the tail end of 2020, it had not yet expanded its iGaming brand to other states. Its online casino only launched in West Virginia in August, and in Pennsylvania at the beginning of December. It should, however, be one of the first in Michigan when that state goes live (see below).

It’s still an open question whether it will be as dominant in other states as it is in New Jersey. It certainly has the brand power to go toe-to-toe with the major online brands. What’s more, it just transferred the Borgata’s poker tournament director Tad Duchateau to serve as Poker Operations Games Manager at BetMGM. That suggests that it intends both to launch its poker product in new states soon, and perhaps to break away from simply being a skin for Partypoker and put the BetMGM brand first for that vertical.

#2 – Michigan online gambling goes live, finally

Naturally, it’s big news whenever a state launches a new gambling product. Michigan has been hotly anticipated, as a large state which has legalized all the major verticals. 2020 ended in disappointment on that front. Despite regulators’ best efforts, it was unable to hurry the process enough to get off the ground before year’s end.

The wait should be over within a matter of weeks, however. Licenses are in the process of being issued, and the latest estimates are for a mid-January launch.

To some extent, we’ve now seen enough states launch to know what to expect. One big question, however, is just how many sites will go live on launch day. It could be more like New Jersey with a big synchronized launch, or more like Pennsylvania, with operators gradually trickling in over the course of the first year.

Another is whether we’ll see poker from day one, or have to wait a few months. Related to that is the question of interstate poker; Michigan is very close to passing a bill which would make that possible, but implementation will take some time. How quickly that process seems to be moving will be another developing story to watch in the coming year.

#1 – IL and CT top the list for iGaming contenders

Whatever else happens, our number one focus here at OnlinePokerReport will always be the effort to bring legal online poker and casino gaming to new states. 2020 was a bit of a dud in that regard, mainly due to the distraction of COVID-19. However, 2021 shows a lot of promise.

Two states in particular are massive favorites to introduce online gambling expansion bills, though it’s far from certain that they’ll pass.

Illinois launched sports betting in June this year. A big part of the reason that effort didn’t include other verticals has to do with the vendetta Rush Street Gaming – which operates Rivers Casino Des Plaines – has against DraftKings and FanDuel.

However, DraftKings has already escaped the legislative “penalty box” that Rush Street hoped would delay its entry to the sports betting market. There’s now less reason for Rush Street to resist adding online casinos to the mix. Thus, we could easily see online gambling back on the legislative agenda in 2021. Looking to the industry itself for clues, Golden Nugget certainly thinks that’s likely. It has already made sure to have its market access lined up.

Connecticut is another prime contender. The state is very much in favor of gambling expansion, yet competing interests have held those efforts back. Circumstances surrounding the pandemic have changed things in a way that simplifies some of those problems. Most importantly, Gov. Ned Lamont has dropped his opposition to online casinos, which all but guarantees that it’s a topic that will get a close look in the coming year.

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