Illinois gets back in sports betting game

As the rest of America’s sports wagering community has been itching for a restart, bettors in Illinois have spent these pandemic-stricken months waiting for any kind of start.

The state’s first round of above-board betting in casinos began just days before the near-nationwide shutdown because of the novel coronavirus and required in-person registration for online platforms that hadn’t yet materialized.

Legal, but essentially locked out, had been the reality.

The on-the-field fears of sports’ relaunch are another matter, but when the athletic world wakes up, Illinois residents now don’t have to be reaching for the snooze button.

Rivers Des Plaines Casino, spearheaded by the Chicago-based Rush Street Interactive brand, rolled out the first online sportsbook in the state June 18. And more importantly, the requirement to register at a physical brick-and-mortar casino before using mobile products has been temporarily lifted by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

His executive order issued June 4 will remain in effect for the duration of the state’s disaster proclamation or until the Illinois Gaming Board issues a competitively bid master sports wagering license, board spokesperson Gene O’Shea told Gaming Today.

The board had independently granted seven casinos those master licenses for sports wagering in both in-person and online forms on June 11,

The executive order “allows Illinois sports fans to create online accounts and place wagers from the safety of their own home, protecting a revenue source that is critical as the state begins to recover from the damaging financial impact of COVID-19,” O’Shea said in an email.

BetRivers, the online destination for the Des Plaines Casino and Rush Street, was the first to have its mobile product ready. And they’ll have had at least a two-week head start on their competition, with no other online launches imminently scheduled in the state and casinos’ physical reopenings set for July 1.

Rush Street Interactive president Richard Schwartz said 60% of mobile handle was played on European soccer during the app’s first week online, with 60% of all players also gravitating toward those markets. The PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship received the second-most action, followed by KBO League baseball, he said.

The company declined comment through multiple spokespersons on initial registration figures or handle totals. But the biggest challenge will be maintaining its early accessibility advantage when the state’s online market eventually becomes more ­competitive.

Schwartz told Chicagoland radio station WSCR-AM in an interview that he believes the company’s easy-access interface and its ability to simulcast select sporting events on the same platform where bettors would be able to place live wagers will both keep current customers and attract new ones.

“As other companies come into the market, we found that we keep our players loyal and happy, because we really focus on the user experience,” Schwartz said. The company also operates sportsbooks in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

“If you make things easy for a player, they stay loyal because they like what you offer,” he added. “We make things simple, we make things work, there are no systems crashing. We’re just reliable. That’s sort of our operational goal.”

The market will certainly be there as domestic sports options increase over the next month. Nine months of legal wagering in Indiana has shown that the Chicago spillover factor is strong. The Ameristar East Chicago casino just minutes from the Illinois border has consistently led Indiana in sports betting handle, whether in leaner action months like May ($20.1 million) or more robust times (nearly $80 million in February). That DraftKings-partnered book has seen close to 25% of its World Series-related handle skew toward a combination of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs.

Illinois residents will be seeking options that don’t require crossing state lines to make wagers in the flesh or on their phones, so ease of access will help. But Schwartz told the radio station that quantity can be king, too.

“You have to offer the greatest, widest variety of content. You have to offer in-game betting,” he said. “You want to have the content people are interested in betting on, No. 1. Of course, we can’t wait until … all the big (American) leagues start coming back.”

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