9 Predictions for US Sports Betting & Online Gambling In 2021
Back for the third year in a row, it is time for my guide to the year ahead … predictions for what to expect in American online gambling for 2021. Let’s start with a rundown of how I fared in the most unpredictable year in living memory: 2020.
It is worth starting with what I didn’t predict: a severe global pandemic and an economic shovel to the head. Despite COVID-19 putting everyone’s plans for 2020 in a paint mixer, I’m pleased to say that my predictions held up for the most part. I predicted eight new states would adopt mobile sports betting. While only four managed this task, sans pandemic, eight would have been spot on.
While COVID-19 cut most state legislative sessions short and in the process halted efforts to expand sports betting in new states, we did see a handful of states deliver on sports betting despite these challenges. Virginia was able to act quickly to finish the job in April, but we didn’t see any additional movement until Election Night, when voters in Louisiana, Maryland and South Dakota overwhelmingly authorized sports betting. There’s still a chance Ohio or Massachusetts passes a bill in lame duck session before we kiss 2020 goodbye.
I predicted Nevada would lose ground to New Jersey, forcing Nevada policymakers to reconsider how a failure to innovate has dulled its shine and dented its bottom line. It took a while, but after months of stunts like drive-thru sports betting registration, which had more camp value than practical impact, the Nevada Gaming Control Board has finally teed up a rules change to allow for remote registration for sports betting accounts. Hallelujah.
Michigan tribes, seeing the massive potential of mobile sports betting, have done as I predicted and are now working through regulations to allow them to offer statewide sports betting. The ability to reach the entire state, regardless of geographic location, is surely something that tribes in states like Arizona, North Carolina and Washington will view as an asset, and could be a pivotal prize in the sports betting expansion and legalization efforts in these states.
As predicted, 2020 was a huge year for pro team and sports betting operator partnerships. What I didn’t expect was for college programs to follow suit. But sure enough, the University of Colorado became the first NCAA member school to sign a deal with a sportsbook operator.
I predicted the Wire Act controversy would end, but the DOJ hasn’t let this go quietly and took it to the US Court of Appeals, First Circuit. The First Circuit hasn’t yet ruled, but another blow against the DOJ would likely end this controversy once and for all, especially with a new administration occupying the White House. I also predicted that federal legislation would fail, which it did.
I was too bullish on the prospects of Florida adopting sports betting, but much of the inactivity in the Sunshine State in 2020 can be attributed to COVID-19. Will the Seminoles play nice with the Florida Legislature and reach a deal, or will Florida remain a favorite customer pool of offshore sportsbooks? We’ll be covering it all in 2021.
Finally, I predicted Ohio would continue to be a headache for proponents of sports betting, and this has played out as expected. After the disappointing lack of progress the state has shown over the last two years, I certainly hope they fare better with a brand new effort and new bill sponsors in early 2021.
As for 2021, expect the following:
Prediction 1: DOJ Backs Down in Wire Act Controversy
How will gaming fare under a Biden Administration? Biden isn’t likely to make gaming a priority, but he’s not likely to throw up roadblocks like the previous administration, either. While federal legislation to remove the sports betting excise tax would be welcome, it’s hard to see Biden cutting existing taxes in the midst of a pandemic and ensuing recovery. As more states adopt regulation, the need for federal-level policy diminishes, and with it the likelihood of any federal action, even routine housekeeping around outdated legislation like the Wire Act.
Much to the gaming world’s chagrin, the Wire Act is still a fly circling the buffet table. Most would argue that this heavy-handed and rudimentary law, which passed 60 years ago to limit organized crime, has no relevance in today’s internet-based world. But in 2019 the DOJ somehow begged to differ by claiming it applies to all online gaming, not just sports betting.
This opinion, which reeked of cronyism in favor of well-known and well-heeled online gaming opponents, was successfully challenged in the District of New Hampshire before making its way to the 1st Circuit Appellate Court. While the Circuit Court has yet to issue an opinion, it is entirely possible that the DOJ backs down from its position regardless of the outcome. Even if the DOJ does pursue this all the way to the Supreme Court, the chances of the highest court entertaining this case are rather low meaning we should get definitive clarity in 2021.
Prediction 2: Six New States Will Add Mobile Sports Betting
2018 and 2019 were massive years for the spread of sports betting authorization across the US, and while that momentum was expected to result in more states getting on board in 2020, COVID-19 had other plans. Most legislative sessions were either delayed, postponed or cut short, leading to a tangle of unfinished legislation, partisan politics and disappointed players.
So, how will state legislatures respond in 2021? It’s too soon to tell – while many states hope to return to in-person meetings and business as usual, a prolonged, bleak COVID-19 heavy winter could scuttle those plans. In any event, disruption in 2021 will not be as novel or unexpected as it was in 2020.
We know for a fact that Maryland and Louisiana, having passed voter referendums by impressively wide margins, will be taking a look at sports betting legislation in early 2021. South Dakota also amended its constitution to allow for brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, and Nebraska and Virginia approved statewide and local casino expansion initiatives. It’s also likely that we see new mobile sports betting authorizations in states such as Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas, Missouri, Maine and Vermont.
Additionally, more than a couple states with brick-and-mortar betting will be looking to expand online, with the most likely targets including Arkansas and Mississippi. 2021 will be a very productive year, indeed.
Prediction 3: Three New States Will Add iGaming
With the caveat that all of the legislative issues mentioned above apply equally to iGaming development, at least a few states will be looking to expand online slots in 2021.
From a policy perspective, iGaming looks tailor-made for our current times – the casino industry is reeling after prolonged COVID-19 shutdowns, still only operating at diminished capacity and struggling to regain its luster. State budgets are hurting too, and when you consider that casino taxes often go to fund core services like public education and transportation, the pain is really being felt universally.
We know that iGaming has proven to be wildly successful in states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so why are states still resistant to it?
It’s a complex issue that I’ll distill to two central themes: 1) legislators are concerned about the social impact of allowing full-scale casino gaming on mobile devices, incorrectly believing this could exacerbate problem gaming issues; and 2) the casino industry still isn’t totally supportive of online alternatives, either, believing this devalues its brick-and-mortar investment and the exclusivity they have fought to maintain for decades.
Are both of these views flawed? Absolutely, but it will take a concerted effort to educate lawmakers and even gaming industry players to the contrary, a process best measured in years, not months. All told, I expect at least a couple states to take the leap to iGaming in 2021, with Iowa, Indiana, and even new-to-sports betting Maryland (TBD) leading the way.
Prediction 4: Texas Legislature Dominates Early 2021 Industry News
Up until now, the gaming industry has in large part decided not to mess with Texas. Gambling expansion has always been seen as a longshot in the Lone Star State given the conservative nature of the state’s elected leadership.
But all of this could change in 2021. The Texas Legislature only convenes once every two years, so a lot has happened since state legislators last assembled in Austin. Now that there is a critical mass of states with legal sports betting, including Texas neighbors New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana (TBD), getting Texas to come along no longer seems like an impossible lift. Expect outspoken Texas sports icons like the Jones family (who already have a sponsorship deal with an Oklahoma casino), Mark Cuban and Tilman Fertitta, to apply pressure to convince Texas lawmakers to authorize sports betting in the early months of 2021.
If successful, Texas would easily become the largest sports betting market in the US. If unsuccessful, Houston’s own Mattress Mack will keep placing his million-dollar bets in Mississippi or Las Vegas, while billions of Texas sports fans’ dollars will keep pouring into offshore websites for at least another two years. No matter the outcome, I expect the trials and tribulations of the high-stakes Texas sports betting fight to take center stage in industry news during the first half of 2021.
Prediction 5: Pennsylvania Passes New Jersey in Total Online Gaming Revenue; Michigan Enters Top 3
New Jersey is the center of the sports betting universe right now, but Pennsylvania is rapidly gaining ground and looking to take the lead. There are plenty of reasons why Pennsylvania is poised to surpass New Jersey in online gambling handle: PA has three million more people, a robust and cutting-edge gambling market, and fanatical fan bases in all the major sports.
However, there is a scenario in which New Jersey hangs on as the online gaming leader for one more year; depending on whether New York wises up and finally authorizes online sports betting. Right now, New Jersey continues to be the location of choice for New York City’s disenfranchised sports betting community. With hundreds of millions in handle coming from New York, New Jersey’s windfall won’t stop until New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stops meddling with the NY state legislature’s long-running attempts to authorize online sports betting.
With the New York state budget in shambles, sending tens of millions in tax revenue across the Hudson seems insane, so hopefully New York passes legislation to allow mobile sports betting early in 2021.
Michigan’s online gambling bill in late 2019 was truly groundbreaking – not only did it authorize both statewide mobile sports betting and iGaming, it was the first bill in the country to give Tribes the opportunity to participate in statewide online gaming. Michigan is roughly the same size as New Jersey, and sports of all levels are a major part of the local culture. So is gaming – there are three major casinos in downtown Detroit and a very robust Tribal gaming environment throughout the state.
Brick-and-mortar casinos will always have their place, but online sports betting is sure to find a huge audience, especially during those harsh winter months. Michigan’s market will flourish rapidly once online gaming starts in early 2021 and should grow to be the No. 3 online gaming revenue state, trailing only Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Prediction 6: Canada Legalizes Single-Game Sports Betting
After three years of the US hogging the spotlight, Canada has finally had enough and now stands on the precipice of legalizing single-game sports wagering. Parliament is currently considering a bill to de-criminalize single-game wagers, which would pave the way for each Province to regulate sports betting as they see fit. Just like the US situation, a federal law change won’t flip a switch overnight, but I do expect at least two provinces to make sports betting available by end of year 2021.
Ontario is already preparing to capitalize on sports betting with legislation to allow multiple operators and expanded iGaming options. These two policies, working in tandem, should provide Ontario with an immediate and enduring economic boost similar to the successes of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Provinces need to take note of recent U.S. state successes and cautionary tales – high tax burdens, single-operator monopolies, and in-person registration requirements just don’t work.
Prediction 7: New States Add Mobile in 2021
When you look at the map of states that have adopted sports betting, there is a noticeable gap in the South. This has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of interest in sports – this is SEC country, after all, and college and pro sports fans in the South are as passionate as anywhere in the world. Rather, this stark contrast has pretty much everything to do with the politics and religion of the region, but that is slowly changing.
The first domino to fall was Tennessee , which has the distinction as the first casino-free state to allow online sports betting. North Carolina followed by allowing tribal casinos to offer sports betting in 2019, and this year they are very likely to finish the job and make mobile sports betting available statewide. Arkansas and Louisiana should have mobile sports betting at some point in 2021 as well, and Mississippi may make the leap online after two years of steady, if unspectacular, casino-based sports betting.
What about Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida? Is 2021 the year for these holdout states? Probably not, but the pressure will continue to mount as more and more tourist dollars flow into neighboring states with robust betting markets. When Atlanta starts losing major sporting events to Nashville and Charlotte, Georgia lawmakers will have to scramble to play catch up.
Prediction 8: Lottery Fails, DC Ditches Gambet in Favor of Competitive Licensing Model
As we’ve been saying since the beginning, states considering a lottery-based sports betting rollout are doing it very wrong. Starting with Delaware , which never really modernized sports betting and still insists on a flat, meat-and-potatoes approach, several other states have gone this route to disastrous results.
The Oregon Lottery online product has been a high-profile failure, Montana’s kiosk-based system has been a total bust and Rhode Island has slowly adopted a better approach to allow online betting and registration after a series of costly missteps. But none of these failures stack up to the absolute boondoggle that is DC Lottery’s Gambet platform. Sold under the false pretense that a competitive license system would cause delays resulting in hundreds of millions in lost revenue, the Lottery convinced the City Council to grant them the monopoly on online sports betting in Washington, D.C..
But the Lottery’s product was still delayed for more than a year and the product was met with scorn and derision over tech flaws, clunky operation and absurdly high prices. How bad is it? The revenue numbers from DC tell the tale – the Lottery’s Gambet app, the only legal online outlet for people in the District, is being outperformed handily by the brick-and-mortar sportsbook at Capital One Arena.
That means people would rather sacrifice convenience, brave a pandemic, drive out of their way and stand in line at a public facility to place a bet rather than put their faith and money in the DC Lottery app. Compare this to New Jersey, where approximately 90% of the action is done via mobile apps, and you can start to see just how bad the situation truly is.
In 2021, DC will have to come to terms with its mistake and try to right the ship by allowing competing sportsbooks to offer mobile products in DC. Meanwhile, other states that have yet to embrace legal sports betting need to run, not walk, from any proposal to let the state lottery handle sports betting.
Prediction 9: Sports Betting Expands to Larger “Predictions” Market
Sports betting has been the hottest ticket in 2020, but what happens when there aren’t any sports to bet on? We got a brief look at that bleak scenario in April and May, when COVID-19 sidelined all major US sports temporarily. During that time, sportsbooks clamored for betting events to fill the void, and found surprising success with relatively exotic events including eSports, table tennis and soccer matches from the far corners of the earth. Of course, major pro sports did come roaring back to find a massive audience thirsty for action, but it’s very likely that we experience a similar lull again in 2021.
Of course, sports aren’t the only thing people have an interest in betting on. In 2020, a couple of states added Oscars Betting to the mix, and in 2021 states are likely broaden the horizon even further to all sorts of betting/prediction opportunities. I expect sportsbooks to get increasingly clever in the variety of betting offerings; think awards shows, elections, and even reality TV.
State laws and regulations are likely to expand to include betting beyond just sports, creating a more inclusive betting market with broader appeal. With this comes new integrity and safety challenges, but the UK and most of Europe have already found prolonged success in this realm, and there’s no reason the US can’t do the same.
Charles Gillespie is CEO of Gambling.com Group.
All images other than top illustration via PA
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