Rhode Island Governor Makes Mobile Sports Betting Signup Official

Rhode Island Governor Makes Mobile Sports Betting Signup Official

Rhode Island’s effort to eliminate in-person registration for legal mobile sports betting is complete.

Other states thinking about pursuing legal sports betting should pay close attention.

After Rhode Island’s gaming revenue stream all but collapsed during the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers passed two bills to eliminate the state’s requirement that people must register in person at one of two casinos before they can place mobile sports bets.

Gov. Gina Raimondo signed both bills on July 22, according to the state's General Assembly website.

The bills, sponsored by state Sen. Dominick Ruggerio and state House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, passed both houses of the legislature on July 16.

Rhode Island Revenue Needs Boost

This change to the state’s law allows Rhode Island to maximize its online wagering revenue – at a time when revenue streams have been affected by COVID-19 – by letting its residents bet anywhere in the state at any time, as markets such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania have done.

“This is one responsible move we can make to help counter some of the revenue losses the state has experienced during the pandemic,” Ruggerio said upon the Assembly's approval last week, according to WPRI. “Gaming and the lottery are our state’s third-largest source of revenue, and anything we can safely do to make up for some of the lost revenue helps to support public services.”

The House version, HB 8097, passed 57-12. The Senate bill, SB 2919, was approved by an even more overwhelming margin, 32-4.

On July 8, Rhode Island’s state House filed the bill to change the state’s sports betting registration requirements. The Senate soon followed.

Bettors in Rhode Island wanting to place mobile sports bets have had to register in person at one of the state’s two physical casinos, Twin River Casino Hotel in Lincoln and the Tiverton Casino Hotel in Tiverton. Both Twin River-owned facilities were closed from March 14 until June 8 to comply with state mandates aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus. The Tiverton Casino and Twin River Casino are both operating at 25% capacity.

The state’s sports betting handle in May was just over $1.5 million, less than 1/10th of the May 2019 total of $18.9 million (June numbers are not out yet). And that was with existing mobile customers, which the state did not have one year earlier (Rhode Island began taking mobile sports bets in September 2019). So the mobile sports betting market is making a difference in Rhode Island, but that segment of the customer base should have a much larger impact without the in-person registration requirement.

States Without In-Person Requirement Fare Better

Consider New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Both are much larger states so it’s not fair to expect a state the size of Rhode Island to compete with them dollar for dollar. But it is fair to consider how much sports betting handle those states have retained even with casino closures and during a summer when all major sports leagues have been shut down. Pennsylvania drew $89 million in sports betting handle in June – more than 99% of it coming via mobile. Handle in New Jersey was $165 million, all online, with all casinos closed in June.

Or consider Iowa. That state requires in-person registration for mobile betting as well, but at least that rule will end on Jan. 1, 2021. That’s good because during last fall and winter, the state should have seen a constant rise in betting as awareness spread (Iowa took its first sports bets in August 2019) and the most popular sports kicked into gear. Instead, Iowa’s sports betting handle hit a plateau – it settled between $56.9 million and $59.3 million each month from November 2019 to February 2020. Then in April, with casinos closed, the handle crashed to $1.57 million before starting to recover in the past two months.

The decline of sports betting handle in every state was inevitable during a time when there were almost no sporting events, especially in late March and throughout April. But states with a robust mobile sports betting market weathered the crisis a lot better than states without one. And lifting the in-person registration requirement has proven to be a major component of a healthy online sports betting market.

Rhode Island’s top politicians appears to be learning that lesson. Other states eyeing legal sports betting as a revenue source would do well to learn it too.