US Sports Betting Year In Review: LSR Staff Says Goodbye To 2020

Posted on December 28, 2020

Goodbye 2020.

That’s it. That’s the tweet.

We promise to get through this look back at 2020 without using the words ‘unprecedented’ or ‘times’ or any combination therein …

1) What non-coronavirus story made the biggest impact last year?

Adam Candee: An offshore sportsbook paid a $46 million settlement to the United States federal government to settle a criminal investigation into illegal betting and money laundering. Almost simultaneously, that sportsbook initiated an impressive campaign to whitewash its illegal past and signaled its intent to join the regulated US market.

Yet 2020’s deafening screech effortlessly drowned out the news of 5Dimes dousing itself in bleach.

The company’s brash moves will test how large an appetite and how long a memory American regulators and legislators have.

Brad Allen: It has to be the tale of 5Dimes and its pivot to the regulated market. Apart from the drama of the transition itself, the success of the move could have huge implications on the future of the industry.

If 5Dimes can compete with the likes of FanDuel and DraftKings on a level playing field, will other offshores try and follow? And will they be allowed to? Tune in next year to find out!

Dustin Gouker: I think it’s the money flying around in the sports betting industry. There are now a handful of SPACs that are taking companies public for online gambling based on the US — a sentence that would have sounded ridiculous not long ago.

That movement was of course led by DraftKings, which has seen its stock increase by multiples. And Penn National — previously just a land-based casino company — has seen its stock price and valuation rise meteorically and become entirely tied up in the minority acquisition of Barstool Sports as a gambling brand.

And of course, DraftKings, FanDuel, and others spending huge amounts of money to come away with early market share across the US.

Matthew Waters: It was still early in the pandemic and existed for only minutes, but who remembers when West Virginia briefly legalized election betting? It was hastily pushed through only to be pulled within minutes of FanDuel posting odds.

The scathing statement from Secretary of State Mac Warner calling election betting “illegal” and a “terrible idea” made it clear we won’t see election odds on legal US sportsbooks anytime soon.

2) What was the most significant effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sports betting industry?

AC: You can’t sell what you don’t have (unless you’re Bernie Madoff but I digress.) So sports betting operators better find something to sell when sports shut down.

Sports-heavy companies like DraftKings and FanDuel grabbed headlines in spring by offering markets on Russian table tennis and Belarusian soccer. Those side dishes quieted hungry appetites until they could serve up a main course of online casino in early summer.

Cross-sell is nothing new in the gaming industry of course but the pandemic boosted its urgency for operators leveraged in the sports betting space. It likely also highlighted that iGaming remains the more lucrative long-term opportunity between the two.

BA: I’d argue the nuts and bolts of the industry didn’t change that much. Yes, people started betting on esports and table tennis, but as soon as MLB, NBA, and NFL came back, people bet on them just like they always have.

But the pandemic did encourage sports teams and leagues to embrace betting. Team owners and executives suddenly found themselves with empty stadiums and missing revenues. Sports betting was an obvious way to fill that revenue hole and engage fans remotely. As one DFS exec put it:

“In the old days, we used to call round the teams asking about sponsorship opportunities. Now they call us.”

DG: I think the pandemic really highlighted how important online betting is if you are going to legalize sports betting in a meaningful way.

And it highlights what a bad policy decision it is, pandemic or no, to have only retail betting. That dynamic has been on display as New Jersey supplanted Nevada seemingly for good as the leader in amount of sports wagering, as online betting flows freely in the former and in-person signup is required in the latter.

Even Illinois, which took the wrong-headed approach of making people visit the casino to sign up for a sportsbook account, changed that policy on the fly.

MW: The biggest impact had to be how states with retail-only sports betting or in-person registration were exposed when their casinos were shut down. There weren’t many sports to bet on but plenty of people continued to bet on table tennis, soccer, UFC and golf.

Books in Nevada were forced to set up drive-through registration and funding points. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker essentially sidestepped their sports betting laws out the window and opened mobile registration a year and a half sooner than state law intended.

3) What state that legalized sports betting in 2020 surprised you the most?

AC: This is not a political website but if you look closely at which states legalized sports betting thus far, not many are staunchly conservative. Mississippi’s casino industry explains its (retail-only) sportsbooks and only certain counties chose to legalize in Louisiana.

So how, then, did 59% of South Dakota voters approve legal wagering in a state Joe Biden lost by 25 points? True, it’s limited to the casino town of Deadwood. But it still presents a striking contrast to the early norm.

BA: Tennessee was something of a curveball, given the lack of mobile sports betting in the South. In fact, Tennessee is the only place in the South where you can easily wager on your phone until Virginia sportsbooks come online next year.

Now if only customers weren’t expected to lose ten cents of every dollar wagered …

DG: Virginia passing a law was the surprise for me. Much like Tennessee did with its 2019 law, Virginia moved forward without any (existing) casinos pushing for it. (The commonwealth also legalized casinos this year.)

In any event, states passing a sports betting law with little in the way of an existing gaming regime two years in a row is pretty shocking and shows that moral opposition to gaming is fading.

MW: It’s Washington state for me. The legislature appeared determined to give sports betting only to tribal casinos from the beginning instead of cutting in the state’s 44 cardrooms as well.

Legalizing retail-only betting at only some of the state’s gambling operations feels like the kind of mistake a state would have made in 2018. To do that in 2020 when there are plenty of success stories from around the country from states with open mobile markets is still confusing to me.

4) What state that didn’t legalize sports betting in 2020 surprised you the most?

AC: That would be Maine. Yes, Maine.

The state legislature passed a bill late in 2019 and Gov. Janet Mills utilized a procedural quirk to delay her decision on sports betting until January 2020.

Mills then vetoed the bill and penned a bizarre explanation featuring a nonsensical slippery-slope argument that sports wagering could lead to “betting on the weather, spelling bees and school board elections.” To top it off, Mills successfully whipped House legislators against overriding her veto.

The episode remains one of the strangest legislative narratives of the legal era.

BA: How about Massachusetts? If nothing else, you’d have thought Boston-headquartered DraftKings would have had the political sway to get a bill over the line.

That’s not to mention that nearby New Hampshire and Rhode Island both have some form of sports betting, meaning millions of dollars in tax receipts are disappearing over the border.

That said, the state’s five pro sports teams and the sportsbook operators are all behind this, so it’s surely a matter of when, not if.

DG: I have to agree with Brad – it’s Massachusetts. You have a lot of companies there (DraftKings, Penn National, MGM and Wynn) that all want sports betting. And they didn’t get it done.

They might still get it done in the near future — and maybe with online casino packaged in.

MW: It has to be Kentucky. Kentucky is touched by seven border states, four of which have mobile sports betting with Virginia likely a month away from launch. Ohio and Missouri will push again in 2021 for legalization.

Rep. Adam Koenig had a bill supported by Gov. Andy Beshear, but the Senate wouldn’t call the bill for a vote without majority support from Republicans.

Now there’s a shortened session in 2021 with a three-fifths majority required, which means Kentucky could struggle to pass betting in 2021 as well.

5) How would you sum up how the US sports betting industry evolved in 2020?

AC: The evolution continued to crystalize a future US market sure to rankle the self-styled industry Illuminati on Twitter: it will be all about recreational bettors.

From an inside-baseball viewpoint, 2020 cemented the parameters within which the early arms race of US sports betting will play out.

FanDuel and DraftKings dug in to defend their top positions by recapitalizing with armfuls of cash. Legislators warmed to mobile wagering following pandemic-related closures. The stock market sidled up to the legal sports betting bar and started pounding shots without the faintest idea what was in the glasses.

This year taught us that the permanent is subject to change quicker than you can say “Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.” That is to say, the market might look nothing like this in 10 years but consider its outline sketched in dark pencil today.

BA: It feels like everything has just been supersized. And it basically started with the DraftKings share price, which is up more than 350% since going public.

I think that valuation affected how people were viewing the whole US sports betting opportunity. Suddenly, the second-largest company in the space is worth $20 billion. So now Flutter is working out what first is worth and investing accordingly.

And BetMGM and Barstool are working out what third place is worth, and investing accordingly too. Suddenly everything got an order of magnitude bigger.

DG: If we look at the themes of the past two years, it would obviously be the advent in 2018 and the quick spread of it across states in 2019. I think 2020 is where US sports betting became part of our new normal.

There is now going to be some form of legal sports betting in more than half of US jurisdictions. Leagues and media have started to embrace it in ways that would have been difficult to imagine a few years ago.

I think gambling is just baked into the sports landscape in a way it wasn’t before this year.

MW: Going back to my first point I think it’s clear the industry and those looking to regulate the industry now see how important it is to have an online component to sports betting. But maybe even more important than online sports betting is online casino games to go along with it.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s iGaming markets thrived during the pandemic and continued to do so as more sports came back, magnifying the cross-selling opportunity between the two. Sports betting laws and regulations moving forward will certainly look different because of 2020’s impact.

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Adam Candee

Adam Candee is the managing editor of Legal Sports Report. He covers sports business and news from Las Vegas, where he works as a sports radio host for ESPN and VSiN. Adam is a former editor and reporter at the Las Vegas Sun, Arizona Daily Sun, and KLAS-TV. He can be reached at [email protected]

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